She didn’t exactly get into klezmer music to become a rock star.
But it may have felt like that was happening anyway, when Yaeko Miranda Elmaleh played violin for an audience of thousands at the Barclays Center — the home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets — in an ensemble backing up Itzhak Perlman and popular cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot last year.
Basketball arenas are not a regular stop on her tour itinerary; more typical is her upcoming Thursday show at Club Passim, or even an engagement playing the Yom Kippur service at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. But Elmaleh quickly found audiences for her lyrical, personal voice in the idiom of Jewish music — once she veered away from a path that was leading straight for the more buttoned-up world of the symphony orchestra.
Yaeko Miranda Elmaleh
“I was on a classical track, but I always thought something was going to have to change at some point,” Elmaleh, 34, reflects, on the phone from her home in Watertown.
Change, it did.
‘We’re all there to just have a good time and play from the heart, to be really soulful and play what feels good to us and forget about what is correct in terms of styles.’
She started on violin early, attending the New School of Music (near her childhood home in Cambridge) at age 3, and followed the familiar path of the prodigy. By 10 she was attending New England Conservatory’s preparatory school, and a teenage pastime was entering — and sometimes winning — concerto performance contests.
But the onset of her college studies (at NEC proper) offered an eye-opener.
“I was so classically influenced, I didn’t see anybody doing anything else. Then for the first time I saw 18-year-olds in jazz ensembles, and the Jewish music ensemble,” she says. “As much as I love classical music, it just wasn’t for me. There’s so much more out there.”
She was particularly taken with that student ensemble dedicated to various forms of Jewish music, led by longtime instructor Hankus Netsky, who is also founder of the well-regarded Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Though her mother is Jewish, she wasn’t raised to be observant. But she found the “soul and the feeling” of the music vividly appealing, and an inviting musical home for the violin. “It allowed me to be free,” she says, “to not feel like I was inside of a box.” At the end of her sophomore year, Elmaleh filed the paperwork to transfer out of the classical department.
It turns out her technical skill matched well with a personal, passionate style of expression on the instrument. Fresh out of college, she was tapped to fill the violin chair in the Klezmer Conservatory Band long held by Deborah Strauss.
Strauss recommended Elmaleh for the job, Netsky recalls. “She said the truth is that for this band I need someone who has a beautiful sound, who can sound like the best classical violinist in the world if she wants to, but also can really get deeply into the feeling of the music. And that was Yaeko,” he says. “It was not going to be about being the dazzling soloist in the orchestra, it was going to be about music that she could express herself through.”
It was her job with Netsky’s band that’s since landed her onstage with Perlman in Brooklyn, and many other high-profile gigs besides. For the past few years she’s also led her own group, releasing a self-titled album in 2011.
As someone who’d made a practice of blending in so well with various ensembles, it was time to step out in front. At Passim she’ll lead a quintet including bassist Ehud Ettun, accordion player Michael McLaughlin, and Klezmer Conservatory Band collaborators Grant Smith (on drums) and guitarist-mandolinist Brandon Seabrook, who first joined that group alongside Elmaleh.
“She’s all heart, all soul,” McLaughlin remarks of Elmaleh. “Of course she has great technique and a great sound, but her playing really comes from deep inside her. There’s something about her musical voice that’s really original and true to herself.”
The quintet ranges from rousing dance numbers to plaintive, searching inquisitions. Though eclectic, its sound falls closer to traditional klezmer than that of many radical re-interpreters of recent coinage. But Elmaleh makes no claim to straight historical preservation. Her repertoire includes songs by Jewish artists with musical ties to Morocco and Greece, the Arabic song “Habibi Ya Eini,” cantorial music, and the odd waltz.
“Even within the klezmer world,” she says, “everyone has their own opinions about how things should be. We’re all there to just have a good time and play from the heart, to be really soulful and play what feels good to us and forget about what is correct in terms of styles.”
Her taste in music from around the world is no surprise in light of the sprawling branches of her family tree. One grandfather was a French painter and musician known to play with Django Reinhardt. Another was a Costa Rican-born lawyer who lived in El Salvador and studied classical guitar under the great Agustín Barrios Mangoré. Going further back, she says, other relatives hailed from Egypt and British Mandate-era Palestine. (Though her first name is of Japanese origin, that’s one country to which she’s connected by no bloodlines.)
There’s clearly no shortage of influence on Elmaleh’s artistic worldview. But through the cultural cross-currents, she aims for a singular voice.