Phoenix's Jerusafunk Is the World's First Klezploitation Band

Jerusafunk might be the world's first Klezpolitation band.
Jerusafunk might be the world's first Klezpolitation band.
Rosie Torres

Wait a second, you might say -- Phoenix has a Jewish funk band? It's true. As the name implies, Jerusafunk skillfully blends traditional klezmer with the ass-bopping sensibilities of R&B rhythms, tossing in jazzy twirls here and there. Using instruments such as bass clarinet, saxophone, and trumpet, the band attacks its southeastern European roots with sarcastic, hip-gyrating Afrobeat sensibilities. Oddly enough, no one in the band is actually Jewish.

And with nine core members, plus three rotating drummers, Jerusafunk is far from being the smallest band in town. We met in the cluttered, instrument-filled living room of the north Central Phoenix house where four of the band members reside. The boogie bungalow also serves as a practice space for other bands, including Wolvves.

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Jerusafunk's origins begin with lovebirds Jessie Demaree (clarinet) and Chris Del Favero (guitar, vocals), who have been dating for five years. They founded the band in Flagstaff four years ago while students at Northern Arizona University, then briefly moved to Phoenix, where they joined forces with Isaac "Ike" Parker (bass) and Bryce Broome (drums, percussion). In true Gypsy spirit, the lovers took a two-year schlep around South America, returning fresh to the States in January.

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"This music culture we have in Phoenix has been more interesting than some of the other music cultures we experienced while we were traveling. It's just a lot more progressive and has a lot more ballsy initiative," Del Favero says, which is kind of surprising to hear. "Being in like Bógota or Panama City, it was all still kind of, I don't want to say 10 years behind, but we saw a lot of jazz there, and some of their progressive jazz there was a bit mild compared to stuff we've already seen here. Which is why we stay here [in Phoenix.]"

Back in the Valley, the couple almost immediately started Jerusafunk again. This third incarnation wasted no time gigging like hell, playing everywhere from Parliament to Firehouse Gallery's Share Fire Festival to Bacchus and the Demon Slut's album release at Lawn Gnome Publishing. Yet, Demaree is quick to highlight the band's more blithe performances, such as the time they all played naked: "We got the cops called on us at a house show in Tempe, and we were like, fuck it, let's go to our house, have a little after-party."

"Well, it was really just a party," Elliot Fox (tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet) chimes in. "Can't call it a party since the real party got canceled before we played. We just relocated."

"And proceeded to get naked," Demaree emphasizes. "We were all topless. Chris was representing the fully nude."

Au naturel performances aside, it's clear Jerusafunk is working hard. It comes as little surprise that Jerusafunk already is planning a Southwest tour at the beginning of the year and hopes to release an EP, followed by a full-length album, sometime soon. The EP was yet to be titled, until the band decided on the spot to go with Sweat and Glitter. How often do you get to witness a band name its upcoming release?

"You got it first, New Times," Del Favero chuckles. "It's going to be the biggest thing ever. That's all we can say. Like [Alejandro] Jodorowsky's Dune." Isaac's brother, Zach Parker (guitar), adds, "But it's going to be completed."

Let's hope so, as Jerusafunk is not only one of the most original bands in town, it's one of the most fun. The band claims five original songs and six original "arrangements" (a term the band prefers to "covers"). The music sounds vaguely familiar (especially if you've seen Fiddler on the Roof) yet different and exciting. And you can't help dancing.  

For Torrey McDannald (trumpet, flugelhorn), playing Bootsy Collins' "I'd Rather Be With You" is his favorite. "She's everything you need. Seriously," he says.

"I like any chance I get to play the bass clarinet because that's such a rare opportunity to play that instrument," Fox says.

Del Favero yells into my recorder: "Hey, Phoenix, do you got a bass clarinet in your band? Do you have two? Do you have two bass clarinets?"

"All the klezmer stuff is, like, thousands of years old and has been refined to inspire that dance," Fox says. "Ancient technology. It's designed to make you dance. And that's where the familiarity comes from, even if nobody's Jewish. That music pervades our culture."

It's why Broome says, "I play in J-funk because it expands my musical abilities and stretches my horizons," while Brandon Minch (percussion) adds, "I like the musical variety the best."

Between the ancient folk styles and songs like "Diary of Anne Funk," a mix of hip-hop, Afrobeat and swing, 'variety' is probably the best way to describe Jerusafunk. Demaree says she is also working on a song called "Boss Nigun," a reference both to the Blaxploitation film Boss Nigger and 'nigun,' a Yiddish word for religious chanting songs like "ai-ai-ai!" So basically, Jerusafunk have written the very first Klezploitation song.

Yet, choosing to perform primarily instrumental songs could be seen as a risk -- some crowds just can't jive without a sing-along chorus. So why pick lyric-less music? Del Favero explains, "It felt right. Anytime that music came on, and I got my erection, I knew."

He adds, "It's not undermining the emotions of the audience. You want to present them with this thing and they're just going to have to go for it." Ike Parker interjects: "And just to see what we can throw together. Everyone's so fucking good; we've got to give Elliot [Fox] a solo and we've got to give [Brandon] Minch some fucking highlighted moments. I think it's that, like, hopping around that makes the music want to speak."

The band does have original, if somewhat horny, lyrics. "Kiever Bulgar" is their take on the traditional klezmer song "Bulgar from Kiev" (Bulgars were an early medieval people of Eastern Europe/Central Asia) but with added lyrics like "Sometimes I think of you undressed / Think about your chest / Think of all the ways you make me come."

One of the most distinct aspects of Jerusafunk is its loud fashion sense. Sometimes the look resembles something torn right out the '70s. Other times, Jerusafunk members dress like homemade superheroes, often with a little cross-dressing for good measure. But when this topic is raised, the band immediately responds, "Next fucking question!" and threatened to wear nothing but sweatpants for the next six months. They collectively agree to ignore their costume design, instead hoping their audience will focus on "function, not fashion," as Ike Parker puts it.

At the close of the interview, Austin Rickert (alto sax) comes in late. We ask him if he has anything to add. He nods his recently shaven head. "Tell people to bring live animals to the show. Just livestock. Noah's ark every time we play," he says, deadpan, then adds, "And prepare your body for a full-body orgasmic experience."

Jerusafunk is scheduled to perform this weekend at the Sidepony Express Music Festival in Bessbee.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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