By Brian Slattery
Nu Haven Kapelye, sometimes billed as New England’s largest klezmer band, saw out the final days of 2021 with two concerts — one on Dec. 25 at Congregation Mishkan Israel and one on Dec. 31 as part of Yiddish New York’s globe-spanning, 24-hour Klezathon — that saw the ensemble carrying on longstanding traditions, expanding its reach, and exemplifying the tenacity of musicians and music to get through another pandemic year with spirits intact.
“We managed to make it work, and not do one, but two shows within a week, which was really cool,” said Nu Haven Kapelye bassist, bandleader, and arranger David Chevan.
In the modern era, bands playing klezmer (or, to sum it up all too quickly, traditional Jewish music from Eastern Europe) tend to be smaller, with one musician per instrument and an emphasis on virtuosic solo playing. Not so the Kapelye, which draws its strength from its numbers, entire sections of strings and horns, with Chevan in the middle, leading the charge from his bass. In its approach, the Kapelye resembles both a big band and, reaching into the past, the large klezmer ensembles, like Belf’s Rumanian Orchestra or Abe Schwartz’s Yiddisher Orchestra, of the first half of the 20th century.
In Europe before the Holocaust, Chevan pointed out, while rural Jewish communities might have had small music groups, “ensembles tended to be bigger in urban areas.” In cities like Warsaw and Prague, “centers of Jewish culture, you had these theater bands,” akin to the big bands in the early years of jazz. “There were these opportunities for larger professional ensembles,” Chevan said. The urban enclaves were the result of, on one hand, greater freedoms for Jews in Europe in the 19th century that allowed them to live in cities commingling more easily with non-Jews, and on the other hand, baked-in antisemitism that meant Jews tended to live with other Jews. They “might have been equal, but they were separate,” Chevan said. It set the stage for escalating violence that culminated in the Holocaust. Hitler “couldn’t have come to power” with his antisemitic message “if there wasn’t a culture for it that already existed.”
Chevan had that history in mind as the Nu Haven Kapelye took shape in 1998 for its first Dec. 25 concert at CMI and Chevan began making charts for the variety of musicians he knew he would be working with. “I use a mental model in my head of what it would mean to have a klezmer orchestra or big band,” he said. For many of the musicians in the Kapelye, the group is their first chance to play klezmer. The Kapelye “creates an opportunity for people to get to know the music,” Chevan said.