Ray performing at Kingfield Hall, Sheffield in 2012
2013 was the 25th anniversary of the UK’s first klezmer band, and it all started in Sheffield with workshops given by Zhok Hora’s fiddler Ray Kohn, back in 1987.
Klezmer is the world music sensation with gripping melodies and powerful rhythms that spring from the Jewish folk music of Eastern Europe. Klezmer bands have become amongst the most attractive performers on stages in every continent.
The original Sheffield Klezmer Band was formed in 1988 from those attending workshops given by Ray Kohn in 1987. Springing from the visit of the touring Anne Frank Exhibition, the workshops began as a small-scale teaching programme for local children. However, as parents also began to play, demand for performances grew and the band played in Sheffield, Salford, Manchester, Leeds and York. This band went on to become the Sheffield Spielers, and Zhoc Hora guitarist Ian Stern was another founder member.
Demand for workshops from further afield led to a series that attracted potential klezmer performers from all over the UK. Meanwhile Sheffield’s Central Library bought every klezmer record it could lay its hands on, both new recordings of bands from the USA and reissues of old recordings made in the 1920s and 30s. The free distribution of klezmer arrangements, made from these old recordings, encouraged the growth of bands throughout the UK and Ray supported this network with a free broadsheet called Klezmer Kontact. With readers throughout the UK and abroad, he organised a European Klezmer Bands competition in Sheffield that brought together 10 bands. (A band from Amsterdam won.)
With the launch of a klezmer website by David Hayes in 1993, the broadsheet was discontinued, but by then there were a number of semi-professional bands playing all over the country. By 1995, some fully professional performers were making a name for themselves and the London Klezcamp brought them together with experienced professionals from the USA. The UK’s klezmer players had joined the world music movement!
In Sheffield, the Spielers were joined by Tashbain, who combined klezmer with Jewish storytelling and headlined all the major storytelling festivals in the UK. Then came Minnie Moosika and others. Meanwhile Ray Kohn left Sheffield, first to work in Nottingham then to travel the world. He finally came to rest back home in Sheffield to find the klezmer scene that he started alive and kicking – and just ripe for the formation of a new band.