Prior to the Soviet Union, Odessa was a kind of  New Orleans on the Black Sea. It was a duty-free haven with a thriving black market and teeming port-side taverns where you could hear a variety of musical styles: Greek, Roma, Armenian, Georgian. It was famous for its distinctive Odessa mélange. In addition to Jewish bankers, Jewish workers and Jewish gangsters lived there. 

Today Odessa is a run-down ghost of its former self . Much of the Jewish intelligentsia has left. The notorious high crime/low-rent  Moldavanka district, made famous by Mark Bernes  — Odessa’s Jewish Bing Crosby – is full of ruinous, leprous buildings and a collapsing infrastructure.

“I have zero sensations here,” says Alec Kopyt. “All of my friends have left”

In 2007 a Dutch filmmaker accompanied Kopyt on his return to Odessa to make a semi-fictional documentary film called “From the Heart of Odessa”.

The plot of the film, if you can call it that, involves Kopyt’s attempts at arranging a band for a gig in Odessa. In the end the gig falls through, and we are left with broken-down Odessa drunks singing snippets of affectionate Odessa gangster chansons, as Kopyt wanders the ruined landscape of Moldavanka, lost in the daze of his reminiscences.

Alec Kopyt has been called a “master of the Russian chanson”,  “the Odessa Nightingale” and “the Tom Waits of Ukraine”. Since 2000 he has been singing and performing percussion with the Amsterdam Klezmer Band. He has been called a successor to Russian singers Arkady Severny and Alik Berenson, and he has succeeded in doing what no one has been able to do till now – namely to bring Odessa’s old gangster chansons west, into the realm of world music. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Amsterdam Klezmer Band. Recently I caught up with Kopyt at his Amsterdam apartment between his busy Dutch tour.

Alec Kopyt was born in Odessa, USSR in 1959. In his early youth he followed his father’s footsteps, working as a butcher’s apprentice, while at the same time becoming involved in Odessa’s  vibrant music scene, thanks to his uncle Moishe, a drummer, who taught Alec the tricks of the trade.

Kopyt says he grew up with “Soviet schlager music plus some bad quality recordings of Beatles, Shocking Blue, Aphrodite’s Child – a very motley kind of collection of things.”

However, perhaps most important for his later career in Amsterdam, were the Jewish weddings Kopyt was dragged to as a youth, whose humorous klezmer songs remained indelibly stuck in Kopyt’s memory.

At his father’s insistence, Kopyt learned the accordion, the idea being that Kopyt would eventually serve in the Soviet military, a tough place for a Jew.

“And unless you have some trick up your sleeve, something like being the entertainer, then God help you, because the Russian army was a very difficult thing to go through.” 

Ultimately it was owing to widespread anti-Semitism that Kopyt left Odessa with his father in 1978 when Kopyt was nineteen. They had an invitation to come to Israel, but Kopyt balked at the prerequisite two years of military service. “There is no country on this planet that I would defend for two years of my life,” says Kopyt. And so the Kopyts moved on to Australia where Alec learned a trade as dental technician, drove a cab, but after ten years of feeling out of the loop and 24 hours by plane from where things appeared to be happening, he picked up and left for Europe, ending up in Amsterdam.

That Kopyt had ended up in Amsterdam in 1988 was a fluke. He could well have landed in any other European city. As it was a friend had a large apartment in Amsterdam and offered Kopyt a room.  Kopyt taught Russian classes to make ends meet.

It was Perestroika, Glasnost times. The interest in Russian culture was at its peak. All of a sudden Kopyt was hearing about Russian bands he hadn’t heard anything about for 14 years. He had been totally out of touch and now there was this sudden flood of information – not  to mention Russian émigrés.

“Initially I was shocked at the fact that the Russians were here,” says Kopyt. “I really did not want to see them in Europe. So it took me a while before I got used to it.  In the beginning I was hysterical. I was crying. Literally, I was really sobbing when I found out the borders were open, and now they were coming.” 

One day someone told Kopyt about a fellow Odessan busking the streets of Amsterdam. Kopyt looked him up. It was German Popovwho would later become known as OMFO (Our Man From Odessa) making a name for himself with Balkan and Oriental flavored electronica. Kopyt and Popov hit it off and Popov suggested they work together, following up on an offer to perform Russian songs at a Dutch old folks home.

“I was kind of Wow! Because at that time I was making my living by doing all sorts of things including giving Russian language lessons. So, this so-called gig was offering about ten times as much. I dug out an accordion that I had found somewhere by chance, and  I started rehearsing with German, who could play three chords on the guitar.”

After the nursing home gig, Kopyt and Popov formed the “Children of Lieutenant Schmidt”, busking the streets of Amsterdam.

“It was a goldmine, because there was no competition in the streets. There were no Gypsies.  We were the first ones. We were giving it full blast.  And we were collecting lots of money in the street. And plus, we attracted a lot of attention for little parties and little gigs. So quickly we picked up quite a few little gigs. It was spring or something, late spring, beginning of summer, and there were lots of people. And in no time we were making it.”

One day Kopyt ran into a saxophone player on the street. It was Job Chajes, who had picked up the saxophone at twenty and would shortly go on to front the Amsterdam Klezmer Band. The two of them struck up a conversation. Job said he was playing Jewish music. This made Kopyt think about the Jewish songs he grew up with at weddings in Odessa  and Kopyt invited Chajes to come over to his place to listen to some relevant recordings of his.

Kopyt had a lot of Russian music dating from the period up until his emigration in 1978. For him Russian music didn’t exist after this period. He had Russian music and Khasaposerviko dances,  the dance of the Serbian butchers. Chajes said he wanted to form a klezmer band, Kopyt said he could organize a tour of Switzerland and Italy for him, the only condition being that he be allowed in the band.

Afterwards they got a job playing in a small circus, mixing klezmer with juggling, acrobatics and clowns. 

“It was a rather amateur company,” recalls Kopyt. “The acrobats were old and stiff, but it was very charming. Then we went out onto the street and immediately got invited to a  wedding. And that was the beginning of Amsterdam Klezmer Band.”

Amsterdam Klezmer Band has so far recorded 17 albums since their beginnings in 1996. Sometimes Kopyt sings in his characteristic soulful, wheezy, woozy, swoony voice, other time he plays percussion and accordion. He says he is appreciated in the band insofar as he brings a colorful element into the group, which he calls “very white”. Everyone has had musical schooling except for him. Sometimes AKB performs covers. Other times they perform songs written by Chajes and Kopyt.

“Love is a safe haven because it’s very appropriate,” says Kopyt about his texts. “Then there’s money. Money and lack of money.  Luck. I tend to stick to the more humorous side of things because things are serious enough as it is. And Odessa songs, so-called Odessa songs as I know them from weddings and parties as a kid, they are all kind of humorous. So I tend to exploit that kind of humorous  side.”

Although Kopyt speaks fluent English on account of ten years in Australia, he says he refuses to sing in English.

“It doesn’t feel natural,” says Kopyt. “Of course I could sing in English, but it doesn’t go through my heart, you know.  English is my second language. It is a kind of stepmother of mine, language-wise. My mother tongue is Russian. And English is my second language.  So it wouldn’t go any deeper than the head.  And I am a strong believer is singing with organs that go deeper. So in order to sing from the heart, I have to sing in a language where I know the words – I taste the words.  You know, in English I don’t taste the worlds.  I say them, but they don’t have the impact.” 

Kopyt describes himself as “a hedonist to the core”. He makes no bones of the fact that he drinks and regularly patronizes Amsterdam’s coffee shops.

“But I don’t believe that you have to be off your head to perform successfully on stage.”

In fact, one of the unwritten rules of Amsterdam Klezmer Band is that band members perform sober.

“After the gig you can do with yourself whatever the fuck you want. But even then you can’t do what you want because if you are on tour it means you must somehow get to the hotel.  It’s very inconvenient to get shit faced.  There are too many buts.  Amsterdam Klezmer Band is a very, very disciplined band.  They don’t drink and there are only one or two smokers apart from me.” 

Asked whether you have to be Jewish to perform klezmer, Kopyt says, “Rubbish, I heard so many great musicians playing klezmer not being Jewish. Consonance Retro are playing what I call klezmer much more convincingly than many Jewish bands. No, no, klezmer music, whatever is called klezmer music – you don’t have to be Jewish to play it because this music on its own doesn’t exist in its pure form. It’s a mixture of so many other things. So how can you talk about purity about something that is not pure in its essence?  So, no, you don’t need to be Jewish…but it helps.”