Thirteen years ago during the traditional Sunday market in Columbia Road a London-based ensemble amazed the passers-by with their lively and up-tempo klezmer music. Today She’Koyokh’s busking days are over and the band is finally considered one of London’s musical gems. We seized the chance during their Rich Mix gig, during which they were joined by Los Desterrados, to talk about their story, style and the centuries-old tradition they drew inspiration from…
There is a Roman saying ‘nomen omen’ meaning ‘destiny lies in one’s name’, and She’Koyokh are a crystal clear confirmation of that motto.She’Koyokh is a Yiddish expression meaning ‘nice one’ according toShe’Koyokh’s clarinettist Susi Evans, but literally translated it means ‘to have strength’, and it would be hard to find a better definition of the ensemble. Today, after almost fifteen sparkling years they have become one of the UK’s most entertaining klezmer bands thanks to their skill and an inventive blend of Ashkenazi, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern traditions. Susi believes that throughout this fifteen-year timespan their name has mirrored their artistic life. “It’s good to have a name that is all about positivity, especially as we play at a lot of weddings!”
Indeed, weddings were the first stage for She’Koyokh’s performances back in 2000.
“We used to busk a lot, nearly every weekend in Columbia Road Market, which is also quite significant because it was originally a Jewish market and that’s why it happens on Sundays.
That was quite a big part of being in the ensemble at the time. It was how we generated interest and got our first gigs”.
The first shows were also quite unique experiences and Susi loved to recall those times.
“People were amazed to see seven people playing in the street with trombone, accordion, double bass and clarinet. It’s quite an impact when you don’t expect it.”
Weddings followed weddings, gigs led to more gigs, and their music began to evolve.
“In the beginning we just played klezmer, which is instrumental Jewish music. We didn’t have a singer until about seven years later when Çiğdem (Aslan, the voice of She’Koyokh) joined the band. So until that point we were playing klezmer, but we were also starting to explore other type of music like Bulgarian and Turkish instrumental music. But with Çiğdem we could explore different traditions because she not only sings in Turkish, , but also in Ladino, Bosnian, Greek, Kurdish, Bulgarian and Macedonian”.
Today ‘mix’ and ‘blend’ are the preferred verbs of the band, and their audience clearly enjoy their multifaceted shows.
“I think people, especially UK audiences, appreciate a lot of variety, and that’s what we always aim for, whether it’s a changing mood, language or style”.
Susi explained how this process works when it comes to playing live.
“What’s really nice in a concert is to be able to do a ‘four-to-the floor’ song, kind of ‘umpa-umpa-umpa’, then contrast it with a slow, more melancholic piece. A lot of klezmer bands play at parties. They’re booked for that purpose and it’s like giving a kick to the party and getting the people dancing. We really like to play at parties, but at the same time we also want to explore more beautiful, creative and sophisticated types of music. A lot of tunes we play are technically demanding and we are quite virtuosic players, so we like to explore that element too.”
But don’t let She’Koyokh’s lighthearted smiles and good-tempered music deceived you because behind each number lies some pretty intensive musical research, delving into every shade of the Eastern European cultural scenario.
Meg Hamilton, the violinist of the band, is also one of the architects and researchers behind She’Koyokh’s sound. She illustrated for us the route they usually follow when developing new material.
“We reckon it is really nice to trace the journey of the music as it goes further and further east. It is interesting to find out how music varies in different regions of one country. For example, Romania has probably the most musical styles in the same country, and there are also similarities between the music of southern of Romania and Bulgaria. It’s really fascinating exploring and sharing these researches in our live performances, and we also pick up the dances, which are a part of the music”.
Another reason She’Koyok can deftly move through such a variegated repertoire is because of the different origins of its members and the remarkable musical education they received. Meg tells us…
“Susi studied with the best clarinet masters and I’ve been in Romania to study with musicians there, while Zivorad (the accordionist) is from Serbia and grew up with a lot of this music and Çiğdem is from Turkey”.
However, she also pointed out that they learn something new everyday.
“All of us are interested in the educational element of the music we play. None of us has come to it thinking we just do what we do. We are always learning different styles together”.
The starting point for their music is related to their personal experiences and everyday life. When we asked Susi where their inspiration comes from the answer was straightforward.
“Our repertoire mainly comes from travelling. When we travel we study with people on site, we pick up tunes here and there, while other ideas come from youtube; that’s quite an original exploration method!”
But, in the end togetherness makes strength.
“During rehearsals we think about the arrangements and change them many times. Our guitarist Matt is quite the arranger in the band, but we all have our say and quite often we email each other asking “hey, what about this idea?” and so on. So then we start our discussions via email and select which tunes we’re going to do. Finally we come together and rehearse! We are all busy people!”
In fact they more than busy, they are overworked! As Susi disclosed…
“I’m the only one who doesn’t have a solo career but all the other members have one as well as She’Koyokh. In addition, we are all doing projects with other bands”.
But somehow they have found some time to think about their latest album, and Wild Goats & Unmarried Women, was triumphantly released in March 2014.
“Well I know that we released our album few months ago, but as soon as you have one out people start asking about the next one! We need to plan well in advance because there are so many of us and it takes ages to find a day when everyone’s free. So it could be a year from now!”
Inevitably we had to ask Susi if they had ever tried to understand and explain the recent fortune of their music and their act: why has She’Koyokh has been declared “amongst the finest klezmer ensembles on the planet” and why klezmer is enjoying a second childhood.
“I think that the music we play is on people’s radar now. There have been quite a few documentaries made about klezmer and people are finally able to say “yeah I know what it’s about” and so they are ready to explore it a little bit more while maybe ten years ago interest was a little bit slower. Of course the music also speaks for itself. It is very passionate, party-like at times but also soulful. People looking for world music sometimes like something a little bit different and people usually say that, that our music is different! It is the kind of music we might hear on holiday with an exotic element. At the moment we are much into exploring the variety of all these cultures and sub-cultures in that area”.
Our chat was in its home stretch because She’Koyokh were just about to go on stage, sharing the Rich Mix platform with their Sephardic artistic brothers Los Desterrados. So we closed our conversation by talking about that impromptu performance and the idea of bonding two facets of the Jewish culture. Susi passionately revealed the events leading up to this one-off event.
“We love the idea of collaboration. We thought about what other London bands we could fit with and the first one we thought of was Los Desterrados. We were already friends and have met them many times before like at Klezmer in the Park and KlezFest. Then, when we got together the other day to meet and to explore what we were going to play it became apparent that there is so much to share between our music, especially with Çiğdem’s style and the Turkish vocal element of Sephardic music. We played four songs together and three of those songs had lyrics in Turkish and Ladino. If you want to know if there’ll be a future to our collaboration – well, you never know how this things go, but we’d love to!”