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Bella’s Bartok, Bohemian klezmer punk at the Colonial: Interview with Asher Putnam

Audiences have described the band’s shows as “complete mayhem” and “controlled pandemonium.”

“We share with the audience all of our joy and grief, while they do the same back to us.”

— Asher Putnam, Bela’s Bartok

Pittsfield — The “Bohemian Klezmer-Punk” band, Bella’s Bartok appears Saturday, April 16 at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. Audiences have described the band’s shows as “complete mayhem” and “controlled pandemonium.” This may be suitable terminology to describe the group’s over-the-top style of high-energy live entertainment, and it’s helpful to know they’ve been influenced by Oingo Boingo, Little Shop of Horrors, Queen, and other theatrically inclined rock acts of the past few decades. But it hardly scratches the surface of the rich cultural heritage these musicians draw from, and it doesn’t even hint at the bona fide scholarship that’s behind every piece of music the group has created.

For starters, let’s consider the group’s leader, Asher Putnam, who has a degree in ethnomusicology from The University of Massachusetts Amherst. Putnam’s academic achievements certainly are important. But, onstage, when he channels Freddie Mercury, whose influence he describes as “critical to the group’s very existence,” Putnam looks more like a rock star than a musicologist. Still, Putnam and his bandmates have done their homework, and their affinity for European folk music is unmistakable, particularly when it comes to Klezmer, which they often perform as though levity were its only essential ingredient. But these musicians are drawn to Klezmer because they understand its history, its essential emotional character, and its function within European Jewish culture. Says Putnam, “Klezmer can convey a sense of doom in music that sounds joyful.”

So, what does the band’s knowledge of Klezmer have to do with their live shows?

It is this: “At their core,” says Putnam, “our shows are about a certain release. We share with the audience all of our joy and grief, while they do the same back to us. It is a wholly cathartic experience for both the band and the concert attendees.”

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For tickets, information on the concert, and directions to the theatre, go to The Berkshire Edge calendar.

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