Klezmer Keeps On


Keeping a band together and performing for more than 20 years is no small achievement.

Just ask Eve Sicular and David Chevan. Sicular, the drummer and leader of Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos, and Chevan, bassist and co-leader of the Afro-Semitic Experience, have held their respective groups together for over two decades, landmarks that will be observed this fall.

Asked in a telephone interview last week about the intrepidness necessary for such a task, Sicular laughed and said, “Time keeps happening. We’re playing at the b’nai mitzvot of kids whose parents’ weddings we played.”

Not that she hasn’t given it some thought.

“It’s really beautiful to reflect on the trajectory,” she said, asked about the Metros’ impending 25th anniversary. “Some remarkable things have happened in the past year or so that bring home to me just how many parts of the band [there are].”

For example, Sicular, accordionist Ismail Butera and reed player Debra Kreisberg combined to provide music for a theater piece about Albanians who rescued Jews during the Shoah, particularly apt since Butera is an Albanian-American. Isle of Klezbos, the Metros’ all-female sister band, played Fashion Week, and Metropolitan Klezmer logged a first: two West Coast tours in a single year.

Of course, Sicular pointed out, the various projects always depend on which musicians are in town at any given moment. The musical flexibility involved is one of the great strengths of the multi faceted bands.

The Afro-Semitic Experience has gone through its own personnel changes over the 22 years of its existence, with a series of percussionists who retired due to old age and/or health problems. But its most recent loss was a particularly painful one, with Stacy Phillips, the band’s steel guitar player, dying of a massive heart attack after completing a gig with the group.

“In many ways we’re still reeling from it,” Chevan said in a telephone interview last week. “We know it was the last set he played, the last set we played with him, so it had a deep resonance for us. We still get emotional when we play certain numbers [on which he was featured].”

Phillips’ bluegrass-inflected sound was one of the unique features of the band and, as Chevan said, “He is irreplaceable. He played with a sincerity most musicians would be scared to possess.”

Less emotionally devastating but more financially problematic has been the ongoing crisis among live music venues. The closing of the Cornelia Street Café earlier this year was merely the latest blow both bands have had to accept. For Chevan the situation has a particularly painful knock-on effect.

“Lots of our projects have been put on hold,” he explained. “It has been harder to get Afro-Semitic bookings, so we get together less frequently than we’d like. That’s why we’re particularly grateful to have a New York date this month.”

He is undoubtedly speaking not only for himself and Sicular but for bandleaders of all sorts when he said, “I feel a sense of responsibility to bring in work for the players in the band.”

Still, musical life goes on. Chevan is working on a new project, “Letters from the Affair,” a musical setting of the correspondence between Camille Pisarro and Edgar Degas. The affair in question is the Dreyfus case, which drove a wedge through French society and divided the two painters as well.

And the Afro-Semitic Experience still soldiers on. One of the side effects of his work in the band, Chevan admitted, is that “I’m really comfortable in a synagogue, any synagogue. I’m so taken with the different ritual practices anywhere I go; it’s getting to be a part that gives me a sense of shalem (peace).”

On Sept. 21, 8 p.m., the Afro-Semitic Experience will make its first New York appearance in several years, playing a mini-concert and accompanying Cantor Dan Silver in a selikhot service at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 W. 68th St., swfs.org.

On Nov. 14, 7 p.m. the full octet version of Metropolitan Klezmer will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a performance at the Museum at Eldridge Street, 12 Eldridge St., eldridgestreet.org.

On Dec. 23, 7 p.m., Isle of Klezbos will be hosting a Chanukah celebration at Joe’s Pub, 423 Lafayette St., at Astor Place, publictheater.org/programs/joes-pub.