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Yiddish Columbia State Orchestra turns 20

Mollie Kaye
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The YCSO performing at Pagliacci’s


The very darkest, shortest days of the year may be past, but it’s still cold and dark. Klezmer music is helpful at this time of year. It’s the soundtrack of hope mixed with angst, of bright darkness and dark brightness. It’s never all one thing; klezmer bakes life’s contradictions and oxymorons right into the music. So why not wallow joyfully with the Yiddish Columbia State Orchestra (YCSO), Victoria’s own klezmer combo, at their official 20th birthday party at Hermann’s Jazz Club on January 16?

The YCSO ’s founder, vocalist and accordionist Marion Siegel, told Chek News in 2018, “I had a concept of playing klezmer music, and I’m a Jewish mother; I like to feed people. I called up the best musicians in the city and said, ‘You wanna have really good dinner [at Pagliacci ’s] and play some music a couple times a week? ’” The band’s weekly gig at the Downtown eatery every Sunday evening has been an institution for decades, with tourists and locals alike revelling in the high-spirited, swing-infused tunes. “[It’s] a Jewish band playing in an Italian restaurant in a Victoria town,” Siegel quipped. “How could you be more Canadian than that?”

Guitartist Avram Devon McCagerty says most people encounter the YCSO at Pagliacci’s. They’ve only played Hermann’s once before in these 20 years. “We decided to put on a show to celebrate…We love Hermann’s, we want to support it. We love playing Pags, but [the audience is] eating. Sometimes they come for us, sometimes for the spaghetti—‘come for the noodle, stay for the noodling.’”

I ask McCagerty whether his personal decision to embrace the Jewish faith came before or after his tenure with the YCSO. At one of their wedding gigs, he was chatting with “Rabbi Harry,” and “my mother had just told me that her mother’s mother was Jewish. During a very long band break, and many, many drinks, we were schmoozing,” McCagerty says. “He said, ‘We’ll go for coffee and see where you wanna go with this thing.’”

The band is made up of Jews and gentiles. I love that trumpet player Michael Mazza is Italian, but his last name is pronounced “matza,” like the flatbread. Joining Mazza, McCagerty and Siegel are Nick La Riviere, Julian Vitek, Dave Klassen, Chandra Crowe, and cousin Rod McCrimmon. “Jewish means ‘family,’” McCagerty insists, “so you can marry in.”

Doors at 5:30, show at 7:30, Hermann’s Jazz Club, 753 View St, $15. Reserve tickets at hermannsjazz.com.

—Mollie Kaye

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