In 1921, in the Mayan village of San Lucas Tolimán on the shore of Lake Atitlan, the village elders decided that San Lucas Tolimán needed its own marching band to help celebrate the annual Semana Santa fiesta.  The fiesta is a rich fusion of Christian and indigenous traditions, involving processions and festivals, for the holy week before Easter.  The elders hired a music teacher from out of town, who recruited a group of children for the band.  The maestro acquired instruments suitable for a European-style marching band, and music books.  After 6 months of instruction, the maestro chose the most promising students to form the San Lucas Band.  After three years, he left town.

Fifty years later, in 1972, two ethno-musicologists, Kathryn King and Linda O’Brian, were in the town of Santiago Atitlan observing the Semana Santa fiesta.  They heard a band from nearby San Lucas Tolimán, creating a sound they had never heard anywhere, on an odd set of instruments:  violin, cornet, alto saxophone, baritone horn, snare drum, cymbals, and bass drum.  The musicians included the two surviving members of the original San Lucas Band and younger replacements.  The sheet music had long since been lost. The music had evolved and absorbed elements of traditional Mayan music, and to the ears of most of us would be unrecognizable as European-style marches, although the ethno-musicologists could detect the original structure of marches.  The band also incorporated music that had become traditional in Guatemala in post-colonial times, and Mexican mariachi tunes.

King and O’Brian did not have the recording equipment with them to make a recording at the time, but they returned two years later to San Lucas Tolimán to record the band and they produced an LP album.

Around that time, my brother Ron, a professional symphony cellist in San Diego, was forming a band he called “The Big Jewish Band.”  At that time the Jewish immigrant musicians from eastern Europe were dying off, and the Jewish music scene was ripe for what would later be called the Klezmer Revival.  Ron’s band did not try to reproduce an “authentic” sound of traditional Yiddish music.  Instead, professional musicians all, they played instruments that were not their own, so they applied a sophisticated musical sensibility and great enthusiasm, joyfulness, and energy, without a lot of instrumental technique.  They started out playing the traditional Yiddish music from Europe.  They became increasingly interested in Yiddish Theatre music, a fusion of Yiddish music with tin pan alley, jazz, Broadway show tunes, and the tango.

At the same time, Ron had acquired the record of the San Lucas Band, and was deeply immersed in it.  Apparently it informed his esthetic, as we shall see.  The klezmer revival took off, and it did not sweep the Big Jewish Band along with it commercially.  The band disappeared after a while.   I recently heard recordings of the Big Jewish Band, and their sound held up very well with time. They really were ahead of their time.

More decades passed.  Recently Ron played an old recording of the Big Jewish Band for a musician friend, who was amazed that they had been creating that sound back in the early 1980s*.  His friend commented, out of the blue, that it reminded him of the San Lucas Band, a recording obscure beyond obscure, that almost no one has ever heard of.

So this prompted Ron to try to locate the women who had made the recording and ask them about it.  He located one of them and called her up, and during the conversation she was surprised to discover that Ron was involved with Yiddish Theatre music.  And she told him that she was the ex-wife of the grandson of Alexander Olshanetsky, one of the most famous Yiddish Theatre composers.

So now I am about to perform in Santiago Atitlan next week, where Alexander Olshanetsky’s ex-grand-daughter-in-law first heard the San Lucas Band.  And of course I will tell this story before I play Olshanetsky’s tango, “Ikh Hob Dikh Tzufil Lieb”  (I love you too much).


*The recordings of the Big Jewish Band are from the early 1980s.  The band broke up in 1984, re-formed as Robboy’s Jewish Orchestra in 1987, and petered out a few years later.