Gypsy minstrels hit the town

Collection of players brings gypsy, klezmer tunes to the streets of Homer

By Katie Emerick
Homer Tribune

HOMER TRIBUNE/Katie Emerick<br />Ian Cook on the fiddle, Sarah Jacques on the accordion and Allen Owen on the guitar, crank out tunes of a gypsy-like nature. 

HOMER TRIBUNE/Katie Emerick
Ian Cook on the fiddle, Sarah Jacques on the accordion and Allen Owen on the guitar, crank out tunes of a gypsy-like nature.


Summer finally seems to have made its way back, and with it comes a unique musical ensemble seen frequently busking out on the Spit and playing at various venues around town, including a recent radio session at KBBI. Darkly clad and with instruments in tote, the group of friends can be seen wandering the streets as true minstrels, offering a unique collection of tunes that has generated a host of excitement since their debut on Homer’s musical circuit several weeks ago.

Mischievously calling themselves “Hand Shandy and the Wristy Business,” the ensemble plays an engaging mix of gypsy jazz, folk and klezmer songs, most originating out of Eastern Europe and Russia. While a number of other players have been joining in for various occasions, the core of the group comprises Sarah Jacques on accordion, Ian Cook on the fiddle, Allen Owen on guitar and banjo, David Young on the stand-up bass, Stephen Blakeley Jr. on the ukulele and Bjorn Olsen bringing in seasonal percussion. All coming from different parts of the country, it was Owen, Cook and Jacques who began playing together last year while living in New Orleans. With diverse backgrounds, the ensemble themselves are as colorful in character as the music they play.

Hand Shandy and the Wristy Business is an offshoot of a band called the G String Orchestra, based in New Orleans, which played klezmer and Eastern European traditionals. It was through the G-String Orchestra, of which Cook and Jacques were a part, that Owen, bringing a background of Appalachian folk music, entered the picture and the three began playing together. Owen, who like Young and Blakeley, has been based in Homer for some time now, convinced Cook and Jacques to summer in Alaska this year.

With distinctly different upbringings, what drew the collection of players together was a love for music and a love for the road. The band is made up of modern-day gypsies, freight train riders and explorers, busking along the way and building their talents as multi-instrumentalists and songwriters.

“Each of us lives pretty transient lifestyles. Sometimes we live in a town for a few months, but a lot of the time we’re on the road,” said Jacques, who spent last winter biking through Mexico with Cook. It seems entirely appropriate then that the band found their way to gypsy and klezmer songs.

“One of the things I love about the music we play is that it comes from peoples and cultures that are transient themselves,” Jacques said. “These peoples have taken with them bits from each place they’ve been, so you can really see how the music changes depending on what part of the world it’s coming from, but also how it still stays the same.”

In pinning down the style of play, Jacques pointed that the difference between klezmer and gypsy. Klezmer, secular Jewish music originating in the 15th century, is ornamented with krekhts, meaning “a cry caught in the back of the throat” and vibrato. Gypsy music has more unusual harmonics and no vibrato, following one and three time beats in tandem with the bass.

The ensemble certainly brings a refreshing sound to Homer’s music scene. Everywhere they go, crowds gather and a waltz becomes the dance of choice. Instantly compelling in its strange and beautiful nature, at once both melancholic and joyous, the music created seems to transport audiences to a different time and place.

“One thing I love about the music is how there are very happy, celebratory, danceable songs, and then there are melancholy songs that tug at your heart strings,” Jacques said. “This quality, they say, comes from a people who have no home to call their own and are constantly on the move whether by force by an unwelcoming community, or restlessness and the travel bug.”

Another component that brought the ensemble to their particular style of play is in the fact that there is a constant evolution in the music itself.

“An esteemed quality about a good klezmorim is that the song is never played the same way twice,” explained Jacques. “They keep the songs fresh by changing it up often, keeping each other and their listeners on their toes.”
What Hand Shandy and the Wristy Business brings to their music is a mix of traditionals and originals, with each band member contributing his own style and ideas.

“There exists a bare bone of a song,” Jacques said, “but is colored in by each musician’s individual voice, and ever-changing whims and influences.”

While the future of the band is uncertain, a consequence of their transient natures, several players have already made Homer a home base. Cook and Jacques are planning to winter busking in Spain, and Owen will go away to work a beet harvest in the fall. But for the summer, the band is very much together. Literally. With the exception of Bjorn, all of the players live in the same house, which has become a bit of a local musical compound.

“Our goals for the summer are to have fun, get the band tight and record an album,” said Jacques. “Hopefully we’ll all meet up down the road and be able to play this music together again.”

In the meantime, Homer is blessed with a talented collection of collaborative musicians, offering crowds a unique style of music that has been distinctly absent from the scene.

Hand Shandy and the Wristy Business will play at the season’s opening of the Farmers Market on Saturday, at the Down East Saloon on Sunday night, and at Kharacters on June 20.

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Posted by on Jun 11th, 2009 and filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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