THE MUSICAL DUO that became The Klezmorim originated in 1973, after I graduated college and left Southern California for the cool air of Berkeley. There I helped UCLA Ethnomusicology grad Barry Fisher form a belly-dance band that gigged steadily at a Greek restaurant in San Rafael. When accordion-wielding bandleader Fisher kicked me out of Trio Trellos, I was holding a contract for a lucrative party gig and needed a band, fast — or at least a quick-study multi-instrumentalist with a humongous repertoire of folk-dance tunes. Everybody recommended David Skuse. A musical partnership was born.
With violinmaker Dan Olson, Skuse and I formed The Moscow Knights. (Amazing fact: our buddy and mentor Stu Brotman played in a different Moscow Knights.) I also subbed on flute and bass in Skuse's band Ardeleana, learning their repertoire of Rumanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Irish folk tunes. David, directing international folk dance ensemble Westwind's in-house band, recruited me to perform Appalachian dance music. In turn, I roped him into my solo-flute gigs at cafés and wine bars. The resulting duo, called — duh — Lev & Dave, performed at Bay Area receptions, restaurants, and weddings, including David's own.
I was a musical ugly duckling with folk sensibilities chrome-plated by L.A. pop/rock; Skuse was respected as a self-taught ethnomusicologist who immersed himself in folklore, language, and history. His enthusiasms were contagious; it was a pleasure to rehearse at David's cat-infested North Berkeley house, drinking his wife Cindy's good home-brewed coffee. We challenged one another intellectually, eventually trading brains: he became a bit more of a showman, while I acquired the demeanor of an ethnoid purist.
We found the Lev & Dave format constricting, however, both musically and professionally. Even when we called ourselves The Sarajevo Folk Ensemble — a moniker loaded with epic grandeur and swashbuckling romance — nobody took us seriously. By Spring '75 we had resolved to break up the act unless we could recruit another musician to play chords, freeing Skuse to perform on violin instead of accordion. Hip to klezmer music via the trove of 78-rpm discs I found at the Judah Magnes Museum, we wanted to explore the genre further; perhaps we could make this untapped vein of music our unique specialty.
I was studying music theory at the time with omni-instrumentalist David Julian Gray, whose wild renditions of 1920s novelty tunes at the Freight & Salvage cracked me up. I asked Gray to join us; he did, after initially turning us down twice because at the time it seemed inconceivable that a Yiddish band could be musically interesting. After recruiting violinist/vocalist Laurie Chastain at dance palace Ashkenaz, we had a quasi-band that gigged hard at parties and busked on streetcorners in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, California.
David Gray (the short blond David) doesn't remember all those gigs 'cause he spent part of the time convalescing from mononucleosis. David Skuse (the tall dark David) also missed some gigs 'cause he left for a month to perform on a cruise ship. For much of late '75 we were really two half-a-bands, with me as the glue. Nobody really wanted to hire (or feed) more than three musicians anyway.
Each of us — me, the two Davids, and Laurie — acknowledged the irony of being Jewish (or half-Jewish) and yet knowing so little about our people's music. Why, when many of the Western world's finest musicians were Jews, was the standard Jewish repertoire so simple-minded and cornball? This irritating conundrum led us to investigate klezmer music's alternative universe of musical treasures...
No doubt the same question occurred to many young musicians; zeitgeist is powerful. Let the record show, however, that the only other players actively unearthing and performing klezmer repertoire in 1975 were New York clarinetist/mandolinist Andy Statman and tsimbalist Walter Zev Feldman. The East Coast Yiddish bands sometimes credited as originators of the klezmer revival — Kapelye and the Klezmer Conservatory Band — were actually part of the revival's second wave, emerging three or four years after Statman/Feldman and The Klezmorim (and a year or two after West Coast bands Ellis Island and The Chutzpah Orchestra). The inside story continues in 1976... >>