From the ashes of a local tragedy, Dr Richard Fay helped to establish the Michael Kahan Kapelye (MKK) as the only assessed klezmer ensemble in the UK university sector, soon to welcome its ninth cohort of students from the music department at the University of Manchester.
Richard attests to being a passionate aficionado of klezmer since the early 1980s and has been actively performing it for the past decade: “I first came across klezmer when I happened across an old archive recording – and I don’t know what it was, but something called me in a way that no other music has ever done.”
The ensemble came to fruition as the result of an invitation made to Richard during his time studying a Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology. Facilitated by Caroline Bithell, professor of Ethnomusicology, the University of Manchester offered Richard the chance to contribute to its world music programme: “I had just met local klezmer clarinetist, Ros Hawley, and we dreamt up the idea of the ensemble, with Ros leading on performance and me leading on the academic and organisational side.”
Ros Hawley had played in the duet, Klezmer Gourmet with local violinist Michael Kahan after having studied together at the Royal Northern College of Music. In June 2008, Michael, on his way to buy bagels, was attacked outside the State Fayre kosher bakery in Crumpsall by Jonathan Mills. The father-of-three was fatally stabbed while his 13 year-old son waited for him nearby with a box of chocolates for his upcoming 40th birthday. The pair had been due to play at a concert in Manchester that weekend as part of an event raising awareness about refugees.
Reports claimed Mills – a paranoid schizophrenic discharged 10 days earlier from a psychiatric ward at North Manchester General Hospital – told police he carried out the unprovoked attack because, he said, he “needed to kill a Jewish person” – however Richard maintains: “It was a random act of street violence, which was, I should emphasise not antisemetic in nature.”
Along with Richard, Ros planned to continue to perform klezmer music in Michael’s memory: “It seemed appropriate to honour his musical contribution to klezmer in Manchester by naming the ensemble after him.” Both Michael and Ros provided role-models for their students as classically-trained musicians who embraced klezmer late in their musical studies: “Our students are largely classically-trained and we hope that some of them will also embrace klezmer after their time with the ensemble.”
Earlier this year, Ros decided to step down from her role as performance lead, which was assumed by Dan Mawson, an alumnus of the ensemble and clarinettist for local klezmer band L’chaim Kapelye. Each year the MKK welcomes approximately 10 to 12 new student members, primarily second or third year undergraduates. Few, if any, are of Jewish heritage or have prior experience of klezmer music: “This experience not only introduces them to a new genre but the Jewish world, as represented in Manchester as well as through klezmer – a world which is largely unfamiliar to them, but provides them with both inter-musical and intercultural growth opportunities. It also offers the chance for the Jewish communities who become involved with the ensemble to connect with these young people, which I believe is an important intercultural endeavour.”
The students play a variety of instruments – some typically suited to klezmer, such as the clarinet and others, such as the Celtic harp, less so – but Richard doesn’t see this as a barrier to entry: “We work with members regardless of what the instrument they play. We even make a feature of the usual instrumentation – for example, one year we featured a piccolo trio.”
The programme culminates with an assessed lunchtime performance every spring. This year the recital takes place on 4th April at 1.10pm in the Martin Harris Centre at the University of Manchester as a free concert open to all.
In its first year, the ensemble was offered on a voluntary extra-curricular basis, but such was the student interest, it quickly became part of the ensemble performance provision and is now at the heart of a new specialist module: “The real development story is how MKK moved from being an add-on to becoming a core part of the world music ensemble provision and an important ambassador for the department both within the university and beyond.”
As well as performing for assessment and for special occasions as part of the university, such as the launch of its £3.3 million Creative Manchester project, Richard has helped to bring klezmer from the walls of the redbrick institution, out into the community. Over the years the ensemble has performed at reminiscence sessions in local Jewish care home, Heathlands Village, for events at the Manchester Jewish Museum (MJM) and as part of the programme for the Muslim Jewish Forum.
“The MJM has been a big supporter of our activities. Back in December, the new cohort performed in its Chanukah concert, an evening involving four ensembles including former students and musicians from the wider community. Last year, our ‘Amid the Mirk Over the Irk: when Irish meets klezmer’ show involved former students collaborating with local Irish traditional musicians.”
Richard has recently embarked on developing a research agenda alongside the university, with a focus on intercultural awareness: “We are especially interested in how the ensemble enables both students and audiences to come to know each other through the music in ways unlikely otherwise…for instance, how many Manchester students would visit a Manchester shul during their studies? We’re also looking to explore musical development through klezmer in an effort to understand how students’ sense of what music is and how they play it can be broadened through the genre.”
Upon leaving the ensemble to make way for a fresh generation of budding musicians, many ensemble members will continue their klezmer journey in the local community and beyond: “Some go onto post-graduate studies, others become practising musicians, and many have worked with leading musical institutions including the Liverpool Philharmonic and the Hallé. All of them have hopefully taken an element of klezmer with them, which in various ways still colours elements of their performance.”
Richard runs a Facebook group for those remaining in or near Manchester who want to maintain some klezmer dimension to their musical life. A mixture of current and former students have joined forces with locally-based musicians to create The Hard Times Kapelye, a band for which Richard plays horn: “We’ve performed in events for local shuls, the Association of Jewish Refugees, the British-Jewish educational charity Limmud and for Holocaust Memorial Day in local primary and secondary schools.”
The MKK also plays a major role in the monthly ‘klezmer jam’ session at The Old Abbey Taphouse nearby to the university, where students past and present take over a corner of the pub to do what they do best: play klezmer music and drink beer.
Visit the ‘Klezmorim of Manchester’ Facebook page for upcoming pub sessions and look out for more Hallé Klezmer Dances at Bridgwater Hall later this year.