Seeking My Sonic Soul in the Land of Pre-Sliced Challah
Eve Sicular & family in Grandma Adele's dining room. NYC, mid/late-1960s.

Seeking My Sonic Soul in the Land of Pre-Sliced Challah

Although raised in a musically-oriented New York City family, I only heard most of the genres that are now key inspirations for me during my New England college years and in the decade after (much of which I spent in the progressive Pacific Northwest). My own primary performance genre for over a quarter century now has been klezmer music, the Eastern European-based musical amalgam created over several centuries by and for Yiddish-speaking Jews, a “fusion” genre encompassing repertoire from many trade routes as well as diasporic journeys. I grew up in an assimilated Ashkenazic Jewish household, first living in Manhattan and then moving to suburban Westchester, where I learned prayer melodies by rote to become bat mitzvah, but felt like we were in the land of pre-sliced challah. My family, like many American Jews of that era, were tacitly discouraged from affinity with what seemed like the creaky embarrassment of Yiddish culture. In fact, I was amazed that a high school classmate of mine could understand the punchline in mameloshn [mother tongue] during an unexpected low-budget TV commercial for kosher ice cream. (The Buddy Hackett clip has still never surfaced on YouTube.). My mother’s family were proper Viennese-centric Czech Jewish refugees who made it out of Europe in the very late 1930s. Of course a few Yiddish words were in their colloquial vocabulary, but the Ostjuden [Yiddish-speaking Jews who emigrated from the eastern regions of the former Habsburg Empire when Austro-Hungary was collapsing] were a source of mortification for their established “refined” Central European Jewish circles. When my Mom heard Yiddish on New York radio as a pre-teen in the ‘40s, she first wondered if it was a dialect of Swiss German. And yes, there used to be lots of Yiddish on the radio, too; more about that in a bit.

My father’s mother came from Odessa. Grandma certainly knew Yiddish and Russian, though I only ever heard her speak New York-accented English; she went to Barnard on scholarship, and became a regular attendee at Carnegie Hall, as well as (once it was built) Lincoln Center. Like Grandma and her Aunt Bella, my father—importing the Odessan Jewish classical music line— played excellent piano. This was one of the attributes which charmed my mother’s already-married sister, who thus introduced him to my mother. Dad also had a wonderful baritone, and loved choral singing. In my childhood, we often heard him perform the dozen or more lush keyboard pieces he knew from memory (mainly Chopin, Brahms, and Bach), and I later learned that he occasionally surprised my parents’ friends by sight-reading just about anything at a party. I was always impressed that my Dad could name the composer of virtually every piece aired by WQXR, the classical music on what was then known as “the radio station of The New York Times.” (These were the only broadcasts I ever remember hearing in the living room, kitchen, or my parents’ cars.)

My first experiences of David Bowie were by accident, first randomly on Saturday Night Live and then when I tried to buy a copy of the funkified theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and brought home Space Oddity by mistake.

Before my brothers and I could buy any of our own records, there were some non-classical albums at home such as classic Broadway cast recordings (a couple of which I later drew upon: Frank Loesser as well as Lionel Bart—a.k.a. Begleiter—both consciously wrote genre-rooted pieces, including some with brilliant Yiddish subtexts), as well as Meet The Beatles, Mr. Ed’s musical educational LP, and an American Revolution-inspired souvenir disc from the 1964 World’s Fair which I was still too young to attend. Later additions came from Broadway hits we saw as a family: A Chorus Line, Pippin, and (Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin follow-up) The Magic Show. Meanwhile my pop horizons broadened when my oldest brother showed me how to find WABC on the AM dial, so I could send him postcards of their Top Ten countdown when he was away at camp. Fortunately Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” had a hit that summer, along with Aretha, Stevie Wonder, early Jackson 5, The Temptations, and lots more Motown (which I loved), as well as Mungo Jerry and much else. But #1 was Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”—from the soundtrack to the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—which I didn’t much care for then, although there was a minor-key instrumental piece on that same film soundtrack that intrigued me. A bit later, via the clock-radio I received in junior high school (a popular bat mitzvah gift item), I was able to explore more on the FM dial, finding Alison Steele “The Night Bird” on WNEW; her Chopin signature theme made me feel a special connection. One adventurous boy had given me the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire and a Who album for my bat mitzvah, and I went to a few prog-rock stadium concerts with kids in my class. I felt more confusion than spark from most rock and jazz I heard at this point, though. Two inspiring exceptions were Frank Zappa and Peter Tosh, both of whom I saw at Madison Square Garden; the latter came about because I had read about reggae in New York Magazine before ever hearing any. And my first experiences of David Bowie were by accident, first randomly on Saturday Night Live and then when I tried to buy a copy of the funkified theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and brought home Space Oddity by mistake.

Eve Sicular playing drums with David Licht. (Photo by Albert J. Winn)

Eve Sicular playing drums with David Licht. (Photo by Albert J. Winn)

I have played drums since the age of eight, starting in summer day camp, and then I bargained with my parents promising to practice piano if I could also take drum lessons. So I had one year with a great drum teacher at Mannes back on E. 74th Street, and an orange sparkle Japanese snare with practice pad at home. The teacher even wrote out a Motown beat for me, and was impressed that I took to it right away. After every lesson I had a quarter for a slice of pizza around the corner on Lexington, which was great, but my Dad had also enrolled me for music theory, which was way over my head at that age. (Decades later it did help me understood that steel drums are set up according to the circle of fifths.)

An intimidating boy in the larger drum section would tease me and hide my sticks before my solos, and the band teacher was completely unresponsive; so I quit rather than dealing with more harassment.

We emigrated out of NYC the following year, when I was entering fifth grade; I got to keep the orange snare but never had a good steady private teacher again. The only piece I remember on snare from suburban elementary school band was a tango; I loved to play the dramatic rolling accent for that suspenseful minor melody. But by junior high an intimidating boy in the larger drum section would tease me and hide my sticks before my solos, and the band teacher was completely unresponsive; so I quit rather than dealing with more harassment, though I always kept playing on my own. I auditioned for county arts camp, and minored in music a couple of summers, also taking painting and theater. I had very few chances to perform or jam with other players from then until college, but kept practicing on the clear Lucite kit which had been my main bat mitzvah present for which I had lobbied an entire year, with such tactics as making collages from the Ludwig catalog. My Dad surprised me by buying the exact unit at Manny’s on West 48th Street and bringing the drums and cymbals right up to my room. That show of faith in my musicality kept me going through isolating adolescent years as a teenage girl drummer with no ensemble. And I would watch the percussionists everywhere I could, trying to decipher what all was going on, even occasionally finding my passions.

Looking back, I realize that syncopated beats and acoustic folk instrumentation—especially (as I now understand) in modal scales, or at least minor keys—were always most appealing to my ear. But I wasn’t much interested in folk guitar, nor the Israeli folk dance records they played in Hebrew school, nor even the endless bouzouki Muzak loops at the Greek-owned shop where I dished out frozen yogurt and spinach pie my last year of high school. My suburban piano lessons were mainly on pieces for which I felt nothing, except for one wonderful Bartók study which I still know by heart. Other sounds that drew me in popped up in seemingly random novelty tracks on the radio, bittersweet old movies on TV, and the ritual chants from our cantor’s 45rpm record which we memorized to sing before and after prayers from the Torah. I also ordered a four-record “only available on TV” set of ‘50s rock & roll hits such as “Chantilly Lace,” the harmonies and the swinging beats were irresistible. Ragtime came back in via the soundtrack of The Sting and one of my favorite daytime summer concerts at Wollman Rink for $5 (besides a very young Blondie) was a wonderful Rag ‘n Roll Revue by Cathy Chamberlain, whose wild gravelly voice blended Janis Joplin and Ethel Merman on retro Americana and blues, including classics such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” well as manic originals—all with the same great old-time instrumentation and even an African-American octogenarian sideman who sang “Rocking Chair.” I’m sure I also heard salsa and boogaloo during those years, though I’m not sure how; maybe just driving through Spanish Harlem to and from the suburbs. “Oye Como Va,” “Watermelon Man,” and “I Like it Like That” certainly made it into my memory banks, maybe via the crossover airwaves.

Sounds that drew me in popped up in seemingly random novelty tracks on the radio, bittersweet old movies on TV, and the ritual chants from our cantor’s 45rpm record which we memorized to sing before and after prayers from the Torah.

My freshman year at Harvard, I was lucky enough to room with a future music/botany double major who played Chopin in the dorm piano practice rooms, and who had been steeped also in jazz growing up. She brought me along to hear the Bill Evans Trio (free at Memorial Hall, where she advised me to attend my first Indian raga concert as well later that year; later in college, we drove together to an all-night gamelan concert with people she knew at Wesleyan, another landmark in my musical awareness). She eventually moved off-campus, but through her friends I started playing jazz and Latin standards in a trio, getting gigs at mixers—or “social interaction seminars” as they were called for budget lines and laughs—and also heard brilliant jazz pianist/composers Carla Bley and Joanne Brackeen at clubs in Harvard Square. I also sought out the B-52’s and Patti LaBelle when I heard they were nearby on tour. These experiences apparently contrasted with most goings-on in the Harvard Music Department, where the unofficial motto was said (only half-jokingly) to be “music should be seen and not heard.”

Fortunately the only class I took there was Development of the String Quartet, a core curriculum music appreciation course led by the brilliant, vivacious Luise Vosgerchian, a beloved pianist who had studied (like Burt Bacharach, as it turned out) with Nadia Boulanger.  “Miss V” had come to teach lucky students after her own years of concertizing under the batons of such conductors as Koussevitsky and collaborating with top composers of her generation. She conveyed all the needed academic concepts, but never let an analytical approach get in the way of noticing and appreciating the heart and spirit of a piece, and she brought in string players as often as possible for live demonstrations of the compositions in action. Yo-Yo Ma said of her that “she was one of the most important influences in my life.” In the love of music she conveyed to performers and non-performers alike, Miss V “convinced them to trust equally their ear, intuition, and intellect.”

Luise Vosgerchian

Luise Vosgerchian

My extra-curricular music education, in addition to the Adams House trio, included playing drums for at least one on-campus musical each semester; I best remember a Cole Porter revue which introduced me to “Love for Sale” among other such quality repertoire. And at home, my next roommate, back from a year off in London, was introducing all her friends to Kate Bush, and meanwhile somehow I had found my own way to the intoxicating band led by Nigerian guitarist/roots innovator King Sunny Ade. My senior year I finally had time to take a full-year course in film animation, where I mainly worked with music and visuals. I also took a science course on sound and hearing with the bassist from our trio, a deeply gifted and darkly dreamy Grateful Dead-head named Michael Land (who has gone on to amass a fortune in the gaming audio world).

One night Mike came back from a show at Ryle’s (where I had just gone for my first time, seeing Alive!, the groundbreaking women’s jazz ensemble, on tour from San Francisco). Mike told me about an amazing group he’d seen, playing a style of music he’d never heard of before, that he was sure I’d love. They had one more show there the following night, and I took Mike’s advice. Like me, Mike was from an assimilated Jewish family, and old-time Yiddish music was also a complete revelation to him. That group, The Klezmer Conservatory Band—at the time featuring Don Byron on clarinet, with Frank London and Ingrid Monson on trumpet—is still led today by its founder Hankus Netsky of the New England Conservatory; and Ryle’s is still there in Somerville. I bought the band’s first album that evening, and it changed my life.

Each place I lived was a group shared house with wonderful pooled music collections, and sometimes even a piano with great sheet music handy.

The chance to actually perform in a klezmer band took several years to materialize, and forming my own groups came later still. All along, I was driven to pursue virtually every chance I had to play music which appealed to me, and which would pay any decent amount to perform. After graduation I moved to Portland, Oregon to complete my final animated musical film project and check out the live music scene. Each place I lived was a group shared house with wonderful pooled music collections, and sometimes even a piano with great sheet music handy. Vinyl from housemates gave me my first exposure to Patsy Cline (whose just-released bio-pic starred Jessica Lange) and The McGarrigle Sisters (whom I later learned drew part of their extraordinary harmonic constellation from Stephen Foster). My first chances to play Satie’s Gymnopedies were at an ancient upright in the parlor of our run-down, affordable rental beauty of a 1910 Arts and Crafts five-bedroom.

Every band I played with opened me to wonderful artists, from original composers and lyricists, to harmonica blues and soul cover bands where I first heard both Nina Simone and Chaka Khan. A downstairs neighbor of mine, realizing I was a drummer, even announced that I must come with her to a nearby bar with its modest stage where that very night a legendary blueswoman would be singing and performing on drum kit, too. It turned out to be one of the last shows ever played by Big Mama Thornton, who though by this time a much smaller woman still kept all of her raw energy once the tunes got going.

Portland was full of fantastic musical scenes and underemployed artists at this time. Mary Catherine Lamb, the neighbor downstairs who brought me to see Big Mama Thornton, hosted her own show on KBOO, the local alternative independent radio station. She was a hilarious woman and a feminist librarian, reading powerful poetry and prose on the air, and hosting legendary poker games in a house full of whimsical collectibles. Friends in her circle helped organize the first-ever world music festivals in Portland, which fortunately for me took place two of the three years I lived there. Among the dozens of artists I enjoyed, Queen Ida and her Bon Temps Zydeco Band stand out, both because she made me fall even more deeply in love with the accordion and because she was a woman leading her music project who had come back to the music profession later in life. Between those wonderful outdoor summer weekend performances and the larger annual Vancouver Folk Festival, I made pilgrimages that educated me in music and related dance and trance traditions from Hawaiian hula to Malian kora to some of the finest blues and bluegrass I have ever heard.

The Northwest already had a thriving, well-informed and women-led Balkan music and dance scene years prior to the US release of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. I also learned a little more of the business side of music touring working with the Women’s Music Network production company, a community-based project that was part of a loosely-organized nationwide alliance. One of my favorite jobs was picking up artists at the airport and enjoying the vibe of bringing them to a soundcheck or anywhere else they needed to be. And the concerts were very special events, usually quite well-attended. In those pre-internet times, we had independent bookstores and thriving alternative newsweeklies, plus bulletin boards at food coops—well, there are still a few of those even these days. Then, as now, I also played in every political protest demo, gay pride march, and suitably inclined parade that would welcome my snare drum skills.

And that independent radio station in Portland? KBOO is still there too. As I discovered early on, its eclectic volunteer program schedule even included, every Sunday morning: The Yiddish Hour. And after all these years, though the original couple who kept it going have retired, the show has gone on. Though in the last few years it’s morphed into the Portland Jewish Hour, it still includes Yiddish and klezmer as major genres in its expanded description. I am glad to know the 10AM-11AM hour is a home base for fans of Jewish music in northwestern Oregon. Though it’s a long way from what used to be heard during New York’s Yiddish hours on WEVD [call letters representing the legacy of labor activist Eugene Victor Debs] “the station that speaks your language,” KBOO continues a legacy with an approach now both more diverse and more diffuse.

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One thought on “Seeking My Sonic Soul in the Land of Pre-Sliced Challah

  1. Bridget Devine

    Eve, I have learned so many interesting things about you that after 30+ years of friendship I was still ignorant of. Thanks for sharing!

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