Klezmer music has become almost as ubiquitous these days as hip-hop and bluegrass.
But the Mighty KlezTones, from Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, are putting a different swing on things. The band is composed entirely of teenagers and even younger kids.
“We usually take junior high and high school kids, but once in a while a fourth- or fifth-grader sneaks in,” says Cary Nasatir, the band’s adult director and conductor. “It depends on whether they can read the music. I generally ask that they have two years of band or orchestra experience in school.”
Nasatir, 57, has been playing klezmer music much of his life, and his love for the music and teaching it to a new generation are what led him to start the Mighty KlezTones 10 years ago.
“One of the Temple Isaiah members who was about 13 heard a group [the Kids of Klezmer] that I was leading, and he said, ‘I’ve got to get you to my synagogue,'” Nasatir recalled. “He told their cantor about it and they invited us out to play.”
After that, the synagogue brass decided that the Reform congregation should have its own kids group. “And that’s where I stepped in,” Nasatir said.
Since then, more than 50 members have passed through the band’s ranks. The ensemble practices twice a month, after religious school on Sundays, and anyone who attends a practice or a performance quickly realizes that the kids are not only excellent musicians who enjoy playing the music — but they’re also getting something deeper.
“It relates to the culture, and you get an extra kind of insight into the Jewish culture by playing the music,” says 14-year-old drummer Ari Migdon, who counts among his musical interests jazz, classical and rock — especially Led Zeppelin.
“Playing in a Jewish band is a fun experience and [there’s] a cool social scene that revolves around it,” says Dan Avrukin, 14, who plays piccolo, flute and alto sax, and loves modern musicals. “Playing at the services in the klezmer band has brought me closer to my Jewishness.”
The Mighty KlezTones have become a fixture at Temple Isaiah, playing at Chanukah, Simchat Torah, Purim and some Friday night services. The kids have gone out on their own, as well, getting gigs at bar and bat mitzvah receptions.
“These are 11- and 12-year-olds playing in front of
people,” Nasatir explains. “They lead it themselves, call the tunes, figure out when they’re going to take a break, and when they’re going to start and stop again. Those are good skills to have in their pocket.”
Jessica Sald-inger, a 16-year-old trumpet player, said being part of the band has been a natural extension of her Midrasha class.
“We were looking for ways to get involved in the Jewish community. I heard about this band and really like this music, so I joined,” says Sald-inger, who listens to classical, jazz, oldies, Billy Joel, and Simon and Garfunkel. “I like the way the scales sound [in klezmer] — it’s different and I like that. It’s a part of Judaism and who I am. This helps me get more in touch with the music and culture.”
Nasatir clearly enjoys passing his knowledge onto another generation and giving young musicians a living music history lesson. And he said the reason he likes klezmer so much is because “there’s a rhythm that touches the Jewish soul.
“That, and the schmaltz of it,” he adds. “It’s very quick music, but it’s also very sad music.”
Klezmer isn’t easy to play. It’s fast and in minor keys, with a lot of sharps and flats, but Nasatir demands a high level of musicianship from the band. As someone who has been worked with music and instruments for 32 years, the last 10 at Nasatir’s School of Percussion in Castro Valley, he doesn’t coddle his musicians, and he uses professional arrangements in the band’s repertoire.
“I tell them that the notes are going to go by pretty quickly, and they do. From a musical standpoint, there’s usually nothing slower than an eighth note. They have to read music, and these kids are pretty good readers.”
Temple Isaiah Cantor Leigh Korn has nothing but praise for the group. “They are quite talented,” he says. “Cary is an inspiring conductor and the kids just adore him.”
The Mighty KlezTones next perform at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 5 as part of a Friday night Shabbat service at Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. For information about the group, contact music director Cary Nasatir at (510) 612-5527 or email@example.com.