Robert Soko: Happy to have you on board. We are about to have a chapter on the Netherlands. And, well, we don’t have any prepared questions. We just love talking to people naturally. But let’s start somewhere. 25 years of Amsterdam Klezmer Band. How did you come up with the idea of making a klezmer band?

Job Chajes: Yes, well, I started to play saxophone in my last band where I used to be a rapper.  And I was ready to play some more melodic stuff. So I bought a saxophone when I was twenty, and a few months later my mother bought a clarinet for me at a flea-market. That was the one thing. And the other thing was – I didn’t have a piano back then, but I could play a bit. I could record layers of piano sounds and I could practice my John Coltrane on it. I recorded on the cassette layers of sounds and then I would wail on top of it. I was playing saxophone for five weeks, six weeks, and I did this at the house of a father of a school buddy of mine. And after recording something there a couple of times, he said, “Shall we play something together?” And we played something together. And he invited me to come and play in a circus, because he was playing in a circus. 

It was the time of amateur circuses that were playing in small town, local festivals. And I was like, “Hell no! I want to be a jazz player, a rapper. I don’t want to go to the circus.” It was in Arnim, about an hour’s drive. But a bit later he said “They are doing rehearsals in Amsterdam. Maybe you want to check it out.” So I came, and during the juggling and the acrobatics he was playing some klezmer kinds of songs, Yiddish songs that were played instrumentally.  And there were some Fellini songs there. And it appealed to me. So I said, “Well, okay, why not? Let’s do this.” And for me – I was on welfare. In the nineties in Holland it was very easy to get welfare.  So I was on the dole and practicing five, six, seven hours a day.  So I had the idea I was going to become a very good saxophone player. And I was playing on the street a lot because I had tons of time. I didn’t have a job, and I was playing on the street and having fun and making extra money. I bought my saxophone in 1993 and in 1994 I decided, we can play on the street together as well.  And we did that in the busy center of Amsterdam.  And straight away we got hired for a wedding.  He played the accordion and I played the sax. And we were hired for a wedding. One hundred and fifty guilders each. So that was the equivalent of one hundred and fifty Deutschmarks each. And we were both sparked by the idea. And from that moment on we were roaming the streets. We were playing like three or four days a week on the streets of Amsterdam.  We went to the cafes, to the bars, to the terraces. It was very nice because people were very receptive to the Eastern European sound that we were bringing, which was not known.  For certain people, it was, of course, known. But for many people it was some kind of exotic sound. And people would stop and listen to us and throw us a coin…We were both Jewish. From one gig, another gig came. So we were a duo.  And then Don, his name was – he proposed to play together with a tuba player.  So we became a trio. Then the trio was Mischpoke, because we were three Jews together. Mischpoke means “family” in Yiddish. And the music was really nice.  I was playing the clarinet much better now, because I had bought a better clarinet; I was practicing it. We also made a cassette, the three of us. But the tuba player wasn’t so versatile. While he was a very versatile player – he came from the jazz scene in Amsterdam – he was an American guy, but he was not keen on going on his bicycle with his tuba. And so, at some point the vibe wasn’t so good anymore. And I was already playing in a rap/funk band with Jasper. And Jasper is the bass player that is still in the klezmer band. What happened is that one day I was playing with Don on the streets and Jasper came by with the bass; with an acoustic bass guitar. And I said, “Hey Jasper, how are you doing? Join in.” So he comes with the bass guitar. And from then on I thought this guy has much more energy. He was 25 years younger than the tuba player, and he wants to play as much as possible. And he was also on welfare. Like me. So we teamed up together.  And then we founded The Amsterdam Klezmer Band. 

Robert Soko: What year?

Job Chajes: In 1996.

Robert Soko: Ah, yeah, 25 years so to speak. 

Job Chajes: Yes, well, actually, we are now 26 years old…Yeah, so that’s the beginning. The beginning comes from the circus to the streets to klezmer. And there were three of us in the Amsterdam Klezmer Band initially. Jasper and me, we were really fanaticizing, what would be a good name. First was Meschugge. And maybe we came up with Mazel Tov, I don’t know.  Funny names.  And then we said, “Why don’t we just call ourselves The Amsterdam Klezmer Band ? Because there wasn’t another Amsterdam Klezmer band. There was Kelzmokum, the Klezmatics, there’s this and that band. But there is no Amsterdam Klezmer Band. So we took it.  And I think it was the right choice. Apart from the fact that in the end, we played just a little percent of klezmer music. Because we play much more of a mix of klezmer with  tons of Balkan sounds and jazz influences and hip-hop influences and reggae and ska and whatever. 

Robert Soko: What you are saying now is actually making me conclude that you guys were true pioneers in what would later become the Balkan Beats wave.  Because you are talking about the nineties. 1993, 1994. In the Balkans there was this huge war. Balkan music was not really established in the West. It was rather a microcosmos for the Gasarbeiter, right? And you guys were already playing this. And I have to say one thing, back in time, when I started shaping my DJ career, at the end of the nineties, I was playing your music without even knowing it, and without really understanding that I was playing klezmer music.  Through Dunkelbunt some of the tracks would land in my DJ repertoire, well produced, and I would play them and people would go crazy. And I was, like, “Look at this. This is true Balkan music.” Without really understanding who is who in this game now. You know what I mean? Only later would I understand, okay, this belongs to the klezmer category, this is this, this is that. You know what I mean? So, Amsterdam Klezmer Band were true pioneers, maybe not so commercial at that time, like Bregović was eventually or Kusturica because of the movies and stuff. But you were already sparking the impulse for something that would eventually grow into a whole trend.  Thank you. 

Job Chajes: And we were still a small band. We were a trio, and until 2001 we were a quartet with a saxophone and a trumpet, double bass and accordion. It wasn’t until 2001 that we became like a little fanfare. 

Robert Soko: And when did it start to take off more commercially for you guys? Starting to tour the world eventually. 

Job Chajes: Well, it also had to do with the fact that we became bigger and new people came to the band. Like Alec. 

Robert Soko: Alec Kopyt, the singer.

Job Chajes: Alec Kopyt had very good contacts, well, everywhere. Because he was the guy that introduced us to Knitting Factory Records and Michael Dorf. He was the founder of the Knitting Factory Records.  So Alec was known to him.  And our third album, which was called, Limonchiki was released by Knitting Factory, and it went all around the world.  And people were playing our music all over the places, like on the beach in Brazil or at a party in Australia.

Robert Soko: Did you make it that far? To Australia as well?

Job Chajes: Not us, but our music.  And then a couple years later we met Stefan Hantel and Jean Trouillet and we became part of the Essay family from 2005 until 2010, 2011. And then we decided to go on ourselves. 

Robert Rigney: How many albums did you have with Essay?

Job Chajes: We had the remixes, ZarazaKatla and Mokum. So four. But now all the rights are back with us, and we are selling them ourselves. We have our own shop.

Robert Rigney: At the end of the nineties, there was this phenomenon in Germany called Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the East. There was RussendiskoBalkan Beats and Shantel’s party.  When was the first time that you became aware of this fashion for Eastern Europe?

Job Chajes: It started much later in Holland, with us. Because when we would play, people would say to us, “Hey, it sounds like the music of Underground. You are playing that music.” Yes, we were playing klezmer, but we were mixing it up with Gypsy music.  Because by then it was more crude material that we were playing. It was actually when Theo joined us in 2001 then much more Balkan sounds came into the band. Before that it was klezmer with some kind of Gypsy influences, some Balkan music and the songs of Alec, which is a certain Russian-Jewish style of songs.  And the idea that there was a Balkan Beat hype, it was not before 2004, 2005, when we got to know Shantel. We knew that there was this album called Balkan Beats. I think that was you, Robert. 

Robert Soko: The compilation which came out in 2005. But I started playing in the year 2000.  But it took a while to get somewhere.

Job Chajes: Yes, and that was the time. And then it was the Balkan Beats hype. And people were saying, “Oh, you are enjoying the Balkan Beats hype.” Well, we were already touring in clubs. 

Robert Soko: You were already one of the people setting the stage for what was to come later. 

Job Chajes: I think so.

Robert Soko: Definitely. Given your history now – you already doing it in the nineties. Bregović, Kusturica, Fanfare Ciocărlia, Amsterdam Klezmer Band…But of course, it was not on the big scale because you just started. Right?

Job Chajes: And we were looking up – some of the band members were looking up to Ciocărlia and Fanfare de Haïdouks. They were inspirational for us. The other Macedonian group: Kočani.  I was totally in love with Kočani and Taraf de Haïdouks. It was very inspirational to hear them play. And it’s funny because Taraf de Haïdouks, it was my parents who saw them before I did. They saw them in 1993 or 1994. They were already touring and had come to Amsterdam. They were such a great Gypsy band. 

Robert Rigney: When did you see Taraf for the first time live?

Job Chajes: 1996. 

Robert Rigney: I asked Alec what his favorite Amsterdam Klezmer Band LP was,  and he said it was with this Turkish, Gypsy Thracian band – what was the name of that album again?

Job Chajes: Katakofti.

Robert Rigney: How did that come about? And that was the first time that you played with Gypsies, wasn’t it? Or recorded with Gypsies. 

Job Chajes: It wasn’t the first time we played with Gypsies, but it was the first time we did a real collaboration. Well, like I said, the moment that other people started joining the group – we have a very special combination of people.  Everyone is putting in a very great deal of energy, and people have their own networks and some people have big ideas. Usually a band is formed around one band leader, and Amsterdam Klezmer Band has seven – well, not seven band leaders, but has seven equal personalities; we are a collective. The Turkish adventure was because the mother of our trumpet player, she had an organization in Amsterdam that was bringing Turkish people, Turkish musicians and singers to the theaters in Holland.  And she is also a translator for books.  She also translated Orhan Pamuk in Dutch. And because of her network she could bring the Amsterdam Klezmer Band to Turkey. She was in contact with the World Music scene in Turkey.  So we did some tours in Turkey in 1999, the first time, and in 2001. And then we sat down with Hasan Saltık from Kalan Records – I think he has passed away in the time being – and so we sat down with him in 2002, and he said our music was played in Turkey, because people really loved our music, and maybe we could break open the market even more with a collaboration.  So then we came across the Galata Gypsy Band.

Robert Rigney: From Istanbul?

Job Chajes: From Edirne. There were some beautiful musicians that were also very inspiring. I will never forget that we came in Istanbul to rehearse with them and also record. And we entered the hotel, and they were playing songs of ours. It was so great to hear our music played in a very traditional Turkish Gypsy way.  It was mind-blowing.  Like, wow.  And it was also proof that the music that we were playing was in a certain way timeless and without borders. The way they were doing it, they were doing it totally in their own style, but the music was standing straight and very firm the way they were playing it. 

Robert Soko: Did you ever play in the Balkans, by the way?

Job Chajes: No.

Robert Rigney: Why not?

Job Chajes: Hardly ever.  We have played in Hungary, in Bulgaria and Romania, but  it was never a serious touchdown, so to say. 

Robert Rigney: Why did it never take off in Belgrade or Sarajevo?

Job Chajes: We never played in Belgrade or Sarajevo. Maybe because of the conflicts. And maybe because there is already so much of this music within the borders.  They don’t need to get an expensive band from Amsterdam.

Robert Rigney: One of my favorite albums was the collaboration with the Hungarian band, Söndörgö. That was the first time that I got exposed to this band. In the time being I’ve listened to all of their stuff, and it blows me away. How did this collaboration happen?

Job Chajes: That’s nice, because our bass player is a very open-minded person and he is very much in the moment, and he is always looking for new kinds of music.  He is really like a music freak, and he is sucking up all kinds of music.  He was attending one of their concerts in Haarlem.  And we were about to have a collaboration with Konsonans Retro because the way we are moving is we are making a band album and we play with that, we play in clubs, whatever. And we also like to make collaborations. It’s not like one collaboration, one album.  So we were planning this collaboration with Konsonans Retro, but there were some doubts within the group, whether the collaboration would be really fruitful, and whether we could really have a good collaboration with them, because they are simple boys from the village in Ukraine.  And so we had a meeting and Jasper says, “I got to know this band. Remember, I played them in the bus and blah, blah, blah.” And I was not really keen on them because I really liked the sound of Konsonans Retro and the way that they have this traditional vibe around them, and I could really see it happening – a big Ukrainian klezmer sound. But I thought to myself, I also have to be open-minded. And so I said, “Why not? Let’s meet up with Söndörgö and see if it works.” And they were on tour, in between Scandinavia  and France, and we invited them and had a jam and the spark was right there. Because Jaspar saw them and he said, “This is such a great band.” But I didn’t feel that vibe on the albums that I heard. I thought it was really clean and all. 

Robert Rigney: How did you account for that affinity that you felt with Söndörögö? The spark that you mentioned. 

Job Chajes: We went into a rehearsal space and we started playing. We decided to play songs for each other.  So it was like two groups meeting each other.  And that moment that we played together we just became one group.  We were talking the same language. Of course coming from different backgrounds and everyone had different techniques and a different way of approaching music. But still the communication was very lively, very clear. And inspiring. And then we decided that we had to make a project together. And everyone wrote music.

Robert Rigney: It seems that every AKB album has at least one track that is, not only danceable, but club-tauglich as they say in German, a dancefloor hit. How do you balance this desire for club hits and a more traditional klezmer sound?

Job Chajes: Yeah, that comes down to the different faces that we have.  We have many different faces. We have the face of a band that is searching for good improvised jazz vibe. We have the face of Alec singing beautiful songs. We have the face of me singing rap songs in Dutch always on danceable grooves. We have the face of being a bigger instrumental group and making arrangements either for listening songs, to listen and kick back on. But primarily the music that we make is dance music. Eastern European dance music. And one song is written with the idea it could be a dancefloor killer and finally the audience and the DJs pick out the one they love the most.  I have the feeling it’s one but some albums have three, four, five or six.

Robert Rigney­: So the band consists of seven members, each with very distinct tastes and sometimes different lifestyles. Is the relationship within the band always harmonious?

Job Chajes: Have a guess.

Robert Soko: That was actually my question. Alcohol. Why do I ask it? Because I have dealt with many bands, and I know the back stage dynamics, and often alcohol is being massively used/abused. I remember Boban Marković Orchestra being kicked out of the hotel and me having to fight for having them stay there. How is it with you guys? Are you heavily drinking or are you all good, standup Dutch citizens?

Job Chajes: We are really neat people. 

Robert Rigney: Alec as well?

Job Chajes: Alec, usually when we have a show, after the show, he is off to the hotel. And often where he has friends or Russians – you know, at the moment Russians are a different subject – but usually he is very chilled. He goes to the hotel after the show and goes to sleep. He does his thing. He’s not a party animal.  And actually, nobody is a party animal. Anymore.  We used to be. Some of us used to be. Not all of us. Definitely not all of us. Our accordion player is a very stiff, boring person. But his playing is wild, you know. At the moment he is dealing with health issues, has been for three years now.  So when we play abroad we take someone else. And I get people complaining, “Oh, it’s a shame Theo is not there. Because the way he is playing and grooving is so good.” But he is rather boring.  But as a musician he is incredible. The clarinet player, Janfie van Strien, is incredible, but he is fifty two now. No, now we are a quite relaxed bunch of people. The only thing is we like our privacy. So if you book us you have to book eight hotel rooms instead of four. And we are flying with an accordion and a trumpet, a trombone. And we don’t want to have any stress, so we book extra seats for the instruments. Handle with care. 

Robert Rigney: So Amsterdam Klezmer Band is 25 years old. Are there any anecdotes that stick in your mind about touring or any other aspect of the band’s experience?

Job Chajes: Yeah. Of course, a lot. One thing is for instance – but those things are usually ugly things, you know?

Robert Soko: This is what we want to hear. Ha-ha.

Job Chajes: Well, it was not long ago that we were reminded of one day that we were in Switzerland. It’s a long story, actually. So the trombone player got us for a show in Switzerland. And he said, “The food is going to be great. We are going to have raclette.” Well, okay, I love raclette, you know. But our clarinetist is very keen on eating healthy. And he was not happy. Until me personally, we had such a huge fight about the food, you know, that it almost ended up in a fight. It was like very close. And then in the evening we played in a discotheque which looked a bit more like a brothel, and actually I think it was a brothel. There were girls that would come around and latch on to you for drinks.  And the trombone player who arranged the show, he did very bad publicity, so there twenty-five people there. He had to pay us like three thousand franks. And at the end of the evening we said, “Ok, we’d like to have the money now.” “Oh, shit, no – I don’t have it.” “Yeah, okay, well, that’s not our problem. Where is it?” “I’ve got to get it in my hotel room.” “OK, hotel room. We will join you to your hotel.” He was really drunk you know, tottering.  So we joined him, or rather brought him to his hotel. And then he comes down and says, “I don’t have enough.” And so we said, “OK, so you need to get some extra cash from the bank. So finally we drive to the bank and found that all the money was there. And we were like, “bye-bye”. This was a very funny story. But it was a very peculiar day. 

Another thing was when we were playing in Turkey. There were six of us. It was in 2001, in the summer. And there was one guy. He was the driver. There were seven or eight people in the van. And the double bass was in a huge flight case on top of the van. And we had a very long night drive from Ankara to the sea.  And everyone is very sleepy, and suddenly – Boom! And one thing I can say is the double bass that Jasper was playing, it was the double bass of the maitresse of my grandfather.  So there was a family connection between me and the double bass. And what happens is I look out the window and I don’t see the bass anymore. And I say, “De contrabas is weg!” So the van stops and we get out, and it was still there. So no reason to panic. But this is a quote which has been a running joke now for around twenty years. “De contrabas is weg!”

Robert Soko: Job, in these twenty five years that you have been around, is there anything that you could have done better? That you think that you should have done. It’s a cliché question. But when you look back in retrospect, would you have done something different.

Job Chajes: Let me think about it as I take a leak…So, Robert and Robert.

Robert Rigney: And there are a lot of things that we have in common. We are both 52 years of age.

Job Chajes: You are no coincidentally twins without knowing it?

Robert Soko: That’s a good point. I don’t think so…Yes, the philosophical/historical question: What could have been done better. Or worse. 

Job Chajes: Well, you know, it’s a very personal question. Because everyone has dreams and ambitions. But I had to think – it’s something that has been on my mind for a  number of years. I don’t remember which year it was, but we were invited to make music for a film. And it was the film called “The Rabbi’s Cat”, from Antoine Delesvaux. It was an animation movie. And the music was written by a French composer and it was executed by a North African ensemble with the singer Enrico Macias, quite a famous French singer, who was a Jewish guy born in Algeria. So he sings Arabic and in French.  So there was this very nice Andalusian, North African vibe. And there was Amsterdam Klezmer Band with an Eastern European, Russian klezmer vibe. And what I think is that our band – everyone knows we can party and make a beautiful show. But I think we can also be very good at making film scores. And I think that that is a thing that I would like to do. If we could turn back time I would say ten years ago, “Guys, let’s make another track instead of making studio recordings as usual.”

Robert Rigney: Which venue do you enjoy playing the most? Maybe in Amsterdam where you have a home crowd that makes the shows out of the ordinary.

Job Chajes: That is a really difficult question. Because we have played Paradiso at least ten times, and every time it’s different. There’s a different audience. You know, we have been in existence for 26 years. The first time in Paradiso was in 2000. And we played there less than one month ago. And the show that we did one month ago was one of the best that we have done ever. And the crowd was one of the best crowds ever in Paradiso. But we have played incredible parties on Sziget festival. I remember certain gigs in Vienna at Ost Klub, where we played once or twice. Or Germany. We played the Lido several times. That was amazing, with 600 people going crazy. So, I cannot say there is one place. But what I do like the most is playing for an enthusiastic dancing audience.

Robert Rigney: What’s the attraction of Paradiso in Amsterdam. I take it, it is an old venerable club.

Job Chajes: It is a church, actually. But it’s not a church like you would imagine a church to look like.  It’s a big hall and a bit rounded in the back with columns with some steps up, and two balconies all around. So when there are a lot of people, there is a very good atmosphere.  There is a lot of focus on the stage.  The sound is usually terrible.  When I was a teenager I used to go see rappers there, and later funk bands. I used to like that kind of music, still do. Usually the sound is not so good.  For us we have to work really hard to get a good balance. But the atmosphere is great.

Robert Soko: Magic. Which I can confirm, and I would like to add that with the corona outbreak I thought that this whole East European, klezmer, Gypsy, you name it wave or trend was over. And then I went to Amsterdam and the 15th of September 2022, and then I see Amsterdam Klezmer Band playing in front of 1,200 people – packed – and the mesmerizing atmosphere in there, like you could almost grab it. I didn’t know that it was a church, though I should have drawn the conclusion. And I was, like, “Wow, we are not dead.” And somehow you encouraged me to still somehow believe in this.  Well, what do I want to say? I just wanted to mention this for the sake of the book, and to also somehow ask you, “Where do you see yourselves now? How long should it go?”

Job Chajes: We have a new manager and we have a new booker.  Our new manager is having talks with everyone in the group because he wants to make a new mission statement.  And you are before him, because I am supposed to meet with him one of these days. Where we are now, is that we are in a very positive flow. Because of these concerts that we did at Paradiso. We had a great show in Sziget in August. Even in Germany two weeks ago we had some very nice shows.  And last weekend we played at an alternative festival outside of Amsterdam with freaks and young girls going crazy. Amsterdam Klezmer Band is alive and kicking. 

Robert Soko: Another 25 years maybe?

Job Chajes: I don’t know.  The thing that we all would like is to keep on playing, but to have more time for ourselves.  Amsterdam Klezmer Band has been pushing it at least for the last ten years. We are also funded by the government. We have a contract and we have to set forth what we are going to do for the next four years. We have various projects, we have to make an album, this tour, that tour.  So we are preparing for the next four years. And we are delivering, but it takes a lot of energy.  When we don’t play, we rehearse or we have to do a brainstorming session.  We have to write texts for a kind of newsletter. We have to do the Instagram thing, the Facebook thing, the Twitter thing. There is an ongoing financial thing. There is a lot of work within the group.  It’s not only playing.  I just turned 50 and the trumpet player will turn 50 next year, and we have families. And we feel that the band is booming and everything is great. We want more quality for less effort. We played Das Konzerthaus in Vienna. One thousand, three hundred people. It’s a stage with a lot of dignity. Or Paradiso with more than a thousand people. Or the Royal Theater in Amsterdam where we also had twelve hundred people. Next to the clubs and the theaters, we want to have bigger concerts. We deserve it. 

Robert Rigney: Well, Job, thanks for the interview.

Job Chajes: Thank you.