“On the ninth of January, we all took a vow,” band member Ira Temple solemnly intoned in a small, dimly lit theatre at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance arts center. “Siblings and siblings, we took a vow to destroy all the jails. To come up out of those jails with bombs and dynamite. To destroy the tyrants who suck our blood like it’s the best wine. The czar and his government can go to hell. Yeah, they can go to hell. And die.”
This is Tsibele, a band that brings its own special brand of klezmer. Much like the group’s root vegetable namesake (tsibele means “onion” in Yiddish), at various points throughout their Jan. 26 concert they brought their audience to the brink of crying — but with laughter.
The Brooklyn-based group is made up of five members: Temple, who plays the accordion; flutist, vocalist, and hurdy-gurdy player Eléonore Weill; Eva Boodman on the trumpet; and the two Zoes — violinist Zoë Aqua and bassist Zoe Guigueno. For the Jan. 26 performance, Temple, Weill, and Aqua took the stage with guest musician Ben Rolston on double bass. The performance was sponsored by Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl.
During the performance, on the right side of the theater, sculptor Jani Hileman worked steadily at fashioning clay likenesses of the musicians. And on the left side, there was space for the audience to engage in enthusiastic outbursts of the hora.
The band began during a trip to a festival in Canada, according to Weill. Tsibele’s debut album, “It’s Dark Outside,” came out in 2017.
Some of the members have formally studied klezmer as an art form; Weill, for instance, received a grant to study klezmer at Columbia University. Part of what makes the band special, she said, is their collaborative creative process.
“We will come with an idea of the overall song but leave room for trusting each other, and each of us is free to express our ideas for the song,” shared Weill.
“I’ll say that we also are very interested in playing in a traditional idiom,” said Temple, “but like to stretch with jazz and improvisational flavor, without going too far from our original inspirations.”
“[Klezmer] instrumental music is infused with Yiddish idiom,” Temple, who prefers not to be identified with pronouns, continued. “Understanding Yiddish helps a lot when understanding the culture’s instrumental music.”
Tsibele’s lyrics, some of them original takes on traditional staples, intermingle a traditional musical style with satire that feels modern — and provocative.
“There’s so much Yiddish music that’s about labor fights, gender relations, prison, fighting fascism,” Aqua said. “There’s so much material about what people were fighting about in the past.”
One target of the band’s satire: the established gender norms within segments of the Jewish community.
Midway through one song, Temple paused to address the audience. “Okay now, I got to ‘fess up that actually I learned this song to sing with really religious communities, who I love; but also there are some things that are hard, like prohibitions on women singing in public.” The audience responded with loud laughter.
Temple resumed singing: “What’s bitter is a movement where nobody can dance. What’s sweet is a relationship where no one wears the pants. What’s awkward is when people try to guess my gender.” More laughter from the audience. “What’s really important is hearing women sing. It’s really an important thing. Do it with us.”
The audience, men and women, gleefully joined in the chorus.
The performance also addressed economic concerns.
“When they call out Jews, Muslims, Christians, we say back ‘Down with capitalism,’” Temple recited, translating the lyrics sung in French-accented Yiddish by Weill. “Then we the workers will raise our heads. The world will be renewed when we are free.”
One of the last barbs of the evening was aimed at an old antagonist.
“We wrote this song several years ago, and unfortunately we have to keep singing it, and it becomes more relevant every day,” Temple said. “It’s about fighting white nationalism. … We put the song together when the Zionist Organization of America invited Steve Bannon to their annual banquet.” The crowd, without prompting, proceeded to boo at the name drop.
Temple then launched into the song, the chorus of which came from a Holocaust-era story: When Nazi soldiers rounded up a town’s Jewish population, knowing that Jews had a reputation as singers and dancers, the soldiers ordered the locals to begin singing and dancing. One of the prisoners began singing “Mir veln zey iberlebn” (“We will outlive them”) and was soon joined by the rest of the crowd.
“We will outlive them,” Temple said. “May our enemies perish from their jealousy of us.”