I t’s tough sharing a birthday with Christmas, but in Nu Haven Kapelye’s case, that was the whole point. The band’s first performance happened on December 25, 1998, in order to give non-observers something fun to do.
Founded by professional musician and educator David Chevan, who leads the way to this day, the group specializes in klezmer music, a centuries-old Ashkenazi Jewish musical idiom that still helps countless descendants celebrate joyous occasions like weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies. Kapelye is an old Yiddish word for “band,” and this particular kapelye is particularly fluid, with anywhere from 11 to 35 members, ages 9 to 79, for any one show.
NHK’s sounds conjure up scenes of the shtetls. It literally means “towns,” though in context it refers to a somewhat specific set of towns: small villages with heavy Jewish representation that once dotted Eastern Europe. (Think along the lines of Fiddler on the Roof, or Yentl.) You can sense breaths of Romanian and Russian folk music in klezmer’s sound, which you can also hear in its often technically simpler cousin, “gypsy music.”
When substantial numbers of Ashkenazi Jews began immigrating to this country in the late 19th century, they also brought along their musical traditions, which would later engage in a heavy flirtation with American jazz, pulling new instruments like clarinets and trumpets into the klezmer mix. In Nu Haven Kapelye, bass, violin, accordion, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, guitar and drums combine to create tunes that transport minds and move bodies to clap and dance and smile.
In the past twenty years, klezmer music has experienced a more general revival, with records and sheet music becoming readily accessible, no doubt aided greatly by the internet. That resurgence coincided with a question Chevan’s synagogue, Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, was trying to answer: with most businesses closed on December 25, how can we fill the void?
The congregation wanted more than the stereotypical solution of Chinese food and a movie, and a klezmer concert fit the bill. So it was that in late 1998, Nu Haven Kapelye—though it didn’t yet have that name—was conceived. The first annual Christmastime show reportedly attracted 6 or 7 musicians and a crowd of 100; we’re told it now features up to 35 performers and welcomes 300 to 400 listeners each year. A nominal admission fee is charged, with the majority of funds going to charity after expenses are paid.
The rest of the year, Nu Haven Kapelye is available to play “whenever and wherever.” It’s performed at Masonicare and Tower One/Tower East in New Haven, the Katherine Hepburn Theater in Old Saybrook, the Whitney Center in Hamden and Evergreen Woods in North Branford, and if you recognize many of those venues, then you know the band skews to a demo that’s been around the block. “We have a natural audience with older folks who grew up with this music. It brings them back to happy memories,” Chevan says. For him the music is “magical,” recalling his Eastern European heritage and family celebrations past.
Chevan himself could be a one-man band, playing upright bass, drums, saxophone and piano. A music professor at Southern Connecticut State University, he’s also a composer, a founding member of the band The Afro-Semitic Experience (fusing jazz, Jewish and soul sounds) and a member of the board of trustees of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.
Despite its leader’s pedigree and experience, Nu Haven Kapelye inclines towards inclusiveness: the band is open to most anyone with a little talent and a desire to play. Though a handful of pros like Chevan are present, “We’re a community group rather than a professional group,” he notes. “We performed [last Saturday] at the Whitneyville Festival in Hamden and I didn’t know who’d be showing up. Someone could have a soccer game or relatives visiting. I got an email that morning that a musician sprained his wrist. We missed him.”
Dalton King, a saxophonist from Hamden who was one of the original members involved in that first concert nearly 16 years ago, touts members “from all walks of Jewish life as well as non-Jews.” For his part, Chevan thinks the wide age range among members is “one of the coolest things.” On the younger end of the group is Eran Avni-Singer, 12, who’s been playing clarinet with Nu Haven Kapelye for a year and a half after being encouraged to join by an existing member. Cary Jacobs, a flautist from New Haven, was also recruited, in this case by Jimmy Serling, a clarinet player who has the distinction of giving the group its name. For Cary, “This is one of the most exciting groups I’ve ever played with. It gets the blood moving and the feet tapping.”
For both the musicians and their audiences, Nu Haven Kapelye is a gift that keeps on giving.
Nu Haven Kapelye
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Julie Chevan.