For Fleet Street Klezmer Band, Personal is Professional 

Thursday, Aug. 29, at Neurolux

Some couples take a vacation on their anniversary. Shlomo and Victoria Kostenko play a gig.

When the Kostenkos play Neurolux on Thursday, Aug. 29 with their group Fleet Street Klezmer Band, they will be celebrating their 13th wedding anniversary as well. The Kostenkos' personal and professional lives also crossed earlier this month when FSKB played its CD release show on Thursday, Aug. 8. The concert took place at the Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel synagogue, where the band recorded its debut album, Vodka and Pickles, and where the Kostenkos and their children have attended services for several years.

At the CD release, Victoria Kostenko took a moment to thank the congregation and the band members' families. "Without you guys, we wouldn't be here," she said. "Literally."

For Shlomo Kostenko, the road to FSKB started around 1998, when he was studying music performance at Cleveland State University. Two occurrences spurred him to reconnect with his Jewish roots, he said. The first was his disillusionment with Zen Buddhism.

"[I] needed something with a little bit more structure in it," he explained.

The second was his sister's marriage to someone who wasn't Jewish.

"At that point, it really kind of occurred to me that if the Jewish history in my family really meant anything to me, it was up to me now to carry that on," he said. "I was the end of the line, and if I didn't continue that tradition, then no one would."

Meanwhile, Victoria was taking her own path to Judaism. Coming from a family of professional musicians, she had been interested in ethnic music from an early age.

"My grandmother had played with [Boise's] Basque community [and] the Buddhist community over in Ontario [Ore.]," she said. When Hare Krishnas opened a vegetarian restaurant in town, she recalled, "I loved going there just to talk because it was fascinating to hear this other point of view."

A trip to Israel organized by College of Idaho Professor Howard Berger sparked an interest in Judaism; and, attending synagogue to prepare for the trip, something clicked.

"The music of both liturgical and klezmer [music] was transformative, almost literally," she said. "It felt like home to me."

Whatever drew her in, Victoria converted to Judaism in 1998 (she learned later that some of her distant relatives were Jewish). She met Shlomo online that same year and moved to Cleveland in 1999. The couple moved to Idaho and wed in 2000.

Accordion player Matthew Vorhies and belly dancers Cecilia Rinn and Za'Nyah Zi round out FSKB's current lineup.

The Kostenkos spotted Vorhies--who also plays with Storie Grubb and the Holy Wars and Bamboo Spork--in passing at a Bown Crossing busking event in 2011.

"When I was busking the day they saw me, I knew a grand total of three and a half songs on the accordion," Vorhies said. "I was just playing [them] over and over again."

The Kostenkos credit Vorhies' dedication with galvanizing the band's sound.

"Matt will come in with his pancreas falling out of him," Victoria said.

Meanwhile, Rinn and Zi stand as inheritors of a FSKB tradition that started in 2009, when Shlomo recruited Amanda Nies to dance during a set at the Curb Cup (he cites this as the band's first proper performance).

The Kostenkos consider Rinn and Zi such a vital part of the live show that Vodka and Pickles' credits list them as band members.

"The dancer, in its own way, kind of makes the prototype for the audience, to some degree," Shlomo explained. "So it keeps you constantly aware that you're playing for somebody."

The Kostenkos describe the band's music as an amalgam of several traditions. These include klezmer music, which Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe played at weddings and other celebrations; Sephardic music, which originated with Jews living in medieval Spain; and gypsy or Roma folk music, which Shlomo remembered first hearing via the family of a childhood friend.

When he started listening to Roma music as an adult, he said, the effect was uncanny.

"It didn't sound like some other guy singing," he added. "It sounded like his dad singing. It sounded like his grandmother talking."

The Kostenkos also drew inspiration from Gogol Bordello's rowdy live performances.

"It was amazing stuff," Shlomo said, "and when it came to questions about how to play ethnically oriented music in a way that kicked ass and had a much broader appeal, Eugene [Hutz] and company had answers."

The Kostenkos stressed they don't want to simply capitalize on Gogol Bordello's success.

"If you have a violinist and you're not doing bluegrass or Celtic music, then you can feel free to call yourself gypsy," Shlomo said. "For us, it's very much the fact that there is [a] connection between the Jewish culture and the Jewish cultural history and the gypsy cultural history."

On the other hand, FSKB doesn't want to treat the music as an artifact. To that end, set lists will include covers of songs by bands like Gogol Bordello, Devotchka and The Pogues.

"Every Jewish community--just depending on where they're at--was influenced from the people around them," Victoria said. "There's no pure klezmer, just like there's no pure Americana or Appalachia or anything else."

A certain timelessness is the goal, though.

"There's just certain facts of life that just don't go away," Shlomo said. "Sex, alcohol and the struggle between the rich and the poor are right up there."

For now, the Kostenkos plan to focus on their children and earning Bachelor's degrees in psychology. Shlomo also hopes to work with counseling and advocacy for Roma refugees.

The band will continue to play locally, however, and the Kostenkos look forward to performing again with Portland "tantrum-folk" trio Insomniac Folklore at Neurolux.

"We get to celebrate [our anniversary] with Wallace the Sheep and his friends," Victoria said. "A good way to celebrate your 13th, right?"

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