Nu Haven Kapelye Asks What’s Nu?, Finds Community Home for Rollicking, Big-Band Klezmer
For some in New Haven, Christmas tradition has meant one very particular thing: Klezmer music.
The Nu Haven Kapelye, a community project several dozen musicians strong, has performed on December 25 for the last 18 years. The orchestra unites Jewish and non-Jewish players, musicians from diverse Jewish backgrounds, people of all ages and professions and abilities, who share one goal. They want to play some blazing klezmer tunes together and share them.
Now the group can share their beloved pieces--Yiddish theater hits, dance tunes from the Old World--even more widely, on What’s Nu? (release date: November 18th, 2016), the ensemble’s first recording. Encouraged by the valiant driving force behind the group, musician, arranger, and researcher David Chevan (Afro-Semitic Experience), the 35-member band demonstrates what can happen when a community determined to preserve heritage intertwines with a local community determined to come together and celebrate. They’ve grown from a one-a-year band into a group that plays festivals, concerts, and Jewish celebrations year round.
“This was different from every other klezmer-related project I’ve been involved with,” explains Chevan. “We didn’t worry about strict authenticity; we focus on making music that boosted our spirits and pushed our personal abilities. Again and again, I’ve been amazed how musicians have gone beyond what they thought they could do, to express something with this music.”
“Musically, for me, there is always the feeling that somehow every year, the December 25 concert has to be fresh and new and better than the previous year,” Chevan reflects. “And for me that meant constantly being on the hunt for repertoire.” He found it in the rich collections of dance band and Klezmer music, including a major body of work from Russia.
The emphasis on arrangements and notated music was a departure from the usual approach many Klezmer devotees take. Instead of ear playing or transcriptions of recordings, Chevan found he could coax more out of his band, who included everyone from classical symphony players to lawyers to high school students, if he offered sheet music. That framework left ample room for expressive solos, as well as for a sense of common cause among the diverse musicians.
“We have members from many different synagogues and that in itself is unusual,” muses Chevan. “And then we also break down the age barrier. In most groups you don’t get teens playing with elders, or a mother and son playing in the same section. But with the Kapelye, you do.”
Chevan became the principal arranger of the band to spark this spirit, also urging Kapelye members to bring in their own arrangements. Rollicking singalong tunes (“Ale Brider”) or classics of Yiddish theater (“Bei mir bist du schon”) and American klezmer (a version of torchbearer Dave Tarras’ “Davidl Bazezt die Kalleh”) alternate with unexpected new entries to the Jewish secular repertoire (a raucous version of Balkan Beat Box’s “Gross”).
The ensemble has proven more than a fun touchstone for the New Haven Jewish community. It’s brought many of its members back to music and deeper into their heritage. “The Kapelye is the reason I picked up the guitar after not having played for several years,” notes Jonathan Zabin. “I attended the first concert, and said to myself, that I could play that music, and that I should play that music.” Zabin, like many musician in the Kapelye, involved his sons in the band.
The strong intergenerational component has made the big band more sustainable, and young players are eager to join. They also tend to stick around, sometimes from middle school, up through college and starting their own families. “I was invited to join the Kapelye when I was in 5th grade. At the time, I had been to one or two of their concerts and was very impressed,” recalls Eran Avni-Singer. “I didn't really believe it when I was invited to join a rehearsal. I was very intimidated but I showed up. The second I walked in the room, I realized what a fun and welcoming group these people are.”
Classically trained trombonist Isaac Cooper, who played with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, as well as several klezmer acts, found his klezmer sound in the group: “I had been told my playing was ‘too clean’ for klezmer,” says Cooper. “But with guidance from David Chevan and with the encouragement of the Kapelye, I’m much more comfortable. I’ve gotten the right feel.”
“Jewish music, whether it came straight from Eastern Europe or was written by immigrants for the Yiddish theater, captures joy and sorrow, wistfulness, longing and hope. There's something about this music that connects with the gut -- for the band and for the audience. And performing with a group ranging from teens to seniors and representing a range of backgrounds makes the experience even richer,” explains Hedda Rubenstein, one voice in the Kapelye’s Seltzer Sisters vocal duo. “We -- and our audiences, we hope -- have a blast. At the same time, in our own small way, what we do represents the survival of a people, of a culture, and of hope.”
“I am ‘rejewvenated’ whenever I am playing with the Kapelye!” laughs elder powerhouse Caroline Jacobs, with typical Kapelye lightheartedness. And klezmer lovers and traditional music fans of all backgrounds can feel that same, community-born, musically transmitted boost, that same celebratory salute to survival and hope.
01 Ale Brider
02 Zorg Nit Mame
03 Bei Mit Bist Du Schein
04 Kiev Sher
05 Chiri Biri Bim
06 Gas Nign
07 Belaia Tserkov Freylekh And Skots
08 Joseph, Joseph (Yosl, Yosl)
09 Dovidl Bazezt Die Kalleh
10 Kostakowsky Bulgar 2
11 Eliyahu Hanavi
13 Hora Midor Di Romania
The Nu Haven Kapelye unites anywhere from ten to thirty musicians from all walks of life, generations, and musical backgrounds. The klezmer orchestra and big band includes singers, woodwinds, brass, strings, and, of course, the requisite accordion. Together, they find new interpretations of traditional Yiddish and Sephardic songs, classics from Yiddish theater and the Yiddish swing heyday, and rollicking klezmer tunes, as well as the occasional contemporary Jewish work.
The big band sprang from an annual Christmas Day concert, beginning in 1998. The performance was the brainchild of David Chevan, a New Haven-based music professor, explorer, and musical omnivore. Chevan, founder of the Afro-Semitic Experience and passionate player of jazz and klezmer, created an open-eared group where diverse musicians could engage in a dedicated but lighthearted way with the best of Jewish secular music.
Jay Miles, Logan Sidle, Jesse Chevan
guitars, mandolins, etc.
Michael Allen, Henry Sidle, Jonathan Zabin, Louis Pollison
Michael Ross, Isaiah Cooper
Sophia Colodner, Noah Chevan
Dalton King, Miles Singer, Mandi Jackson
Stacy Phillips, Jacob Begemann, Seth Rosenthal, Steve Jacobs, Ari Kagan, Yoni Battat
Anna Reisman, Cary Jacobs, Elise Miller
Jim Serling, Eli Zabin, Nancy Horowitz, Eran Avni-Singer, Olivia Gross, Will Bartlett
the Seltzer Sisters, Hedda Rubinstein, Jackie Sidle