King Django Mixes Reggae And Yiddish Roots & Culture

New York ska veteran interweaves Klezmer sounds with Jamaican rhythms and horns for new disc.

With all the melding of music that's been taking place over the past few years -- rap and metal, electronica and hip-hop, gospel and country -- it's surprising that no one has attempted to fuse reggae and Yiddish folk songs.

No one of note, that is, until New York ska-scene veteran King Django (born Jeff Baker), who put together what may be the first-ever merging of the two forms on his recently released album, King Django's Roots & Culture (Triple Crown).

"It was a scary record to make," said Django, who also leads the ska outfits Skinnerbox and the Stubborn All-Stars. "First, it was hard to do. It was musically challenging. Plus, it was the first time I had to sing in Yiddish on a record, so that was intimidating."

On Roots & Culture, Django, 31, combined such instruments as mandolin, clarinet and violin -- traditional components of Yiddish klezmer music -- with reggae rhythms and horn melodies on a range of material. Along with his original songs -- which include "A Single Thread" -- Django arranged three traditional Yiddish songs and translated (with some help) the Madness ska classic "Nightboat to Cairo" into the Yiddish "Nakt Shifl Ken Kayro" and the Specials' "Do Nothing" into "Tu Gornisht."

Recording the album was emotionally taxing, said Django, since it involved a lot of family history.

His parents and other family members added backup vocals to a number of songs. More poignantly, the album also conjured memories of Django's grandmother, Reizl Berger, who sang him Yiddish lullabies when he was a child. "When I was a little baby that was a big thing to me," he said. "Single Thread" was written for Berger; "Slaughter" is dedicated to her husband, Django's grandfather, Miksha Berger.

"It's the most personal record I've done," Django said.

What may be most surprising about Roots & Culture, however, is the album's genesis -- from an idea for a Christmas collection.

Django recalled how last year, Triple Crown Records head Fred Feldman (then director at Another Planet Records) approached him and asked, "How about a Stubborn All-Stars Christmas record?"

"I was like, 'Well, that's cool -- but I'm Jewish, Fred,' " Django said. "So a couple weeks later I was up at the office and he comes by and goes, 'I've got it: ska-mitzvah! You know, instead of the Christmas record.' And I said, 'Ooohhhhh.' "

Jewish symbols, such as the Star of David, have long been a part of reggae culture, which evolved from Jamaican ska in the late 1960s, Django said.

While Rastafarianism -- the religion practiced by many prominent reggae musicians -- has some roots in Christianity, he said there are also connections to Judaism.

"The Rastafarians are sort-of Old Testament Bible thumpers in a way," he explained.

Andy Statman, the accomplished bluegrass and klezmer musician who plays clarinet and mandolin on Roots & Culture, said he can envision fans of Yiddish folk sounds enjoying the album.

"I think some will really like it, sure," he said. "It's just reggae music with this other element added to it. They seem to be very compatible."

For Django, it was an honor to play with Statman, whom he first saw perform at an outdoor klezmer concert in New York a few years back.

"It's just completely overwhelming to see and hear him play. He and [violinist] Alicia Svigals were both very kind to do this, and very charming when they were in the studio."

In the end, the ska man says he can't see any reason why the marriage of seemingly disparate musical genres wouldn't work.

"It's just music, so you can get away with a lot," he said. "People attempt to have restricted ways of thinking, but in reality, if it's in the same key, it's gonna work."