Co-founder of The Klezmorim (with Lev Liberman): 1975
Band member: 1975–77. Guest artist: 1978–79.
Instruments: Violin, accordion, mandolin, clarinet, gadulka, dumbek, occasional vocals
Other functions: Musical researcher/transcriber/arranger; album co-producer (East Side Wedding)
Albums: East Side Wedding, Streets of Gold, First Recordings 1976-78
Subsequent gigs: The Balkanizers, Finif, Forgatos, Danubius
Profile: Brilliant self-taught ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist David Skuse adopted me as musical protégé soon after my arrival in Berkeley in 1973. I'll always remember David as a musician's musician, and that's high praise indeed. More than a congenial bandmate and a great player, he made everybody within earshot want to excel just to keep up with him. His intellectual hunger seemed boundless: he wanted to learn every tune, master every instrument.
We worked together in several Bay Area folk bands — The Moscow Knights, Ardeleana, Westwind Folkdance Ensemble — and busked as the duo Lev & Dave in restaurants or on the streets. When the two of us played at parties and weddings we called ourselves, grandiosely, The Sarajevo Folk Ensemble. We longed to be the locus of a cultural firestorm.
By 1975 Skuse had come to share my obsessive quest for the origins of Yiddish instrumental music. It was his enthusiasm and musical integrity — more than my ability to hustle gigs — which attracted David Gray, Laurie Chastain, and Greg Carageorge to join us in the Sarajevo International Band, which we soon renamed The Klezmorim. Whether transcribing obscure Eastern European tunes or cracking the whip in rehearsal, Skuse was a charismatic bandleader.
Skuse left the group amicably in 1977 to pursue graduate studies in ethnomusicology at SUNY Binghamton; his departure catalyzed The Klezmorim's evolution from string band to brass band. The following year, we were thrilled to have him back in Berkeley for the final Streets of Gold recording session, fiddling passionately amidst our mega-assemblage of current, former, and part-time band members. "Taxim," the melody Skuse recorded that day with tsimbalist Stu Brotman, stands as one of The Klezmorim's best tracks ever.
Over the years David and I continued to share musical adventures in New York, Berlin — wherever his research and my band tours coincided. He lived in Hungary for a time, playing in local táncház bands and refining his mastery of Danubian violin styles. Back in California he inspired a new crew of musicians, most notably in the San Francisco-based Hungarian/Romanian ensemble Danubius.
In the intervening decades, Skuse had never sought to capitalize on his role as co-founder of The Klezmorim and co-instigator of the klezmer revival. He wasn't about vanity; all he cared about was music. Undeniably, however, the tuneful revolution he helped to spark touched many people throughout the world. And our friendship endured, for which I am grateful.
On 1 September 2010, David Skuse died of brain cancer at the age of 60, after a two-year struggle with the disease.
Skuse had looked good when we got together at his ex-wife Cindy's house in Seattle a few months before his death. Silver on top and minus his signature mustache, but handsomely macho in a leather jacket. He joked about the new challenges he faced in speaking, walking, seeing, remembering. We jammed a little — I on soprano sax, David on violin. Believe me when I say that his fiddling sounded as terrific as ever. Musically, he still had everything, despite all he had lost. By the time we put down our instruments, he had momentarily forgotten who I was. What he said next was generous as always: "You sound pretty good. You should keep it up."
It's good to recall him that way: as primas, klezmer, friend and mentor.
For David Skuse — and for musicians not yet born — let's continue playing music as well as we can for as long as we're able.