It’s a Saturday night at Atlanta’s The Loft in Midtown, and the klezmer fusion band Red Hot Chachkas is playing loud and fast, closing the city’s third annual Jewish Music Festival.
Bronx native Richard Parker, 64, says the venue, with its exposed ceiling, cement floor and dark, unadorned walls, reminds him of Manhattan’s East Village in the 1960’s. But most of this crowd wasn’t born then, and that’s just the point.
The music festival is just one of many Jewish cultural offerings that have emerged in Atlanta over the past few years, providing alternatives to religious congregational programs for the young and old....
The Bay Area group Red Hot Chachkas plays klezmer fusion music. "Chachkas" is a Yiddish word referring to knickknacks or trinkets. But klezmer actually has great significance.
The band's violinist, Julie Egger, who made her first journey to Eastern Europe last summer, says, "What it taught me was that klezmer music, more than anything, is going to get us to heal ourselves from the Holocaust. A lot of people think the Jewish faith is gone from there, why go back? But you've got to remember that there was a culture and a life before Hitler. And if we don't remember that, then Hitler won.
"Playing klezmer music, getting people to love it and feel connected to it, helps us to remember this amazing life that was before the Holocaust. It's important to remember that life, because, if you're Jewish, we're all from that life. And there's lots of joy in this music."
Red Hot Chachkas' repertoire includes original numbers, as well as traditional tunes. They're also adept at improvising.
"Our originals almost always have some sense of klezmer, whether it's the scale or the rhythm or other elements. But the music unfolds organically, as we work on it, to a place where it has all kinds of influences, from all over the world, depending on what we are excited about at that moment," Eggers says.
"Beats Without Borders," the group's most recent album, further expands the parameters. The band, which performs at Palo Alto's Oshman Family JCC on Sunday, has been honing its craft for the past 14 years.
Egger says, "When we first got together, I didn't know what I was doing, either as a bandleader or as a musician. So it's just developed over the years. The band members have changed. And the better and more creative we become as musicians, the more it evolves.
"In any field, the more you do it, the better you get. You know that 'Outliers' book? (By Malcolm Gladwell.) Ten thousand hours for success? I've never calculated it, but I'm sure we're close to that," she says, laughing.
The band has been landing bigger gigs, including the Ashkenaz Festival in Canada. In May, the band is to be part of a big festival in Atlanta.
The band also still plays in intimate settings, such as bar mitzvahs and weddings. "They're fun to do. And that's your income. Festivals and concerts are not. It's wonderful to play a concert where everyone's listening. But another aspect of being a musician is making a living. So you have to find the balance."
Egger was raised in New York. Her mother played piano and her sisters also played instruments. "I began playing violin at 7. I remember in third grade, they brought the orchestra out for an assembly, to see if we wanted to play music. In New York, back when I grew up, instrumental music was very, very strong, not like it is today, especially in California. We had five full-time music teachers in our high school. You don't see that anywhere anymore.
"I knew the moment I saw it -- the violin -- that I'd play it the rest of my life. There was no pondering or decision. I just knew this was my instrument. I guess I was born to play the violin. It's always been in my blood. Like I have brown eyes ... I'm a violin player."
She studied classical music. "That's not something I was drawn to, but, as a violin player, that's all that was taught. I liked playing classical, but being in an orchestra is always about competition, in the violin section, who sits where. In professional orchestras, the farther up you are, the better you get paid. I never liked that sense of competition. So I never was drawn to becoming a professional classical violin player. I never felt I was good enough for that.
"As a kid, I grew up in a socialist, Yiddishkeit household. We went to Yiddish school. We heard klezmer music, but it wasn't called 'klezmer' back then. It was just Jewish music. It didn't change its name until the 1970s. It was in the house, but I didn't think about playing it. My music was one thing and my Yiddish culture was a separate thing."
It wasn't until 1998, when Egger attended KlezKamp West in Petaluma, that the two came together for the first time for her.
"When I found klezmer, it was an epiphany for me. My heartfelt Judaism and my heartfelt music all of a sudden were married. It was like, 'Oh, my God, this is what I'm supposed to do!' This music touches my Jewish roots strongly."
It took her a while to adapt, in terms of technique. "Physically, you have to study and play until you become more authentic. Classical is more about being clear, correct and precise. Klezmer is freer. In an orchestra's violin section, everyone has to play every single note exactly the same. There's no individuality. In klezmer, that's not true."
While visiting Eastern Europe, Egger met Jewish classical musicians. They weren't familiar with the klezmer style. "These guys, who are really good classical players, actually asked me to give them a lesson. They said, 'Your music is a neshoma,' which is the soul. It's the soul of the Jewish people. And they were blown away by it. This music goes back to the 1400s."
You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy klezmer. "It's great music, full of life. Whether we play it as fusion or straight traditional, there's a lot of beauty to it.
"Music touches our bodies. It's not an intellectual thing," says Egger. "It's an intuitive, emotional thing. And that's all music, not just klezmer. So music is going to touch you differently, in places that you didn't realize where there. Different music touches you differently, depending on your connection to it."
Egger, 55, is married to Alan Weiler, who's in computer software, and resides in West Marin. Their daughters, Hannah and Sarah, are now in college, so Egger can pursue her music full time. She plays in groups and solo, jazz, classical and, of course, klezmer. She's part of The Convergents string trio, which plays entirely improvised music. Egger will perform in Europe this summer, prior to an East Coast tour.
Eggar teaches violin. "When you really play music, you're becoming the music. That's my goal for my more advanced students, to help them reach that, to teach them how to play music, not just notes. I'd rather hear someone play 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' amazingly beautifully than some concerto technically."
San Francisco Symphony's 2010 "Deck the Hall" shows
"You guys were fantastic! Perfect for the show!" ~ Randall Fleisher, Guest Conductor, San Francisco Symphony
Ashkenaz Festival, Toronto (Sept. 2010)
Our Canadian debut at the Ashkenaz Festival, North America's grandest Jewish music festival was on Sunday, September 5, 2010, on the Sirius Stage, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Canada. Klezmershack's Ari Davidow commented afterwards (referring to Michael Regenstreif's review):
"Mike notes the Ashkenaz Festival debut by the Red Hot Chachkas with admiration—and well he should. I was sitting with Philadelphia drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts while they were doing their set, and Elaine was pretty admiring, herself. I've reviewed previous CDs with great pleasure. Their newest, Beats without Borders, deserves everything nice that he says about it."
Jewish Music Festival (July 2010)
Keith Wolzinger's Klezmer Podcast #68
On this episode, I talk with Julie Egger, leader of the Red Hot Chachkas, based in the San Francisco area. The band has released a new album, Beats Without Borders. The band has been branching out from their local area, and has started touring. They will be appearing at this year's Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto. We hear the track "Dancin' On The Creekside." Run time: 29:32. Listen
San Francisco Symphony's 2008 "Deck the Hall" shows
We were thrilled to be featured artists in San Francisco Symphony's "Deck the Hall"
holiday concerts for children at Davies Symphony Hall
, on December 7 and 8, 2008. With
the orchestra playing new arrangements by Julian Smedley, we performed
Julie's two-part composition "Little Gouda," and "Hanukah O Hanukah."
We also joined the orchestra, singers from "Beach Blanket Babylon," and
folks in Santa and Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer outfits, for a medley
of holiday songs in the concert's grand finale. One show also featured
Michael's narration of the Story of Hanukah, with sound effects from
There were even some quick shots of the Red Hot
Chachkas of the ABC Local News on
KGO-TV's two-minute segment about Monday's S.F.Symphony concert for
. It was a privilege and thrill for us to perform at this show, as well
as at the two weekend concerts.
Since joining the Red Hot Chachkas five years ago, Berkeley clarinetist Barbara Speed bandies about Yiddish words with the ease of a Crown Heights resident. Of course, most of her vocabulary has to do with music.
Like "kreksin," which refers to the musical ornamentation she adds when playing her clarinet.
"It actually means a little chirp, wail or cry," she said. "Kreksin is an attempt to recreate the cantor chanting holy texts. Even though klezmer is for the most part secular music now, religious tones have been extracted. That ecstatic communing with God is made into music."
Klezmer (and Chachkas) fans will have a chance to party hearty on June 10 at Klezmer by the Bay, a three-hour cruise for Jews with kosher-style food, great views and, of course, live klezmer. The event is co-sponsored by the Peninsula Jewish Community Center and the JCC Jewish Cultural Collaboration.
Speed can't wait for the floating gig, though she hopes any rocking and rolling they do is limited strictly to the music. "I've played on one of those boats before," she says of the upcoming performance on the Royal Prince ferry. "People can lose their equilibrium. But when you play a woodwind, you continue to breathe deeply."
Once at sea (or is it at bay?), the Red Hot Chachkas will mix it up with a combination of originals and traditional Eastern European klezmer tunes. Such mixing is standard these days for bands like hers. The klezmer band Brave Old World calls it 'new Jewish music' instead of klezmer," she said.
Still, she adds, "Even the new material will be grounded in the spirited cadences of klezmer."
Although she's not Jewish, Speed locked on to klezmer's Yiddish vibes the moment she heard it. "Klezmer is a very free music, with a lot of improvisational aspects. Musicians are attracted to the kinds of scales it has: the harmonic minor scale or the 'freygish' scale."
Speed grew up in Washington Heights, as Jewish a neighborhood as one could find in uptown Manhattan ("Whenever there was a Jewish holiday, there was only three of us in the classroom," she said). She studied classical piano and flute, but took up jazz saxophone after moving to Berkeley in 1979.
Her participation in the Westwind International Folk Ensemble exposed her to klezmer, and she promptly fell in love. It was a musical shidduch made in heaven. "I see klezmer as very much like old-style Dixieland improvisation. Dixieland had group improvisation like baroque, where everyone had an equal part and every part was interesting."
The same is true for klezmer, which is why Speed is sticking with it for the long haul. How does it feel for a non-Jew to make traditional Jewish music her stock in trade?
"Pretty natural," she said. "I still don't know what's going on in the service, but having grown up as an ethical culturalist, I'm at home wherever. All religions are good, and people are what's important. Judaism is very people oriented, certainly around here."
Getting the Crowd Involved
Julie Egger of the Red Hot Chachkas, a Marin-based klezmer band, also knows how to surmise the situation and adjust tactics accordingly. Sometimes she throws herself into the middle of things to get the party rolling. “Dancing works to get people involved,” she says. “We lead and teach Yiddish dancing, and bring out the limbo pole and chairs and have Yiddish music.” For the more reticent participants, many of whom, Egger says, tend to be teenaged males, “I can dance with a water bottle on my head all the way to the floor, then I’ll pass the bottle and for the boys it’s a macho thing, ‘Oh, I can do that.’” There’s also the “sher,” — Yiddish line dancing, Yiddish hokey pokey and other group dances such as “threading the needle” and “weaving” round the chair. ... “Klezmer music is contagious,” says Egger, who plays violin and teaches music. “We help bring Judaism to a bar or bat mitzvah and make the whole party Jewish, an extension of the service. We don’t want to offer a teenage disco party.” ... Added Egger, “the party is for everyone, not just the kids, to feel good.”
~ Steven Friedman, Correspondent, j. (the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California) (March 16, 2007)
"Besides the musicianship chops, I like the way every player is given a real shot at showing what they can do - and they CAN. Sometimes all the attention is given to the singer or maybe the musicians get a few bars, just enough that you wish you could hear more, but you can't. I imagine it would probably encourage the stability of the group and keep it stimulated." ~ ML
Red Hot Chachkas had everyone dancing, from the very young to the older
members of the audience, all were up and kicking up the rug." ~ Suzanne S. (Jewish Congregation of San Geronimo Valley)
your CD and love it! Klezmer is not part of my cultural heritage, but
your music resonates so deeply in me that it feels like it's touching
something very elemental. As a sometimes violinist, I'm particularly
inspired by the violin parts. Thank you all for this music!" ~ Stephanie L.
"The dance teaching is a valuable contribution and a unique offering of this band." ~ Stuart Brotman (Brave Old World & Veretski Pass)
"The DJ played 'Avinu Malkenu' from your Family Album CD and it was a hauntingly beautiful waltz tune for our dance. Your music is the first klezmer music that has inspired me to actually purchase the albums because I want to hear more. Your creative talent is just amazing and I thank God for your musical gift, and I thank you for sharing it with the rest of the world!" ~ Steve A. (Seattle, WA)
"Listening to Red Hot Chachkas -- great work music, if you like the gypsy/klezmer thing. I do. Nice to imagine dancing in the primeval woods outside the shtetl, while I'm coding financial reports. Now if someone would just invent the fully wearable computer, I could actually do both."
j. Reader's Choice Awards -- Best Band for Five Years Running!
Best Klezmer Band, North Bay, First Place (2010)
The Red Hot Chachkas’ joyful and frenzied tunes have struck a chord with j. readers, earning the group a No. 1 spot. “You can’t listen to klezmer music and not want to dance,” says manager and violinist Julie Egger. The group performs at parties and lifecycle events, as well as at concerts near and far.
Best Dance Band, North Bay, First Place (2010)
The soulful tunes of the North Bay’s Red Hot Chachkas have been known to inspire feet to tap and bodies to sway. “When we play, people are having a good time and they’re joyous,” says manager and violinist Julie Egger. In 13 years, the six-person group has entertained crowds with klezmer tunes infused with jazz, rock and Latin flavors, recorded three CDs and managed to snag a Readers’ Choice award six years in a row. Whew!
j. (the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California) (August 19, 2010)
Best Klezmer Band, Bay Area, First Place (2009)
Bay Area klezmer band the Red Hot Chachkas almost went by another
name. “It was either that or the Seventh Inning Kvetch,” says Julie
Egger of the Chachkas, “but that didn’t work out right.”
The Red Hot Chachkas have been playing klezmer for the Bay and far
beyond for the past dozen years. They whip their audiences into a
joyous frenzy with thumping grooves. “The stunts that people try to
klezmer music are pretty wild,” Egger says. “At Chabad weddings the men
do juggling, fire eating, all types of wild stuff.”
Musically, the Red Hot Chachkas can play all the traditional klezmer
classics, along with a number of original songs that can be considered
“klezmer fusion.” “It’s wild, it’s creative, it’s energetic — it makes
you move,” Egger says.
j. (the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California) (August 19, 2009)
Best Klezmer Band, San Fancisco and North Bay, First Place (2008)
In a nice score, the Red Hot Chachkas won in the Bay Area-wide categories of Favorite Klezmer Band and Favorite Dance Band. Mazel tov to Julie Egger and her band mates.
klezmer sounds of the Red Hot Chachkas have made them a reader favorite
for years, and it's no surprise that they won over fans in San
Francisco and North Bay. The band has been together for 11 years, and
its longevity truly makes the Chachkas special. Says Julie Egger of the
Red Hot Chachkas: "Whenever we play together we have a really good
j. (the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California) (August 14, 2008)
Best Klezmer Band, First Place (2007)
When Julie Egger (violin), Michael Arrow (drums), Tony Phillips (mandolin), Barbara Speed (clarinet), Breck Diebel (bass) and Rob Reich (accordion) get together, a “red hot” time is sure to be had by all.
Since getting started in 1999, the Red Hot Chachkas have entertained crowds with their eclectic style that is influenced by reggae, bluegrass, classical and jazz. Their new CD, coming out in the fall, is a collection of mostly original songs. If you’re not up for the new tunes, the Chachkas are always happy to play “straight klezmer,” Egger says.
Best Dance Band, First Place (2007)
a party without a ton of people rocking out to vibrant tunes? The Red
Hot Chachkas, j. readers’ favorite local dance band, isn’t satisfied
until nearly every guest at a party is moving to the music.
we get about 90 percent of the people out dancing,” said violinist
Julie Egger. How? By guilt-tripping the guests, of course. “I’m not
going to start [the music] until everyone is up,” she tells them.
Hot parties are filled with the band’s signature array of eclectic
music and dances, including polkas, waltzes, swing and salsa. They
almost have every genre covered — though “I don’t think we’ve ever done
hip-hop and rap,” Egger said with a laugh. “And we’ve never done the
j. (the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California) (August 10, 2007)
Best Klezmer Band, First Place (2006)
too many band managers can report that their congregation helped them
come up with their name. But with a group like the Red Hot Chachkas,
picked as the best klezmer band in the Bay Area, it’s no surprise that
manager Julie Egger concocted the title on a synagogue camping trip.
had ‘red hot,’ and we were sitting around thinking of all these other
words when we landed on ‘chachkas,’” Egger says. “I came up with a
different angle to spell it – most Americans probably can’t pronounce
j. (the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California) (August 4, 2006)
Klezmer Revival Feature on KQED-TV Spark*
What's going on in the Bay Area klezmer music scene and how it was revived. KQED-TV Spark* segment, featuring Prof. Martin Schwartz, KlezCalifornia and the Red Hot Chachkas. Originally broadcast on June 27, 2007.
Klezmer Podcast 26
Klezmer Podcast (27 min.) featuring Julie Egger, leader of Red Hot Chachkas. Julie discusses forming the band; her musical background; many original songs on the album "Spice It Up!;" her association with KlezCalifornia as Co-Founder and President. We hear "Little Gouda" from the album. Originally broadcast on December 12, 2007.
KPFA-FM Radio Show
Listen to Audio with Julie speaking, and Barb and Tony playing live, on "Music of the World with Stephen Kent," KPFA-FM. Originally broadcast on January 3, 2007.
Bread and Roses pro bono performances
"In their second performance for Bread and Roses, the Red Hot Chachkas introduced clients at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital to Klezmer music, laugher, and toe tapping. Julie, playing fiddle, spoke to the audience about the Jewish heritage and a brief background on Klezmer music. “It’s for celebrations and parties and always, dancing.” When an audience member asked if anyone played he piano, Julie said “Well, you see in the olden days all Klezmer musicians had to carry their musical instruments with them wherever they played.” She pointed to the large black piano that had been rolled to the side so the 4 musicians could play and she quipped, “That would have been really heavy to carry far!”
"The Red Hot Chachkas showed their musical diversity in playing songs from Romania, Turkey, and intermixing original pieces by the mandolin player. The Jewish Square Dance song had the audience members clapping and tapping their feet. Each musician took a solo turn, with the clarinet player “flirting” to the violin music, the bass player moving his fingers up the long neck with background notes, while the mandolin player quickly plucked his strings.
"Julie introduced the band members and asked each to share their musical background. She spoke about bring trained in classical music in a strong Jewish New York home. Barb, who plays clarinet, flute and saxophone, started out in jazz. Tony, the mandolin player, raised his hand for a bluegrass beginning. The bass player Breck smiled and laughed and said 'I come from 70s disco!'"
"The Chachkas demonstrated that they are a top-notch musical aggregation, with just the right kind of spirit for their first B&R show. Even before the show, Julie, the bandleader and violinist, went around the room greeting people as they arrived. The people gathered seemed intrigued by the combination of instruments: the violin, plus clarinet (Barbara), drums (Michael), mandolin (Tony), and standup bass (Breck). With these instruments, they created a glorious mix of sounds, with origins in Eastern European and Klezmer music. Sultry rhythms and melodies that make you move in your chair. In fact, during one song, Julie went dancing through the crowd, inviting others to join in the fun. Also, Julie and the others take the time to talk a little about the music, giving the background and stories about the songs, which makes them even more enjoyable."
~ Kurt Huget, Producer, Bread & Roses (August 2008)
Bay Cruise (June 2007)
Special Dinner-Dance-Cruise on the San Francisco Bay, sponsored by the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, see Cruising with the Jews, klezmer style, by Dan Pine, Staff Writer, J. - the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California (June 1, 2007):