For Richmond klezmer outfit, Heavy Shtetl, the holidays are time to dance.
Apart from “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hava Nagila,” klezmer music isn’t necessarily on every music lover’s radar.
Richmond band, Heavy Shtetl, is made up of five musicians who enjoy celebratory klezmer music so much that they can’t help but share it with others. The group features Malik Riley on clarinet, the instrument most associated with this musical genre, Marcy Horowitz on piano and accordion, Bruce Gould on drums and percussion, Elliott Barnett on bass, and Jessica Sims on vocals.
Together, the group is on a mission is to bring this joyful music to more people — and to have a good time while doing it.
“We all like each other as musicians and there are no big egos,” Gould says. “We love playing the music and playing with each other. It’s as simple as that.”
First, some terminology: A shtetl was a small Jewish village in eastern Europe. Sixteenth century Yiddish folk musicians once roamed from shtetl to shtetl entertaining at weddings, bar mitzvahs and Shabbat celebrations.
Locally, Congregation Or Ami off Huguenot Road has featured a large klezmer band for close to 30 years, but a smaller group was formed in 2016 as a way to play out more frequently and, as Gould puts it, “be more nimble.”
The band’s original bassist, Peter Sims, once played with local metal band Battlemaster. He was the one who suggested the name for the klezmer offshoot: Heavy Shtetl.
The band members range from millennials to baby boomers but consider themselves a family in many ways. “We all come from different walks of life, but we enjoy playing together so much that even rehearsals are fun,” says Sims. “They’re all such skilled musicians.”
The band’s set list includes Jewish-related music from European shtetls to the tenements of New York City, the jazz influenced golden age of klezmer, and the modern torchbearers. The lyrics are sung in Yiddish, English, Hebrew and Ladino, the latter a Judaeo-Spanish language.
For vocalist Sims, who is not Jewish and whose only other language was the German she took middle school and high school, there was a learning curve. “I love having the opportunity to sing in different languages,” she says. “I needed help with Yiddish, so I work with other band members on pronunciation and listen to YouTube versions of songs to get inflections right since I sing phonetically.”
Because this music can adapt itself to venues, Heavy Shtetl has played a variety of them, from the Camel to local farmers’ markets, coffee shops, and libraries. The latter tends to be more of a listening room environment, although chair dancing is not uncommon.
Right now, during the holidays, is usually the band’s busiest time of year. Having just played the Valentine Museum last weekend, the group is playing a Norfolk event on Dec. 20 called “Drinks and Dreidels.” They always add a few Hannukah songs to their set list this time of year.
“The Camel is awesome because there’s an actual dance floor and this is dancing music, so people get into it,” Sims explains. “During the pandemic, we played front porch concerts and with everyone feeling that loss of being together, they were really special to us.”
Like their 16th century ancestors, the band is known for playing weddings. “This music is Jewish wedding music, happy songs that get groups dancing, circle dancing the Hora,” Gould says. “It’s lively, fun music and we want people to appreciate it.”
Besides being culturally rich, klezmer music is about topics both timely and timeless. There are songs of love and celebration, but also songs of workers’ rights and sorrow. “That musical content resonates with people in any decade because they’re songs of togetherness, of community,” Sims says. “They’re a beautiful part of Jewish culture.”
Often audience members will approach the band after a performance to share how much it meant to them to hear music from their youth. But Sims insists that it’s not just people who are familiar with klezmer. “This music is interesting, danceable, joyous and will likely feel familiar,” Sims says. “Not to mention you’ll get to hear some rockin’ clarinet.”
Chuckling, Gould points out that it’s not just rocking, it’s essential.
“Without clarinet, you can’t be a klezmer band.”