A man in a suit came onto the stage holding a baby blue guitar and asked the crowd “Does anyone here speak Aramaic?” Then not expecting a response, he rode the wonder with an introductory solo.
The Yiddish Twist Orchestra, in the words of its co-creator and guitarist, Ben Mandelson, is a “retro modern, Jewish influenced and world friendly collective” with a drive to feed us with the culture and improvisation that the mixed communities did in the 1950’s. YTO was an idea resting in the heads of the founders of the eight-piece Orchestra for four years and has only come out to play within recent years. Kamal Huggins-Kolade from ‘On The Edge’ caught up with them on their first Making Tracks tour.
Natty Bo (Ska Cubano), the only man in the world that could ever pull off wearing a white blazer, a pair of shiny black and white shoes and furry headwear and yet still have more character than the above sang the songs “Lovin’ women is a waste of time”, “Mazl” and the lucky catcher’s favourite “Beigels”. When performing the song “Beigels” a bag of fresh-looking bagels were dished out into the beckoning hands of individuals in the crowd. These opportunists were rewarded with one of the delicious rings each. We were gestured to stand up and dance whenever the great Natty Bo stepped to the stage and some people were invited to showcase their moves on stage while the band played. That’s an experience.
I asked Ben “How often and how long do you practise?” He replied “Never enough and not long enough.” This wasn’t apparent on the 21st of February as the timing and the tunefulness was there in full force. He relates practising in a band to a football player in a team, “when I travel I practise new tunes in my mind like keepie-uppies”. Ben started playing guitar when his Victorian Grandma brought him back a guitar from a trip to Spain. Back when Ben first started, he didn’t have the luxury of YouTube or MTV, he had vinyl and record players. He and his friends would listen and share what they learned about the music they were listening to and they made the most of their shared resources. Most of what we do now is shared via Facebook, we live in a more closed world whereas Ben regularly experienced “real-time person to person”. There’s something lost in not reaching out for face-to face feedback on what we know and how we feel about music.
Before starting the band, Ben was a producer and in the early 90’s he worked with the likes of Billy Bragg and Bellowhead among many others. We also found out there is an instrument he invented, the 8-string Barizouki. Ben’s preferred input style when producing was expressed when he said “I didn’t play in the band, I left them to it.” Acting as an invisible man because he felt it wasn’t his work to perform on and if some of his playing was off he would feel like he had to change it and takeover. His wide-ranging skills have wisely crafted the YTO, and rightly Ben states, “Any age can enjoy Retro”. I did as the stage lit up with the suited players putting into practise the “Idea of narrative” mentioned in our pre-performance discussion. The majority of the songs didn’t have any accompanying vocals but I could still hear the stories portrayed through the instruments from beginning to end.
Each member of the band had their own solos to shine as the song played. It was a thoughtful approach as I could pick up on how much talent each member had. I noticed how mixed this collective were when I heard that the trumpeter was from Cuba, the bassist was Jewish and smaller details like how the trombone player practises poetry and that the reed player was wearing converse. These men were colourful parts of the same puzzle brought together by their talent and by their dress. YTO is a solid image of the diversity seen in the mixed communities found in the mid 1950’s.
Music as a universal language is spoken fluently by this group of musicians which awakened ecstatic emotions and the inner-youth of the audience. The Yiddish Twist Orchestra was playing music from calypso to jazz to samba and it made the night one to remember.
Instruments used on the night:
Electric bass, drums, keys, guitar, horn section – trumpet & trombone, reeds – clarinet & saxophone and voice.