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Perpetual Change — Schmekel

| Sep 26, 2011
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This month’s featured artist, a band called Schmekel, derives its name from a Yiddish term that is explained in the interview.  There are other Yiddish terms as well as terminology related to Judaism throughout the article.  There are many good online Yiddish and religious dictionaries available to help with the true meaning of these terms.

I recently came across a real gem of a find — a band called Schmekel.  On their website, they describe themselves as “Queer- Jewcore from Brooklyn — 100% transgender, 100% Jewish.”  Musically, they’ve created their own niche with a sound that can be called polka punk, with influences of jazz, klezmer, and rock.  They have  been compared to what it would sound like if The Kinks crashed a bar mitzvah.

Band members are Lucian Kahn – guitar, vocals; Ricky Riot – keyboards, vocals; Nogga Schwartz – bass, yelling; and drummer Simcha Halpert-Hansson.  Lucian and Ricky are the principle songwriters, although Nogga also writes.  There’s not enough space to go into detail about their lyrics or to reprint them here.  Let’s just say it’s some of the most creative lyrical content you’ll find from any band, anywhere.

After my initial contact with the band, and their agreement to do an interview, what I received back by way of their answers was input from each band member.  That practically never happens when interviewing a band.  I’m glad they did this, though.  The resulting article/interview offers real insight into what it means to be a transgender Jewish musician in New York City. Schemkel is a talented and very fun band whose members are not afraid to speak up when it comes to trans issues. So, for your continued dining and dancing pleasure, TGForum is proud in introduce Schemkel to our readers.

TGForum: I love unusual band names, so the obvious question is, what does Schmekel mean? I know it must be Yiddish.

Nogga: It means small penis, and the reason for that name is, well, we adopted it as a term to describe transmasculine genitalia.  Most people laugh at the name and are entertained by it.  My mom’s reaction when I told her was, “Well, at least you’re not ‘Schmuckel’!” Schmuckel is a larger dick, or an idiot.

Lucian: Some trans guys, like some guys in general, have small dicks.  We live in a culture where big dicks are valued and small ones can be a source of shame, but personally, I’m rather fond of my little guy.  Actually, celebrating small dicks turns out to be rather subversive.  My family and friends were actually more accepting of my transition after I started a band called Schmekel, becasue the absurdity killed some of the melodrama of the situation. It’s hard to be angry with someone who is singing about a small penis.

Ricky: I never mention the band name when talking to my family.  I just say ‘my band.’  One time they asked what we were called  so I told them, and they made that disappointed parent face.  Sometimes I’m around decent proper Jews and people ask what my band is called, I just have to say “the name isn’t appropriate so I can’t say it here, but I’ll send you a link.’   Which of course I only do if I’m out to those people.

TGF: Of the four members of the band, what are the musical backgrounds/influences of everyone?

Simcha: I grew up at the tale end of grunge and the explosion of Green Day, so I have always carried those particular roots with me.  I wanted to occupy the street-punk drummer role that I saw Tre Cool performing

Lucian: I started playing guitar when I was 10, writing songs when I was 12, and fronting rock bands when I was 13.  My earliest songwrting influences were The Beatles and grunge rock, but around age 15 I discovered Frank Zappa, and he’s still probably my biggest influence lyrically, along with Tom Lehrer and maybe Stephen Sondheim. Musically, lately I’ve been listening to The Stooges and Television.

Ricky: That’s all over the place.  Early influences are Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Placebo, Tool, Deftones, and trip hop and industrial bands. After I was done being angsty, I listened to a lot of jazz, which is a very long and pretty standard list.  What I’ve been listening to lately is The Smiths, Phil Ochs, Sleater-Kinney, the Distillers, Le Tigre, Peaches, PJ Harvey, Hole, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Neutral Milk Hotel, Gogul Bordello, Balkan Beatbox, They Might Be Giants, some Israeli bands like Poliana Frank, Hamachshefot, Dafna Ve’ha’ugiot, and the Palestinian hip-hop band DAM.   Piano influences come from Roti Amkos, Ray Manzareck, and various blues and big band jazz pianists.

Nogga: Bass was something I picked up when I was 14 and I wanted to be in a punk band with my best friend.  Then I met Ricky when we were 15 and we started a band in high school.

TGF: I found some information about some of the side projects of various members, such as Ricky being involved in “Twilight Of The Idle” and Simcha’s projects.  Are these projects still in the works, and if so, how do you balance schedules?

Ricky:  “Twilight Of The Idle” is a project I started back in college.  I had that for about 5 years with different band members, recorded two albums, and won a Fresh Fruits Festival award under that name.  It’s no long in operation. I’ve performed solo under Ricky Riot since then, but not in a long time since I haven’t written any new songs outside of Schmekel.  I’ve scored some short videoclips, and I’m always up for accompanying singers and poets when the opportunity is presented.

Simcha:  I’m interested to know what you found!  Moving to NYC has zapped all of my time in the time it takes to travel alone, so I have no time for anything aside from pursuing my BA at the New School and Schmekel.

Lucian: When I’m not playing in Schmekel, I’m teaching English as a second language to adults from all over the world.  Sometimes when I have shows on work nights, I end up sleeping for five hours on Simcha’s couch and just hoping I still know English in the morning.

TGF:  I’ve found mention in some of the articles about the band that you’ve managed to find congregations that are accepting.  How hard was that, especially with your families?

Ricky: Not hard at all . . . so many of our friends are queer Jews.  I’m a bit of a high holiday Jew, but I’ve been to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah on a few Shabbatot.

Lucian: CBST is the first synagogue I’ve really felt comfortable in as a queer person in my entire life.

Nogga: I left my family congregation after I moved out when I was 18.  It was not because they had much of a problem with my slow but obvious social transition.  I was still quite involved with NCSY National Congregation of Synagogue Youth, but quickly phasing myself out of there as well due to the fact that Orthodoxy and my rampant queerness were not going to mingle happily.  I was listless for awhile, and went to the Hillel at Columbia a few times, and did some learning and Shabboses at my Rebbe’s house.  Then I discovered Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.  My first services were Yom Kippur High Holy Days, and my boyfriend came with me.  When I got there I was so ecstatic.  I finally felt like I had found home.

Simcha: For me, as a genderqueer individual on the transgender spectrum, it will always be hard to be seen.  So when I go to shul (which I don’t do as often anymore),  I may find acceptance, but I’m not going to be visisble.  I will undoubtedly be read as a twelve year old boy and I can choose to either explain the binary to the members at my congregation, which mostly the nature of chit-chat doesn’t allow for, or I can try to focus on why I came there.  So acceptance inside a shul continues to be hard for me on the basis that I do not fit in the man or woman category.   My family, bless them, are a remarkable group.  I am lucky to have such a supportive base given the stories I have heard about other trans folks families.  They have their own struggles, but I will give them credit for trying.

TGF: What type of venues does the band play and how often?

Ricky: We play at house shows, colleges, and Queer events.  On average, about twice or three times a month.

Simcha: We really just go where we’re wanted as long as the organizers understand we’re a punk band and therefore we’re going to sonically  fill up the space.  We’ve played a few shows where people didn’t get that, but it’s all a learning process.

TGF: What kind of reaction has the band gotten from audiences?  Any negativity, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Ricky: People laugh at our jokes and dance the hora to our songs and we love it.  All of our shows so far had either been at Queer spaces or spaces that are very largely Queer.  No negativity yet, but we played on show where they either didn’t get it or didn’t care and that was weird.

Simcha: We’ve only played one or two shows where we were playing for people who didn’t get it or weren’t into how loud we are, and that really was equal parts our fault for not investigating the space and the lineup and also the fault of the organizers for not investigating our sound. In  those situation, we’ve just played as best and as quickly as we can so we can leave and minimize time wasted.  We’ve never encountered anyone who hasn’t appreciated what we sing about.

Nogga: I wouldn’t say we have gotten any negativity.  Mostly people seem to be ecstatic and really enjoying us, despite the few puzzled faces.

TGF: What kind of advice would you offer to other musicians, trans or not, who are just starting out?

Ricky: Have some kind of work you can do in addition to playing music.  It doesn’t make you a hobbyist, it just means that you need to eat.

Lucian:  Connect with your audience.  It isn’t all about your feelings.  There are people standing out there!  Hi, people!.

Nogga: Have fun.  If it isn’t fun, it is work and work sucks.  Also, if you aren’t having fun, it shows, and your audience will not have fun either and  then it just sucks.

Simcha: I guess, given the meandering road I’ve taken as a young kid who wanted to pursue music professionally, and then going out to catch that dream fresh out of high school only to find it wasn’t realistic and that plans  stuck to for years had the ability to rapidly disappear, to being approached by Ricky to join Schemkel and having this project receive an immense amount of attention,  leads me to see how dreams happen when you’re not looking.  So, don’t look too hard — one’s goals with music will find them.

TGF: If you had one thing to say to the transgender community as a whole, what would it be?

Lucian: Thing one: If you have the ability, make a regular practice of doing something with your time that helps others.  It’s really grounding.  Thing two: trans guys don’t have a free pass to be sexist; we need to be good allies to the women we know, especially transwomen.

Simcha: There needs to be more intersections between the various transgender and gender non-conforming communities.  To me, this means dialogue between transsexual men and transsexual women as well as dialogue between those two groups and butch-identified folks and genderqueer folks.  For me, unfortunately, the word transgender has become conflated with transsexual and that means whomever ID’s themselves on the TG spectrum is automatically assumed to be TS — that has been my experience belonging to this band, especially.  People . . . assume that because we are 100% TG, that means we are all 100% transsexual males and that we all use “he/him/his” for pronouns, when in fact that’s not how I identify at all.  I feel like a lot of resentment exists between gender-noncomforming folks and transsexual folks as it relates to visibility.

Nogga: Laugh more!  In times of extreme oppression and sadness, that’s when we must laugh the hardest.  Laugh in their faces.  Laugh with your lover, what ever it is.  Laughing releases tension and raises the spirit and we need spirit to make things happen.

Ricky: Thanks for letting me into your family.  I love you all.

 There are three Schemkel songs available for download at bandcamp.com.   The band is also planning on releasing a full-length album, but no release date has been posted yet.  There are also some great videos of the band on YouTube as well as their own site, as well as a  very good article about Schemkel on jewcy.com.

ALSO THIS MONTH

Unless you’re living in cave somewhere, you are probably familiar with Chaz Bono’s appearance on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars.  Earlier this month, on Good Morning America, Bono said of the controversy that his appearance has caused:   “It’s made me realize I’m really glad I’m doing this because America really needs to see this.  You know, it just kind of shows why for me it’s important to be on the show, because so little still is known about what it means to be transgender, and there’s so many just completely inaccurate stereotypes and thoughts that people have.”

Bono published a book entitled Transition earlier this spring, and as part of the promotion, did a one hour special on the Oprah Winfrey Network called Becoming Chaz.

One interesting little factoid in all this is that some of Bono’s defenders are people you wouldn’t expect.  None other than Bill O’Reilly stood up for Bono on the Monday, September 19th broadcast of his O’Reilly Factor.  Another Fox News contributor, Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist, had written an article stating that parents should not allow their children to watch Dancing With The Stars because seeing Bono might turn some sensitive, questioning youth into a raging transgender person.   While O’Reilly didn’t discuss trans issues per se, he did defend Bono’s right to do what he wants. . . . and Mr. O’Reilly got the pronoun correct.   Not everyone who considers themselves a conservative is on the far, far right. . . . just as every liberal person doesn’t come from the extreme left.  There will always be room for intelligent discussion when both can meet in the middle.

New Videos

Gloria Estefan has a video for her new tune, WEPA, from her Little Miss Havana album.    This is a return to her Latin dance floor roots, being a combination of classic Miami dance groove and Dominican “meringue” music.   The video is available on YouTube.

Yet another former Pussycat Doll, Jessica Sutta, has released a debut single.   Sutta’s Show Me, on Hollywood Records, is the first music taken from her soon to be released debut project.  A video of the tune is available online. (Sutta is also on Facebook and Twitter)

Jennifer Lopez’s Papi, taken from her recent J Love album, now has a video.

Upcoming performances

Tona Brown

Robert Urban and Roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes encore gig of their Still Crazy After All These Years (10 year anniversary of working together), is scheduled for Friday, September 30, at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (at 7th Ave.), New York, NY.  A video of their performance of Shine is on YouTube and prideshowcase.blogspot.com (For more information phone  212-255-5438)

Classical musician and vocalist Tona Brown will be performing at the Baltimore black Pride Cultural Affairs Icons We Love event, held at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute on October 8th.  (The event is at 847 Howard St., Baltimore, 7-11 p.m.  Tona Brown can be found on Facebook and Twitter.)

Miss Coco Peru will be at The Re-Bar in Seattle, 1114 Howell St.,  October 14th & 15th, 8 p.m. (For more information call 206-233-9873).  Coco will also be at the Laurie Beechman Theatre (inside the West Bank Café, 407 West 42nd St, New York, NY) on November 3,5,6 at 7#0 p.m. and November 4th at 9 p.m..

New Dance Music

A remix disc of Skylar Grey’s Invisible, taken from her Invisible album is now available.

Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger featuring Christina Aguilera, has been released on a remix disc.

Frankmusik (a.k.a. Vincent Frank) has released a disc of pure dance music entitled Do It In The A.M..  Produced by Frankmusic and Martin Kierszenbaum, the album’s 13 tracks are pure dance.  The lead single from the album, The Fear Inside, also has a video that was shot in downtown L.A.  Other notable tracks are:  No ID, released as a single, is a duet with Colette Carr; Footsteps, an up-tempo pop/dance track, and No Champagne is another duet, this time with Natalia Kills, which is actually quite melodic.  If you’re wanting anything outside of dance music, this isn’t it. Do It In The A.M. is pure dance, front to back.


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Category: Music, Transgender Opinion

Pam Degroff

About the Author ()

Pamela DeGroff been writing for TGForum since the start of 1999. Her humor column, The Pamela Principle, ran until 2005. She started the Perpetual Change music column in May of 1999, and in 2008, Angela Gardner came up with the idea for the Transvocalizers column and put Pam to work on that. Pamela was a regular contributor to Transgender Community News until that magazine's demise. While part of a support group in Nashville called The Tennessee Vals she began writing for their newsletter, and also wrote for several local GLBT alternative newspapers in Tennessee. Pamela is currently a staff reporter for a small town daily paper in Indiana, and is also a working musician.

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