The wildest, most unhinged live drum solos I have ever witnessed were delivered by the percussionist in a Jewish klezmer funk band. He looked like a younger, disheveled version of Martin Mull. We were all hanging out at Temple Israel in Alameda, wedged between the softball field, the pool, and some sort of daycare center. The fifty-odd folks in the audience sat quietly, upright, in pews. The opening act was a mom-aged women's choir. And here comes Not Martin Mull doing his best Animal-from-The-Muppet-Show routine, thwacking all hell out of his dumbeq and zarb (hand-held bongo-esque drums) and cajon (essentially a box that he sat on) with his fingertips, like that annoying guy sitting next to you in tenth-grade biology who relentlessly drummed on his desk and drove you absolutely bonkers and probably ended up in the army or Dunkin' Donuts or prison.
Or, in this case, Davka. Delightfully overcaffeinated percussionist Kevin Mummey stole the show at Temple Israel, but all four dudes in this Bay Area outfit shredded like the respective Jimi Hendrixes of the violin (Oakland bandleader Daniel Hoffman), bassoon (Paul Hanson), cello (Moses Sedler), and the, you know, zarb (Mr. Mull).
The almost entirely original music this bombastic din generates demands absurd overuse of hyphens -- it's some sort of klezmer-folk-jazz-fusion thing. "It's really a hybrid," Hoffman says over the phone the following day. "Hyphens are the best I can do. The latest thing I put up on my Web site [Davkamusic.com] is -- this still doesn't really cut it -- classical Middle Eastern Ashkenazi jazz."
If this all feels like nitpicking, though, holy-freakin'-shit will suffice.
Davka's quest for hyphenated glory is a decade old now, but the band's latest project and CD may be its most ambitious: Hoffman (who also fronts Klez-X, formerly the San Francisco Klezmer Experience) has penned a full score to The Golem, a 1920 German silent film about a mythological clay monster originally made to protect the Jews, before it spins out of control and starts trashing the place Godzilla-style. Pretty cool, but the original soundtrack sucks: docile classical music with no relation to the onscreen action. Giddy bursts of strings accompany, for example, the royal order banishing all Jews from the kingdom, and when the Golem hauls off and starts setting everything on fire, it seems as though he's whupping ass in a giant dental office's elevator.
Hoffman's score gracefully adds layers of melancholy, menace, introspection, and hysteria -- it's also deliberately corny in places, referencing The Munsters, The Addams Family, "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (from 2001: A Space Odyssey), random old Israeli folk tunes, and even that "NA-na-na-NA-na" children's taunt. It's almost overloaded with personality, expertly mirroring the flick's own penchant for melodrama and, particularly, absurdly overwrought facial expressions.
"In old silent films, when they're trying to be serious, it's just not serious anymore in the 21st century," he says. "In theater you have to overdo everything, because you have to project out three or four hundred feet, to the last person in the audience. In film, you don't have to do that -- you can be subtle, and we're used to seeing that. But these actors hadn't developed that skill yet, so everything is overdramatic, overmelodramatic. Everything is over the top. It can be a little funny. I couldn't help but commenting on that and doing funny things and putting in funny quotes from tunes, or going against what's happening in the scene."
Which is not to say the whole thing is a laughfest. Considering the time and place The Golem originated, there's some shaky stereotype action that left Hoffman severely unnerved: the penultimate scene in which a group of giddy schoolchildren spit on the felled Golem's body, for instance. "We have a lot of films in American history like that that are very racist -- some of these films are important in film history, and they shouldn't be thrown away," Hoffman says. "Especially I'm thinking of Birth of a Nation. I don't think we should throw these films away, but we should look at them and take the good with the bad. This film bothers a lot of Jews for that reason. I try to look at it as a whole, and also appreciate it as a piece of art. As a piece of art, it's really great."
What's strange is how all these overhyphenated cultural caveats and piece-of-art concerns fall by the wayside when Davka plays live: It's a rock show with pyrotechnic grandeur, just without the rock or the pyrotechnics. The swarming melodies and bombastic solos make you feel as if you're slurping sushi at Yoshi's. Hoffman's violent, muscular fiddle playing conjures up images of peanut shells littering some juke joint's floor. And again, Mummey/Animal/Mull's finger-drumming percussion work is a fireworks show all its own, as visceral and immediate as the havoc the Golem wreaks onscreen.
"It's really a kind of chamber music, what we do, even though we bring to it a lot of raw emotion and improvisation and the stuff from jazz and pop music," Hoffman says. "In terms of an aesthetic, what you heard last night was acoustic. You sit down and listen to it. It's not really dance music, unless you can dance in 11 or 9 -- we go all over the map in terms of the time signatures. It's about listening."
But occasionally sitting and listening -- even in a Temple Israel pew -- can deliver just as much of a jolt as jumping around and pumping your fist and ramming into other dudes at top speed. Davka's trick is to play rock 'n' roll wholly in spirit, not practice. "We all grew up in this country," Hoffman says. "I didn't grow up in a shtetl in Eastern Europe, where all I heard was the music from local traveling musicians. I have a very eclectic sort of palette that I grew up with, like everybody did. You can't help it. It's there. It's part of the language. I was writing rock 'n' roll songs before I was writing anything else."
He still is.
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