CMU Klezmer Band plays old world music for new world audiences

CMU Klezmer Band plays old world music for new world audiences

CMU Klezmer Band at a recent performance for the Holocaust Survivors Association.
CMU Klezmer Band at a recent performance for the Holocaust Survivors Association.

The band kicked off its rendition of “Oy Tate,” a quick-tempo melody, just old world just oozing from its clarinets, saxophones, cello and piano.

But this was no shtetl, rather a 2011 session at the Carnegie Mellon University recording studio, and the players weren’t East European troubadours, but students of CMU who squeeze their music into their busy academic schedules.

Together, they’re called the Carnegie Mellon University Klezmer Band, a mix of students and graduates of the Oakland-based university that play Jewish soul music at an assortment of venues in and around town.

One of their most recent gigs came over Chanuka when the band performed for a gathering of the Holocaust Survivors Association, but they have also played at Chabad and Hillel Jewish University Center functions and Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity.

Some band members have hit the road in the past to the 2011 KlezKanada at Camp B’nai Brith, Lantier, Quebec. But their performances are generally at home.

The CMU Klezmer Band got its start in 2008 when a group who shares a love for the traditional Ashkenazi sound came together to play it.

“When I came to Carnegie Mellon in 2008 there was a group of guys that I found who were all interested in playing klezmer and putting together a band,” said David Zaidins, saxophonist and a recent CMU graduate. “We just started playing together. We wound up going to Hillel and becoming one of Hillel’s umbrella groups.”

Hillel JUC saw the band as an extension of the organization, said its president and CEO, Aaron Weil.

“The Klezmer Band really exemplifies what the Hillel is all about,” said Weil, who noted Hillel financed the band members’ trip to KanadaKlez. “When we invest in the Jewish future of the youth in our community, we are not only investing in our future as well, but also reaping the benefits. In this case, it is the mellifluous sound of Klezmer, which not only reminds us of our Jewish past, but in the hands of these talented young adults, ensures that it will be part of our Pittsburgh future as long as there is a Hillel JUC to be there for those transitions.”

In fact, the band is constantly in a state of transition.

“Currently we have eight people in the ensemble,” Zaidins said, “about half the group is freshmen, which is really good.”

He means it. Like a college football team, the band is constantly losing members to graduation, which means it has to constantly recruit new talent to keep going.

“Every year it’s difficult. People graduate and move out of Pittsburgh. It’s as if we’re starting from the beginning,” said Zaidins, originally of Westchester County, N.Y., who remained in Pittsburgh after graduation. “We recruit every year. Hillel is helpful with that as they meet new [musically talented] students; they send people our way.”

Though mostly Jewish, the band has had a few non-Jewish members. Its venues how ever are mostly Jewish ones.

There have been exceptions, though, like a 2011 open mic night at CMU’s Skibo Cafe.

“Generally, we were well received,” Zaidins recalled. “People are always interested in hearing music that they’re not familiar with.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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