Sundays at the Kosher Store
Michael Drapkin, Bandleader/Clarinet/Vocals
Shirley Johnson, Accordion
Rob Jewett, Bass
Wayne Duncan, Drums
Recorded Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at Sundayhouse Studio, Bastrop, Texas
I grew up as an assimilated Jewish boy in the suburban San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles, California area. It really wasn’t much different being Jewish, except that we had some different holidays, and when I was old enough, I went to Hebrew school in Encino.
However, it was the family events that differed. Weddings and bar-mitzvahs would invariably have a live band that would play Jewish music, and this is what I grew up hearing, and everyone knew the tunes that were played and sung and danced. These were songs that came from what my grandparents called, “the old country.” In their case, it was Russia and Rumania. We were descended from Ashkenazy or Eastern European Jews. Their daily language, which my parents and grandparents all spoke, was Yiddish, which was made up mostly of 16th century German (which is when the Jews were kicked out, and headed further east) and a smattering of other languages. Hebrew was reserved for prayer and synagogue. Although I did learn a lot of the Yiddish language, my parents didn’t teach us conversationally, preferring to use it as their “battle language” that they used amongst themselves when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying.
I started playing the clarinet as a gift from my parents after turned 13 and became bar-mitzvah. My music education was fairly traditional – I took private clarinet lessons and participated in public school concert bands and marching bands and orchestras. Around 10th grade, I heard a performance of Resphigi’s orchestra piece, “The Pines of Rome” which features a huge breathtaking clarinet solo in one of the movements, and I said to myself, “that’s what I want to be able to do someday.” I was inspired to become an orchestra clarinetist, and devoted time every day to practicing – solos, etudes, orchestra excerpts, and my senior year auditioned for music schools. I got into my number one choice – the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and went off to study clarinet with one of the great grandmasters of the clarinet, the late Stanley Hasty. His students played in most of the orchestras in the US, and I was determined to be one of them.
I went through their course of study, graduated and moved to New York City, freelanced with orchestras, and one spring broke through a plateau and auditioned for six major orchestras, made finals in five, ending up in the Honolulu Symphony. I came to the realization that playing in orchestras for the rest of my life wasn’t for me (too much of a maverick), and my career took a left turn into an unknown direction.
I ended up working on Wall Street, and at the urging of a neighbor who was a well-known Jewish storyteller, I decided to go to “KlezKamp” over the December holidays – a celebration of Yiddish and Jewish culture, arts and music in the Catskills (where else?) near New York city. It was a catharsis – I rediscovered that music that I used to hear as a boy, and it gave me chills! I came back home very enthusiastic, and formed my first Klezmer band (as the style is called in Hebrew). I called it “Mishulem’s Klezmer Band” – Mishulem is my Hebrew name.
Fast forward to 2005. My wife Suzy and I decided that we wanted a fresh start, and moved to Austin, Texas, where I had given a keynote speech at the University of Texas at Austin as a guest of my mentor and former Eastman School of Music dean, Bob Freeman. Austin is a funky college town with an unofficial motto “Keep Austin Weird”, and I knew that I wanted to be involved musically, plus I wanted to still play Klezmer, and immediately registered the domain name “Yiddish Cowboys.” However, it took me five years to find the right players that were capable of playing the music – Klezmer is deceptively difficult, and it requires very musically adept players with strong technique. Some people call it “Jewish jazz” but I see it as much more akin to Baroque music, in that it is ornamented, not improvised. We became the only professional Klezmer band in Central Texas, and performed at synagogues, markets and weddings.
A few years ago, I got involved with the massive South by Southwest music festival in Austin, running their “Classical Crossover” showcase, featuring bands that were classically trained but had “crossed over” into mainstream music. Of course I booked my own band Yiddish Cowboys to perform, and I approached the HEB supermarket chain about having Yiddish Cowboys perform at The Kosher Store, which was a kosher grocery store inside one of their stores, under Orthodox rabbinical supervision. They agreed, and that started a long term warm relationship that lasts to this day – Yiddish Cowboys performs monthly at The Kosher Store.
However, I was always dissatisfied that we didn’t have any good recordings of the band that did us justice. The ones I had posted on the Yiddish Cowboys website were ones that were made on people’s smartphones or video that friends took for us.
Along came Hurricane Sandy in New York City. I was back working on a Wall Street engagement when I had to be evacuated from my flooded Financial District apartment, and high-tailed it back to Austin, since everyone was working remotely anyway. While I was home, I got the band together, and we spend an evening recording in Stephen Ceresia’s Sundayhouse Studio in Bastrop, Texas, about 45 minute drive from Austin. The tracks came out great (thanks, Stephen!) and I decided to release them as a short CD with five tunes on them.
So here are the five tunes we recorded that we regularly perform at The Kosher Store on Sunday, hence the title, “Sundays at The Kosher Store.” By the way, that is my Yiddish cowboy belt buckle I wear at our gigs on the cover; I hunted all over the internet to find a western belt buckle with a Star of David in the middle!
1. Jewish Medley. This is just like I would hear at a Jewish wedding or bar-mitzvah when I was a boy, featuring four traditional celebratory Jewish tunes – Chosen Kale Mazel Tov, Ose Shalom, Siman Tov and Hevenu Shalom Alechem. These are very happy tunes, even though they are in minor keys!
2. Raisins and Almonds. A gorgeous Yiddish lullaby from the Yiddish theatre from the late 1800’s in an arrangement I did years ago featuring a soulful clarinet cadenza near the end, and a spoken paraphrase of the lyrics. Sleep now, little one! Sleep!
3. Miserlou. This is a very old song that is claimed by every country in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in fact beach rocker legend Dick Dale used it as the theme music in the Quentin Tarantino’s movie Pulp Fiction – Dick’s father was Lebanese! In fact, it is actually a Greek tune – the story is about a Greek man that falls in love with an Egyptian woman, which was “forbidden love” (ahh, the best kind!). To this day, you can see this song danced at Orthodox weddings.
4. Klezmer Set. This is a set of three styles of klezmer music that you might hear performed at a traditional Yiddish wedding. Slow, medium and fast. It starts out with a “doina” or a lament – very free in tempo and highly ornamented over an undulating slow moving harmony. It goes directly into a hora – a Rumanian hora in three (as opposed to Israeli horas which are in a fast two). Finally, it concludes with a bulgar or freiluch, which is a fast dance tune in two step. I would keel over for exhaustion at the end if I didn’t have Shirley trading off verses with me on the accordion!
5. Mommas. This is our theme song. At the same time that I registered the name “Yiddish Cowboys” on the web, I got the idea of doing a Yiddish version of the old country music hit “Mommas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” written by the Bruces, and made famous by a Wayon Jennings/Willie Nelson rendition. Our version is “Mommas, Don’t Let Your Sons Become Yiddish Cowboys” which is always the last tune we end with at every performance, and sung by Yours Truly. There ain’t no gefilte fish swimming in the Rio Grande!
I hope that you enjoy the music as much as we do, and stop by The Kosher Store to hear us, sometime! Our schedule is on the Yiddish Cowboys website!