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A Different Kind of Golem

Daniel Hoffman and Davka give sound to a classic silent film depicting an ancient Jewish legend

By Peter Koht

Daniel Hoffman called the Metro Santa Cruz offices last week from his home in Jerusalem. Against the backdrop of the evacuation of the Gaza Strip, it was difficult not to allow the conversation to drift into the momentous changes that are under way in the Jewish homeland.

"It is a huge trauma here," Hoffman says, "It's very upsetting and very painful for everybody. It's like this huge family fight. Every night the television is filled with images of people crying and soldiers crying. Even people who support disengagement, like me, aren't really sure if this is a good idea or not."

Hoffman has been immersed in Jewish music his entire life. His mother is from Bessarabia, which was the eastern part of Moldavia that was annexed by Russia and eventually became part of Romania. This region is widely regarded as the birthplace of klezmer. Hoffman's father used to play both klezmer and classical music on the family piano.

After graduating from music school, Hoffman faced a bit of an artistic crisis. "Honestly, I wasn't that thrilled with the rhythmic aspects of klezmer music, but I was really into Middle Eastern rhythms, so I became interested in combining the two."

Finding inspiration in both Arabic and Mizrachi (Arab Jewish) culture, Hoffman began to play duets with percussionist Adam Levinson under the name Davka, which translates loosely as "defying expectations." After adding cellist Moses Sedler and bassoonist Paul Hanson, Davka's lineup was complete. Unfortunately, Levinson chose to leave the group, so Hoffman then put out a call to the virtuosic Bay Area percussionist Kevin Mummey to fill the vacancy. The results have been positively mind blowing.

"When Kevin takes a solo," Hoffman says, "there is a lot of information. He is thinking in these long rhythmic forms that will last 15 or 20 bars. For example, we will be playing in seven and he will do a pattern that will be in 13 over the top of that. He's just an animal."

With such a dynamic percussive force backing up the group, Davka is free to tackle some ambitious charts. "We don't have a chordal instrument in the band," Hoffman points out, "so everyone has to take turns either soloing or playing chords or playing a bass line. Of course it's a little hard for me as a violinist to hold down a bass line." Even so, Hoffman does sometimes get stuck with the roots when Davka plays his soundtrack to the 1920 horror film The Golem.

Drawn from the narrative of 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague, The Golem relates the story of the rabbi's creation of an animated being from common clay. Formed by the rabbi to defend the ghetto against anti-Semitic attacks, the none-too-smart golem ends up being more headache than helper.

"At the time it was supposed to be a really serious and scary movie," Hoffman says, "but because it was made in 1920 and all the actors were from the theater, they hadn't figured out how to act for film yet. Everything is totally overly dramatic."

"We don't have a conductor and we don't have a click track, so it's not an absolutely precise thing," he says of the scoring. "But we've played it so many times we can get pretty close."

While most of the score is fixed, it also includes passages where members of Davka turn their backs to the audience and improvise along to the action onscreen, re-enacting a tradition that unfortunately died with the invention of talkies.

This is one more example of Hoffman reviving neglected traditions. He's spent years transcribing forgotten klezmer violin solos from the '30s. Now that he calls Israel home, he's trying to encourage interest in the Middle East. "It never really caught on here," he says with some chagrin. "Yiddish culture has a heaviness here that it doesn't have in the United States."

For modern Israelis, klezmer music provides a poignant reminder of the Holocaust, so, "in a lot of ways, Israelis want to kind of forget the trauma and move along as much as they can. This country has gone through a lot of trauma."

Davka performs Saturday, Aug. 27, at 7:30pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz; tickets $10/adv, $12/door (831.454.9044; www.riotheatre.com)

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From the August 24-31, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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