Hanukkah Hootenanny

Casco Bay Tummlers
Illustration by Kyle Hildreth

A Portland-based klezmer band hammers out a toe-tapping tradition.

In the late 1800s, millions of Eastern European Jews immigrated to the U.S., schlepping instruments and a distinctive brand of get-off-your-tuchus-and-dance folk music called klezmer. As immigrant families assimilated, that music gradually disappeared. But in the 1970s, klezmer enjoyed a comeback, and in 1988, the Casco Bay Tummlers formed in Portland (a “tummler” being someone who can rouse a crowd). They play their Horah-friendly tunes everywhere from bar mitzvahs to local concerts to international music festivals. As the group gears up for Hannukah shows — and heads into its 30th year — we kibitzed a while with clarinetist Steve Gruverman.

When someone hasn’t heard of klezmer, how do you describe it?

The music for Fiddler on the Roof is derivative of klezmer. Or I would say, “Have you ever been to a Jewish wedding?” A lot of people are familiar with “Hava Nagila.”

How’d you get into the genre?

I’ve been playing different kinds of ethnic music for a long time, and everyone always said I had a klezmic sound. I was really interested in jazz in high school, but I was petrified of improvising. Klezmer improvisation is a different story in that the chord progressions are usually a lot simpler than in jazz, and sometimes you improvise not even on the chord progression, it’s just on a scale or a mode. It doesn’t have the same intimidation factor.

Maine has a somewhat limited Jewish base to draw an audience from.

Our audience isn’t necessarily a strong Jewish contingent but people who are interested in different kinds of music. We have a regular monthly gig at Blue, in Portland, and we take advantage of the crowd there to adapt the show. We’re apt to try out new tunes or stretch out improvisations. If we’re playing for a bar mitzvah, we’re going to play less of that and stick to more traditional things.

Even when you’re mixing things up though, is tradition still the group’s raison d’etre?

We all love music and play different kinds of music, but klezmer connects us to our families and ancestors and heritage. Not everybody who’s been in the band over the years has been Jewish, and I don’t think anybody in the band has ever been a religious Jew, but for us, connecting to being Jewish is important.

Tummlers gonna tummel. Catch the Casco Bay Tummlers on Thurs., Dec. 7, at Blue (650 Congress St., Portland; 207-774-4111); Wed., Dec. 13, at the Temple Beth El Hanukkah party (400 Deering Ave., Portland; 207-774-2649), and Sun., Dec. 17, at the Congregation Etz Chaim Hanukkah party (36 Bacon St., Biddeford; 207-284-5771). Visit cascobaytummlers.com to learn more.