from the liner notes of the debut CD:
Quote by Alollo
Trehorn, poet and raconteur
Quote by Hirsh-leyb
Mustapha, producer and consumer
Quote by Stuart
Brotman, musician and punster
Quote by Anonymous,
attributed to Benyomin ben Mandel
Quote by Kalman
Holzhacker, distiller of wisdom
The Full Truth on Di Shikere Kapelye
by Frank LondonBefore there was a klezmer revival and "world music", before the cultural assimilation of American Jews and the rebirth of the state of Israel with its modern Hebrew, before the devastation and destruction of East European Jews and Yiddish culture, before the massive waves of emigration to the new worlds, before there were recordings, before modernity itself, there was Di Shikere Kapelye - the illustrious and infamous Inebriated Orchestra (or, the Band of Drunks). Di Shikere Kapelye, the group that, by necessity, initiated the itinerant aspect of a klezmer's life, and gave klezmorim their lasting bad name.
Few hard facts are known about this influential, early 19th century ensemble. What little we do know comes from a variety of sources: anecdotes and oral histories with older, living klezmorim (whose grandparents may have heard or played in Di Shikere Kapelye), court records of cases against them brought by dissatisfied clients and strait-laced municipal governments, obscure references and apocryphal legends. Their origins may lie around Odessa, or in the Trans-Carpathians, or near Minsk (Pinsk?): records of their appearance appear in all these places. Always invited to perform, but never welcomed to stay in one place (due perhaps to their proclivity towards impromptu rehearsa / jam sessions that started in the main town squares after all the pubs had shut for the night) they traveled throughout the Pale of Settlement. Adding to the confusion is the likelihood that there were a number of groups in different shtetls operating under the name Di Shikere Kapelye, spin-off groups led by former members of the original band who stayed in the various cities. Fortunately, more is known about their music.
Their dance tunes were the basis for what Jewish / Ottoman music scholar Walter "Zev" Feldman calls, "the core repertoire of klezmer": bulgars, freylekhs, and khosidls, as well as doynes, horas, waltzes, and a beat they referred to as "the Oriental". Their furious tempi often instigated dizzying dances that defied description, although their metric irregularity has led some to conjecture that the drummers may have possessed asymmetrical lower appendages.
spread far and wide and influenced future klezmorim from the legendary
Belf's Romanian Orchestra to Naftulie Brandwein (lit. brandy-wine, a common
musicians' family name since the time of Di Shikere Kapelye) to Argentina's
Sam Liberman to Miami's Epstein Brothers. Their style, however, had been
considered impossible to replicate until an all-star group featuring members
of the world's leading klezmer bands (the Klezmatics, Brave Old World,
the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Hasidic New Wave, Naftulie's Dream, Paradox
Trio, KlezMs., Shirim, S.F. Klezmer Experience, Les Miserables Brass Band,
and the groups of A ndy Statman and David Krakauer) gathered to pay tribute
to the legendary Shikers, the 19th-century traditional Jewish oriental
village brass band that irrevocably influenced the course of Klezmer music.
Taking to heart the lessons of the great Jewish saxophonist Stan Getz (When
asked, "How do you play so well when you're drunk?," he replied, "I practice
drunk!") these intrepid brass players got together in the New York City's
Knitting Factory bar, knocked back a few, and proceeded to use their combined
knowledge, experience, yikhes, and other available means to channel the
Shiker's ineffable sound.
The shofar, predecessor of the modern trumpet, is the quintessential Jewish instrument. Reaching directly into the soul, this common ram's horn is sounded in times of our greatest joy and our darkest despair. Filled with, and amplifying, the horn player's breath, the sound of the shofar has strength and powers beyond that of common instruments. It was the trumpets' blasts that brought down the walls of Jericho. Even during the countless religious bans on instrumental music in the synagogue, the shofar has blasted loud and true. Tekiah! Teruah! Shevarim! Tekiah gedolah! Ah, most regal of instruments! The trumpet, exalted in times of antiquity, shall sound to welcome the awaited messianic era and herald the coming of the messiah.
(The association of wind instruments with profound mystical spirituality should come as no surprise, as it is implicit in the word itself! Trumpet (Hebrew: khatzotz'ra) come from "two little words:" khatzu (broken) and tzarot (troubles.) Rabbi Mattityah Glazerson, kabbalist, writes that "the trumpet has the power to break all troubles." Moreover, it is breath that fills the brass instrument, and the word for wind/breath (Hebrew: ruach, Latin: spiritus) also means spirit. Is it mere coincidence that alcohol, which lubricates the gates to the soul, is also called spirits?)
Given their almost
instinctive, ancestral attraction towards wind-blown instruments, is it
surprising that Jews longed for their sound, especially when it was proscribed?
As historical Yiddish music specialist Josh Horowitz reveals, "for Jews
in the 18th and early 19th century Ukraine, instrumentation was divided
into two legal categories, which were stubbornly enforced by the authorities:
"loud" and "soft." The instruments in the category of "loud" music were
horns and drums. Jews were only allowed to play "soft" music. If a Jew
broke one of these laws, he (or she) could be prohibited from playing another
event for up to a year." After the legal emancipation of the "loud" klezmer
brass band, fans flocked to this formerly forbidden fruit; Di Shikere Kapelye
filled their need.
In their exhaustive
investigative analysis of brass bands, Frozen Brass, scholars Rob Flaes,
Fred Gales and Ernst Heins posit the development of Klezmer (along with
Bleh from the Balkans and New Orleans Jazz) as a "musical hybrid between
colonialist brass bands and local folk musics that developed when enterprising
musicians started to use the instruments to play music a local audience
would listen to, dance to and - most importantly - pay for." They write,
"a brass band stood for more than just instruments, uniforms, and songs.
The martial appearance, the loudness of the instruments, the discipline
of the musicians make it a proper symbol of the culture of the conquerors.
Strict training, rationality and standardization had produced this ensemble:
a band that could play anything in the temperate scale, everywhere, and
always in tune." Evoking the spirit of the pan-culturally present drunken
trickster, Di Shikere Kapelye subverted ALL the aforementioned colonialist
conventions ascribed to brass bands, with the exception of the loudness.
"A multi-functional ensemble suitable for emperors and military campaigns,
enlightening the masses and evoking edifying religious feelings, brass
bands have become indispensable for weddings, circumcisions, processions,
funerals, and even for communicating with spirits and inducing trance like
What became of Di Shikere Kapelye? It's difficult to piece together a coherent picture. Perhaps, as use of the band's name became more of a liability than an asset, and might lead to legal action or even arrest, it stopped being used. More reliable and sober (albeit less interesting) bands, using Di Shikere Kapelye's repertoire and some of their musicians, sprung up and took over their means of employment. Soon, their memory began to fade until all that was left was the stuff of legend.
Based on extensive research - laced with a heavy dose of guesswork and intuition - and a few smudged sheets of music found in the cellar of an Pinsk (Minsk?), a group of the greatest living klezmorim gathered together to lovingly and painstakingly create an aural docu-drama of Di Shikere Kapelye and evoke what the inimitable Hijaz Mustapha calls "the echt, wine-soaked, raucous, out-in-the-rain, brass-necked, shirt-button-popping stinky earthiness of the tough way of life of old-country klezmers". More than just playing their songs, they capture their sound and ethos. Trink a glezele shnaps un gib a kik. (how do you say, "Check it out?")