Ensemble M’chaiya as a quintet standing along a brick wall.


Band Bio

Who we are, where we came from, why we play what we play

What is Klez­mer?

Today, most people are unaware of Klez­mers history. Moreover, most have no idea that it came into its own as a musical style in America. The very term “Klez­mer”, derived from Hebrew words for vessel (kle) and song (zemer), was created by young American musicians to define what they were discovering in the dusty nooks and crannies of Yiddish cultures remnants because the style of music had functionally died out in America by the mid-1960s. Why it faded nearly into oblivion is a very complex cultural question beond the scope of this Band Biography.

Our role in the Klez­mer Revival

In 1982 Ter­ran Doeh­rer heard a concert in Chicago by the Klezmorim, a West Coast band that was part of the “First Wave” of the Klez­mer Revival. He realized that the music clearly had some of its roots in the Balkan region of South Eastern Europe and recognized this fact because he already played Balkan music in his ground-breaking, award-winning band, the Balkan Rhythm Band (tm), which he had founded in 1980.

Terran Doehrer’s Balkan Rhythm Band Flying Fish Records LP FF314 cover © 2013 Modal Music, Inc. (tm) All rights reserved.
Terran Doehrers Balkan Rhythm Band Flying Fish Records LP FF314 cover

Terran immediately started researching this great music by listening to old 78 RPM and 33 RPM “LPs” records he discovered in second hand shops and in the tents of Skokie, Illinois’ annual Mammoth Music Mart, a now-defunct fund-raiser for ALS. The waves of Jewish immigrants who came to America from Eastern Europe beginning in the 1880s brought their music with them and, luckily, the invention of the phonograph coincided with their arrival.

He set about transcribing tunes and refined his Klez­mer style. “For years I spent hundreds of dollars each year and built up a library of sound,” Doehrer says. “One of the things that inspired me was the sound of the old 78s. Forget the scratches — you are listening to the true documentation of an event and something really cool was going on back then, musically speaking.”

What makes Klez­mer Klez­mer?

What particularly attracted Doehrer to Klez­mer was its intense emotion and expressivness. It has the ability to make people cry and laugh at the same time. After all, music is catharsis. It is designed to make you feel things, to fall in love. Its a physical thing. Doehrer recalls that “the stuff we were hearing in those 78s records does all that. It is intense stuff. The scales evoke both joy and pathos at the same time.”

Klez­mer has identifiable characteristics. Among them are recognizable rhythm patterns, melodies shaped by the intervals and modalities of the Middle East and places farther East, as well as ornamentation derived from cantorial singing styles including the turn of a note to sound like wailing or weeping. To the Western ear, Klez­mer sounds exotic with scale intervals of half step, step and a half, half step, all floating, somewhat unexpectedly, on top of major and minor chords.

A typical Klez­mer rhythm resembles the accented refrain “Washington, Washington, Walla.”

Starting the groove

By January 1983, he was ready and founded the En­semble Mchaiya (tm). At the time, it was the first and only professional Klez­mer band in Chicago. As such, being a pretty much unknown style, it was a little hard to sell to younger Jews. “We had to educate folks,” Doehrer said, “we had to explain that we’re all about Jewish tradition, that we were not playing rock or swing,” the things people commonly asked for at parties in the ’80s.”

As his band played for more and more parties and events, Doehrer observed that audiences really responded to this unusual music. “A lot of the people who hired us were those who had heard it at their bar mitzvahs, and they were thankful we were bringing it back,” he said.

Today, there are more than a dozen professional bands in Chicago and the style is now an international phenomena.

What happens during a revival?

“One of the amazing things about Klez­mer is how many ways folks have shaped it and reshaped it since those early days of the Revival,” says Doehrer. “The En­semble Mchaiya has taken a very dance-oriented approach with a strong dose of Balkan coloration and instrumentation.

M’chaiya,’ comes from the root form of ‘chai’ which means ‘life’. Essentially our name means ‘live-giving, full of joy’ and we want folks to dance and have a life-giving cathartic experience. … We do everything we can to live up to our name,” says Doehrer and the group makes sure of that by getting folks singing, dancing, and drumming along.

However, the Ensemble Mchaiya has never been bound by tradition and created its own distinct spin on Klez­mer, starting with its instrumentation which includes the Kaval, a Bulgarian end-blown flute, Tupan and Darabuka (Balkan percussion), Violin, and Mandolin.

Still life of some of the instruments played by the Ensemble M’chaiya: Mandolin, Guitar, Darabuka, Tupan, Kaval.
Some of the instruments we play: Mandolin, Guitar, Darabuka, Tupan, and Kaval.

This Balkan-inspired direction found further impetus when Terran subsequently encountered Sephardic music which directly uses those instruments. The style was preserved by the Jews who were forced to leave Spain in 1492 ending up in places like Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. In addition to speaking “Ladino” (basically 500-year-old Spanish with a healthy admixture of Hebrew), the Sephardim also speak French and Turkish as well as various Slavic languages.

“Klez­mer was never cartoon music,” Doehrer cautions. For almost a century, it was the contemporary dance music and he encourages everyone to get inside the reality that Klez­mer is a living, vital thing despite nostalgic fantasies like Marc Chagalls floating fiddlers on the roof.

The bands natural market is the Jewish community and it performs for weddings and bar mitzvahs as well as touring across America and Europe to perform at folk festivals and general audience concerts.

Honored for our contribution to culture

In recognition of Evanston-based Ensemble Mchaiyas contribution to Chicagos cultural life as the areas first Klez­mer band, on its 20th anniversary, then-Mayor Richard Daley proclaimed November 23rd as Klez­mer Revival Day in their honor.

Mayor Daley’s 2003 Klezmer Day Proclamation document which honored Ensemble M’chaiya and Terran Doehrer for being the first revival Klezmer band in Chicago.
Mayor Daleys 2003 Klezmer Day Proclamation.

Our growth is fueled by the quality of our live performances. Generally, over half of our business is with repeat clients! People hire us repeatedly because they know we provide them with flexible, high quality, family-friendly professional entertainment. And, of course, it helps that we present our music in as an acoustic manner as possible in any given performance situation. Add on our efforts to include the audience in the fun by getting them up and dancing and percussing along with us, and you have the Ensemble Mchaiya story: good music, good players, and responsive, friendly, interactive entertainment.

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