The klezmer chamber quartet Bivolița had just finished its first number at the Orchard Street Shul, a slow, welcoming piece, and the applause had just died down.
“Thank you for coming out on a Sunday afternoon,” said accordionist Christina Crowder. “It is such a pleasure to be here. Because this music would have been performed in a shul like this.”
Normally Crowder would have had more to say. Steeped in klezmer from decades of performing the music and researching it in Eastern European and elsewhere, she is passionate and knowledgeable. But on the stage at the recent Orchard Street concert, a wave of emotion passed through her, and she was at a loss for words. She nodded to her fellow musicians — Gretchen Frazier on violin and viola, Keryn Kleinman on violin, and yours truly, also on violin — and we began our next piece.
I understood what Crowder was feeling. I have felt it myself. I’m among the many non-Jewish musicians who have dived into klezmer, and almost 10 years in, I’m still learning about its history, just as I’m still learning to play the musical idiom well. But the emotional connection is undeniable, a sweeping, heady whirlwind of joy and grief that is almost overwhelming at times. That is why, though I play lots of other kinds of music as well, I keep coming back.
Bivolița is by no means the only group in New Haven that plays klezmer, either. Bassist David Chevan leads a much larger group called Nu Haven Kapelye, which has just released a new CD with a title that poses a question that it also answers: What’s Nu?
A New Century
So what is klezmer?
The all-too-easy answer is that it’s Eastern European Jewish music. But even I know better than to leave it at that. In my experience, the answer has depended on whom I ask. It’s wrapped up in the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe, and the people they met and played music with, and the many people who tried to exterminate them. It’s a part of the story of Jews emigrating to the United States. And for many Jewish musicians, it’s personal and familial, whether they see themselves as reclaiming and reinventing the music, or holding down a long tradition stretching back further than anyone can remember, or both.
Like every old style of music that still has plenty of life in it, the music changes from generation to generation, as some preserve an older style of playing, others innovate, and still others combine elements of old and new — and bring in elements of other genres, notably American jazz — in the way they play.
So the slippery question of what klezmer is gets a little bit easier to answer when you narrow it down in time and space.
What is klezmer now, in New Haven?
A Different Sound
Founded in 1998 by bass player and bandleader David Chevan of the Afro-Semitic Experience, the Kapelye — which Chevan has often jokingly introduced to audiences as “New England’s largest klezmer ensemble” — draws its members mostly from the congregation of Mishkan Israel, the oldest continuously operating synagogue in New England.
This isn’t a coincidence. The group was formed originally for a concert Mishkan holds each year on Dec. 25, and has reformed every year since — and then some.
“The first few years, there was definitely a different quality” to the group, Chevan said. “There were six or eight musicians” playing instruments, he said, “and a lot of people wanted to sing.” Over time, however, the number of instrumentalists grew, and Chevan rolled with it.
“I’ve never said no to anyone, and I’ve done a lot of reaching out,” Chevan said. “I wanted it to be for young and old, amateur and professional.”
When I first heard the group several years ago, it had the joyful sound of contained chaos. Anchored by Chevan and usually Jay Miles on drums, and with klezmer veteran Stacy Phillips leading the string section, it pulsed and it grooved, but also seemed on the verge of exploding or coming part at any moment. In short, the Kapeyle sounded, to my ear, a lot like the great klezmer ensembles that recorded at the beginning of the 20th century: loud, raucous, disorganized in the best sense, and full of life.
But that was years ago. Over time, the group expanded its repertoire. “There’s always a faction of the group that wants new music,” Chevan said. And people came and went, as their lives dictated, and Chevan worked with it. . “I see this thing evolving constantly, sometimes month to month, sometimes year to year,” he said.
To get ready to record What’s Nu?, though, “I had to spend about a year just staying with one repertoire and spicing things up,” Chevan said — that is, working out arrangements, making sure each musician had a part to play, a chance to shine.
“Making the album took us easily a year and half of rehearsals and then another eight or nine months in the studio,” Chevan said. “We were really revisiting the material to the point where we were comfortable with it.”
All that work refined the group’s sound, and moved the dial toward klezmer’s jazzier end. The result is that What’s Nu? covers a lot of musical territory. It’s alive and kicking, with a loud say in what klezmer sounds like in New Haven today.
At times, as on the group’s takes on “Joseph, Joseph (Yosl, Yosl)” and “Bel Mir Bis Du Schein” — itself already a crossover hit — the Kapeyle sounds like a straight-up big band, swinging like Sinatra. “Hora Midor Di Romania” forgoes the double-jointed Romanian rhythm for a straighter groove. “Gross” tips almost into rock, as it features dueling electric guitars that rise to a peak before giving way to a drum solo.
There’s plenty of the Kapelye’s looser sound as well. “Kiev Sher,” for all its orchestration, has a heavy bump to its beat that keeps the head bobbing through the delightful chaos. And the Kapelye’s move to a tighter sound really pays off in “Zorg Nit Mame,” where an insistent drum pattern reminiscent of soul music drives an arrangement that alternates between sneaky and lush.
So the recording is, musically and practically, the culmination of a lot of determination and hard work, a milestone in the Kapelye’s history. But in another sense, What’s Nu? also just captures the group at a moment in time. Its personnel is still ever-shifting; it has, in fact, shifted since the album was recorded.
That’s part of the Kapelye, too. It’s “voices that come and go,” Chevan said. Some voices “never come back.” But others do. Among the Kapelye’s members have been school-age students who grew up playing in the group and go on to lead rich musical lives away from New Haven. “And then somehow or another, maybe they come back and play on December 25, and I don’t know how to fit everyone on stage,” Chevan said.
The Kapelye now plays several gigs a year in addition to Mishkan’s December concert, it has closed the Whitneyville Fall Festival for a few years, and plays at other venues around the area, from clubs to nursing homes. It will celebrate the release of the CD with an evening at Whitneyville Cultural Commons on Nov. 10. The band then makes its New York City debut on Dec. 22 at Jalopy, a club in Brooklyn. Chevan and the group are working on new arrangements.
As the Kapelye’s history and future move, so moves the broader klezmer scene around New Haven — mirroring New Haven itself. Some musicians move here, immerse themselves, and later move on. Others move in and stay. Others have been here all along. The music changes with the people. “Some things just do what they do of their own weight or lightness,” Chevan said.
Yet a core remains. Anyone who plays klezmer is joining the tradition in one way or another. It’s up to us to figure out what to do with it, but the one thing we can’t do is deny it.
So last week at the Orchard Street Shul, we in Bivolița gave it our all. We swerved, stomped, and swooped, paying our respects to the dazzling klezmorim that had played the tunes before us, reveling in the details of the style that they created and that still has the power to move modern audiences, sometimes to tears. But we improvised, too. We put ourselves into the music, so that we might better communicate what we were feeling when we played; for me, a sense of ecstatic despair, of grief-stricken celebration, that deepens the more I play and the more I learn about the music. It comes out as a paradox, a contradiction, whenever I try to articulate it in words, but makes complete sense when I play. (Click on the above audio file to hear the second set of the concert.)
And the audience at the shul, a multigenerational crowd, communicated right back. A couple kids danced and played in the balcony all through our first set.
As we moved into our second set, the applause seemed to get louder and longer, the cheers more urgent. We were all in it together, there in the beautiful old temple with acoustics like a concert hall, paying homage to the past and to being alive, here, in the present, people understanding each other, binding ourselves a little closer together, as we moved toward whatever the future may hold.
As a musician, that’s as close as I’ll be able to get to defining what klezmer is in New Haven. Whether it’s submerged deep in the tradition, ranging across what’s possible, or pushing the boundaries, we know by the way it’s played, and know that it’s good that way.