Twenty years ago, inspired by a klezmer tune playing on an Auckland café’s stereo, Hershal Herscher picked up his accordion and started playing the music his grandfather Harry had brought to New York from the Ukraine. 

The rhythm he was pumping out acted like a magnet on three musician friends who were in the caf that day, fellow Americans Nigel Gavin (mandolin) and Kelvin Roy (trumpet), and Kiwi singer Linn Lorkin. Next thing you know they were all jamming along. From that nucleus The Jews Brothers Band was born. 

The owner, Gerhard Lottermeyer, was intrigued by the sound and offered them a regular Sunday afternoon gig at his cafe in exchange for a croissant and coffee each and, as if by magic, people came out of the woodwork to check out this new “exotic” music played by a rather eccentrically named band. Even the local rabbi appeared surreptitiously one Sunday, (asking Hershal to remain stumm about it since the cafe was not kosher). The Sundays at Gerhard’s Cafe became a rousing success. After a short time tea-chest bass (Harmen Hielkema aka “The Dutch Clutch”) was added to the line-up and the band asked Gerhard for a raise: he offered them two coffees and two croissants. (Don’t laugh, they accepted!!!) 

This all occurred in the mid 90s at the height of the klezmer music revival in the USA. No Jewish bands as yet existed in New Zealand and very quickly The Jews Brothers Band cornered the Jewish mitzvah market (weddings, bars and bats) both in New Zealand and Australia. While not strictly a klezmer group, (for one thing they had neither clarinet nor fiddle, the two most essential klezmer instruments), their original repertoire was loaded with Yiddish wedding horas and some other Yiddish favourites familiar to Hershal from his childhood. 

Over the next few years the band’s repertoire morphed from traditional klezmer tunes to originals with the same vibe although the band still begins each concert with a medley of old wedding staples. As Hershal puts it, “I believe that by starting with a few of the oldies it not only reconnects us with our roots but also helps ensure the stamp of approval from the audience. People like to know they are getting the real deal”. 

The largely original repertoire that sprang from the song-writing talents of Herscher, Lorkin and Gavin (with additional material by local song-writer Arif Usmani), may have taken them away from pure klezmer music but at the same time is reflective of the fun and comedy schtick that has always been a part of Yiddish-American music and theatre. With jazz-style improvisation and swing rhythms added to the mix and an emphasis on interesting and charming vocal arrangements the band is in a sense re-inventing the genre. 

The line-up has changed too: mandolin has become guitar, trumpet has turned into saxophone and the tea-chest bass has been replaced by upright double bass. There’s a good mixture of nationalities here: two Jewish New Yorkers (Hershal on accordion and Nigel on guitar), a Jewish Londoner (Peter Scott, the bassist) and two non-Jewish New Zealanders, Neill Duncan on tenor and drums and chanteuse/ melodica player Linn Lorkin. 

Duncan’s experience with the New Orleans style “Blue Bottom Stompers” has made him an invaluable player in the JBB which emphasises the ‘swing’ rhythms that were part and parcel of American klezmer bands in the 1930s and 40s. Add to that the virtuoso playing of Gavin, (ex Robert Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists), the groove slap bass of Scott ( ex Madness), Herschel’s pumping accordion and Lorkin’s passionate singing and you can see and hear why this group has been described as the ‘best swing band in the land’.