Special to JUF NewsThree innovative yet very different musical acts are coming to Chicago this winter to turn our shivers into shimmies. They represent the three major regions of traditional Jewish music: Mizrachi, or Middle-Eastern sounds; Ashkenazic, including klezmer; and Sephardic, from the Jews of Spain.
This band helped lead the klezmer revival in Chicago. Called Ensemble M’chaiya, it was founded in January 1983 when a childhood friend of Don Jacobs, a clarinetist, invited him to hear his band “you might have heard of them” the Klezmorim. Jacobs was performing jazz-ified Balkan music with multi-instrumentalist Terran Doehrer at the time, and brought him along. After the concert, Jacobs and Doehrer decided, in true Midwest spirit: “We can do this stuff!”
At first, M’chaiya had to include Israeli and Yiddish music to get gigs, so they have a concert’s worth of that material under their belts as well. But fundamentally, they are about klezmer, which, to Doehrer, is “serious dance music, not cartoon stuff! Klezmer is a willingness to stand up and be joyful in the face of life’s tragedies. Klezmer speaks to thousands of years of picking up the pieces and moving on with hope.
“But we are not a ‘museum’ band, either,” he continues. “We try to outfit ourselves in the mentality of the musicians in 1910 what was their intensity, their groove? We act as if we wrote it yesterday.” The full eight-piece band includes traditional klezmer instruments but also surprises like the saxophone, bouzouki, ocarina, and kaval (a Bulgarian flute): “It’s the energy that matters, not the instrument.”
On Nov. 23, M’Chaiya will celebrate its 20th anniversary and two decades of klezmer in Chicago with a concert at the HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo, at 7 pm. Most likely, they will include their signature original dance, “The Hot Bagel.”
The Sarah Aroeste Band
Representing the Sephardim is The Sarah Aroeste Band, playing what she calls “Ladino blues.” Aroeste (pronounced arrow-Westy) can trace her family back to pre-Inquisition Spain. Her family escaped to Greece, where they lived for generations and built a synagogue. Aroeste herself was born and raised in New Jersey, by a family that “never hid our Sephardic traditions, but didn’t go out of their way to teach them, either.”
Aroeste sings in Ladino, a language with a story similar to her family’s “it was exiled with the Spanish Jews who spoke it, fleeing the Inquisition with them. The music on her debut album, “A La Una (In the Beginning)” travels around the Mediterranean, too, but also through time, picking up a bit of modern Western influence from jazz to rock to country.
Such diversity was inherent in the music all along, Aroeste explains. As the Jews who played it moved, they picked up local sounds. Her band, led by musical director, arranger, and oudist Yoel Ben-Simhon, is composed of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Christian, and Muslim musicians. The makeup of the band mirrors the makeup of the music, Aroeste explains.
Aroeste was trained in opera, enrolling in music school at age 12. She pursued music for several years, when a brief nonmusical job set her on her current course. Working as a program director with the National Foundation of Jewish Culture, she realized that while there were many innovative Jewish musical acts, they mostly based their work on Ashkenazic or Middle Eastern sounds. But there were very few playing Sephardic music.
“People just don’t know about Greek or Spanish Jewry,” she laments, and “my sources were great musicians who were concerned with preserving the music. But I am a young, modern American woman. I wanted to take possession of my heritage in a way that represents me.”
Now, there is a drive to make sure this music is played by the young, she says, indicating Pharaoh’s Daughter and the Hip Hop Hoodios as part of a rising number of cutting-edge Ladino acts. They are aided by the ongoing relevancy of the music itself.
“Many of the songs I choose are hundreds of years old, but they could have been written yesterday,” Aroeste says. “This helps me feel a connection to the past, and still make music that’s relevant to myself and those my age.”
Brought to Chicago by the Kfar Jewish Arts Center and the Spertus Institute, Aroeste will perform on Dec. 6 at 9 pm. Tickets are $10 in advance and for Spertus Society Members, $12 at the door.