November 15, 2019

Songs of Simcha

By day, he’s a manager- purchaser at an Orange County plywood company. But when the boards are cut and the purchase orders are filed, Steve Chattler does what any Jewish businessman might do after hours: He breaks out his drums and plays klezmer music.

As a member of the South Coast Simcha Band, 44-year-old Chattler brings those traditional Yiddish melodies to the Southland. He took an interest in the 19th century Eastern European music while playing in the orchestra at Temple Beth David in Westminster back in 1999. There, he met clarinet player Renah Wolzinger, who introduced him to this distinct Jewish-rooted music.

The upbeat, mostly instrumental tunes, that were traditionally played at weddings and bar mitzvahs dating back to the late 1800s, fascinated the drummer, whose previous experience included rock and jazz. “The old klezmer recordings basically had only a snare drum and maybe a bass drum,” Chattler says. “To try to simulate that on a drum set is like a whole new challenge.” He and Wolzinger recruited a violinist, a bass guitarist, a trumpet player and a saxophone player to form a complete klezmer band of their own.

After playing a few freebies at synagogue brunches, the group sought out paying gigs. While looking for audiences, the musicians quickly learned that they needed to expand their repertoire to make a living. “Klezmer music is where we like to stay,” Chattler admits, “but do people want to hire us for three hours of klezmer music? The answer to that is probably a flat ‘no.’ So, we usually do 45 minutes of klezmer music, a little bit of Israeli music and then some classic dance tunes.”

Because of the style’s ethnic roots, the South Coast Simcha Band has become popular in the multicultural arena. They’ve played for the Orange County chapter of the Interfaith Council, an organization that encourages unity between different cultures. While the bulk of their audience is over 50, Chattler says he often notices that younger generations appreciate klezmer music. “We played the Hebrew Academy in Westminster, and there was a good group of young people 18 to 25. They were dancing and whooping it up right along with us!” he laughs. The music does appeal to all ages on some level, Chattler says, “because most people have heard this [music] at one time or another in their lives.”

Some of best numbers include the Yiddish tunes “Odessa Bulgar,” “Ot Azoj,” and, of course, “Hava Nagila.” When the audience begins responding to the music, the band distributes plastic tambourines and has the crowd clap along. “It’s just an amazing thing to get over 100 people in a line dance. It beats doing the Macarena — but we’d play that song, too, if we had to!”

When he saw his family tree, Chattler felt an even deeper connection to his craft. It turns out that his great-grandfather was a singer in Poland, another country where klezmer music has strong roots. Wolzinger discovered that her grandmother was a Yiddish singer, as well. “It’s like completing a full circle,” Chattler says.