This post was updated Feb. 9 at 11:23 a.m.
“Mostly Kosher” was founded on a white lie about its entire existence 10 years ago.
The group originally formed when a woman assumed co-founder Leeav Sofer had a klezmer band due to his Jewish heritage. Aiming to book more gigs, Sofer contacted a number of Jewish musicians, eventually forming “Mostly Kosher.” The group is now hosting a workshop at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music on Feb. 9 to explain how it integrates traditional klezmer and Yiddish music with modern Latin, rock and folk. Janice Mautner Markham, the group’s co-founder and violinist, said the style utilizes emotional instrumentals and lyrics to document Jewish stories.
“It has been wonderful for us in terms of looking at the roots of where we started,” Markham said. “Layer upon layer, we are able to tell our stories and use our modern genres that we feel very connected to and cross genres.”
“Mostly Kosher” – made up of both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians – has just completed its fourth season performing at the Festival of Holidays at the Disney California Adventure Park. Despite her initial doubts about representing Jewish culture, Markham said the different genres the group arranges its music with differentiate its songs and give them a global reach. Markham said the oral tradition of klezmer music is deeply connected to the jazz tradition of improvisation, and the workshop will further explore such crossovers.
“Mostly Kosher’s” leader and vocalist, Sofer, said the group is renewing klezmer music by arranging it with unexpected styles such as swing or tango to create a more worldly flare. He said the group develops the story of traditional music by writing original melodies and lyrics to find a deeper connection to their Jewish roots. Doing so opens up more possibilities for cultural expression, and Sofer said this artistic freedom is what initially brought the group together.
“We very quickly realized that we didn’t want straightforward, traditional music,” Sofer said. “We are not straightforward, traditional Jews. We wanted to express who we are a little bit more.”
Although its musical style is rooted in Jewish history, Sofer said “Mostly Kosher” hopes to make cross-cultural connections to help listeners connect to their music regardless of their religious background. In mixing the different styles, the group will take an instrumental Jewish song and layer it with original lyrics and musical arrangements from other cultures’ traditional music to make its own composition, Sofer said. The workshop will feature musical techniques – such as the contemporary composition of older sounds – and how and why they have been implemented into its arrangements.
“We like to lay the drawbridge down and let everyone in,” Sofer said. “We like the fact the changes we made in the music makes it acceptable to all audiences.”
The workshop is part of a series put on by the Herb Alpert School of Music to focus on different aspects of the world of klezmer music, said Lorry Aaron Black, associate director of the Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music at UCLA. Black said Mostly Kosher represents a new experience in traditional Jewish music – one that connects with both a universal audience and a more particular Jewish niche. He said the band’s broader appeal through inclusion connects its style with a multitude of audiences.
“Mostly Kosher explores new and interesting ways to reinterpret the music and make it their own,” Black said. “They are what they call themselves, a Jewish roots ensemble, where Judaism and Jewish music is at the core, but they grow from that.”
Through the reinvention of their traditional music, Markham said “Mostly Kosher’s” members infuse social justice themes to provide a voice for people of the Jewish community. She said the group’s music demands a moral response to problems – a concept that is inherent in traditional folk music. Using these elements both in the band and in their personal lives, Markham said she hopes the band’s music has a healing and unifying impact.
“I like the idea that folk music is current and evolving,” Markham said. “We are able to reflect the world that we see around us and we want to be aware of what is going on around us and make it better by reflecting on issues of the day.”