FolkWorld Issue 40 11/2009; Article by Morten Alfred Høirup


På Dansk

The Story of a Unique Big City Band from Denmark

In the last ten years, Copenhagen has become the northern hub for klezmer music, a style that has its origins in the Jewish music tradition. Klezmer has seen a decided revival since the 70s, and is in rude health in Europe, USA and South America. In Copenhagen, loads of musicians, many of them young, are playing klezmer these days. A case in point is the band Klezmofobia, who call their brand of music New York Klezmer, in other words, Jewish music that has rubbed shoulders with all sorts of other music styles in the big city.


A summer forenoon on the little South West Jutland island of Fanø, near Ribe. In the town of Sønderho, the young clarinettist Bjarke Kolerus sits in a broom cupboard, headphones over his ears and his clarinet to his lips. He recently quit the classical music department of the West Jutland Music Academy because, as he puts it, ”I didn't have the discipline it takes to make it in that world, and I was fed up with being told what to do.” Bjarke's dream had long been to start a clarinet-led rock band, and after trying various types of music, he came upon a cd that really interested him: Rhythm + Jews by New Yorker band Klezmatics.

Klezmer music arises from the Jewish music tradition as it sounded in Eastern Europe before World War II. ”The Klezmatics' cd Rhythm + Jews takes old, traditional numbers and gives them a new setting,” tells Bjarke Kolerus and goes on, ”Back then I lived in rooms in Sønderho on Fanø. The girl next door worked nights in the local bar and slept all morning. I simply shut myself in the broom cupboard, stood a mattress up against the door for insulation, and that's where I played. I learned the whole cd by heart, then I went out and found more recordings from around 1900, of Eastern European immigrants into America.”


Around 2004, Bjarke Kolerus has moved to Copenhagen, has completed the folk music course at the Carl Nielsen Music Academy in Odense, and his studies of Jewish music have led to the founding of the band Klezmofobia. The idea is to blend traditional klezmer music with all the other styles to be heard in a city like New York, Berlin or Copenhagen, to create what you might call a city hybrid music based on the Jewish music.

Klezmofobia is: Channe Nussbaum (vocals), Bjarke Kolerus (clarinets), Ole Reimer (trumpet, flugel-horn), Andreas Ugorskij (guitars), Jesper Lund (bass balalaika), Jonatan Nussbaum Aisen (drums)

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Klezmofobia, at that time still totally instrumental, comprises musicians who have played everything from Latin-American, funk, surf and rock to classical. The line-up is clarinet, trumpet / flugelhorn, electric guitar, bass balalaika and drums, and they are united in their aim to make their mark on the Copenhagen underground scene.

In the midst of the difficult start-up phase, something wild happens. A new cheapo Scandinavian chain store, Tiger, plans to set up a record label, and they invite Danish bands and musicians to send in samples of their music. Klezmofobia are one of the four chosen from the hundreds of applicants, and they are offered the chance to record a cd on Tiger Records. The deal is that the band brings in their finished master and Tiger pays lay-out, copying and printing. The cd will sell for 20 kroner each, the band gets 4.50 kroner per unit sold. A good idea or clammy commercialism? The band are in doubt:

”Obviously we gave it a lot of thought. Would this devalue us as a band? Would it cost us our street cred, on the shelf beside dirt-cheap pencil sharpeners and tea mugs? We also wondered how the other products could be produced so cheaply. We thought, 'Are we selling out to McDonald´s? Who ARE these guys?' We had serious doubts about it all and we went through the contract word for word with our union, the Danish Musicians' Union.”

Klezmofobia invite the Copenhagen singer, Channe Nussbaum, to produce the cd and to provide a couple of songs. Already known throughout Scandinavia as the Queen of Danish Klezmer, Channe Nussbaum has two practice evenings to work with the band and their rough material. ”I could see right away that this was the business. They had that punk energy, they were wild, they were young the way we like,” says Channe, ”...but what I especially liked was the way they could be more introspective, quieter and more sensitive, and we have worked even more on that since.” So the band discuss the whole situation. Some of them would rather wait and spend more time and care on their debut album, others see the offer as a huge opportunity. They decide to go ahead. Their hope is that this record deal can prove to be the kick they need to launch themselves on the Danish music scene.


Tiger release Klezmofobia's debut cd Tanz! in Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia just before Christmas 2006, and it is a runaway sales success. At this writing the cd has sold over 20,000 copies and Klezmofobia have won a gold record. Moreover, in late 2007, the band are awarded the prize for Danish World Music Album of the Year. The project has cemented the band. Channe Nussbaum is now permanent singer with Klezmofobia. They now have songs in Yiddish and in English in their set.

”The cd Tanz! has meant that many more people outside Copenhagen know us today,” says Bjarke Kolerus. ”We would never have sold that many records if it had not been for the Tiger concept. But making a good record is only one part of the formula. We have a going, musical concern that we have to keep working at. It is demanding. But I think we have a platform, and now we have won a prize, and that helps, especially abroad. There is so much competition for jobs in Denmark, so even though it is one of our dreams, it will take a while before Klezmofobia does regular tours of Denmark. So we look abroad, and we have actually had a good number of jobs beyond the country's borders.”

Bjarke Kolerus and Channe Nussbaum from Østerbro in Copenhagen, and their band Klezmofobia, have accepted the challenge and now regard the entire world as their potential market. The band has made another well-received album, Ganze Velt featuring music composed by band members, but retaining that unmistakable big city klezmer sound. Channe Nussbaum has provided a good deal of the new material, and, with her as singing figurehead, Klezmofobia has polished its image and reputation at venues, festivals and radio and tv shows in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Germany, Austria and Mexico. Channe Nussbaum:

Morten Alfred Hoirup
Morten Alfred Høirup (*1961) is a Danish musician, composer and music journalist. He has been playing the guitar and singing in the Danish duo Haugaard & Høirup, and is currently working freelance for Danish Roots.,
”What people tell us when we are out there, for instance in Germany, is that they like the variety we present during a concert. There's a lot of different stuff going on. Our music ranges from 'East-pop' songs, via traditional Yiddish ballads and chain dances with audience participation, to out-and-out 'Balkan wedding' with the pedal on the metal. It's a wild trip to visit German university towns and play for Russian and Eastern European’ immigrants’ and young punk types, then drive up into the mountains and play and dance ring dances with folk of all ages in the local synagogue. For me, the most important thing is for us to be flexible like that. We are better than most at it, and that is what I'm looking forward to getting out into the world and showing them”.

Photo Credits: (1) Klezmofobia (from website); (2) Morten Alfred Høirup (by The Mollis).

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