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The story of a klezmer who created the xylophone and captivated the world with his art.

On the rainy day of October 22, 1837, a funeral procession could be seen moving slowly in the streets of Aachen. It consisted of a few sad relatives and members of the funeral brotherhood of the local Jewish community. The procession went out through the town gates Jakobstor and headed for the Jewish cemetery. The clock struck 2 p.m. The rain would not stop. However, when the last words of the prayer were finished, the wind tore the clouds and a few sun rays came through and lit the earth in which Mikhael Guzikov found his rest.

Birth of the virtuoso.

Mikhael Guzikov, a famous virtuoso musician was born on October 2, 1806 in Shklov in a family of a Jewish klezmer musician Iosif Guzikov.

Iosif Guzikov had a few sons, who, just like all the Jewish children, attended a cheder. They were taught music at home by their father: they had to inherit their father's profession. When the children grew up Iosif established a family band, which was considered to be one of the best in town. Father played the flute, Mikhael also chose the flute, while his elder brothers played the violin and the contrabass. They had to invite other musicians to play the clarinet and the drums. The band members did not know how to read music notes but they all had absolute hearing and excellent memory, which allowed them to accumulate an enormous repertoire and expand it constantly.

At the end of 1828, when Mikhael lived separately from his parents, was already married and had two children, he fell ill with tuberculosis. This meant he could not play brass instruments. So, he began learning to play a traditional Belarusian wooden percussive instrument called "bruski", which was used by some klezmers. The sound came out when you hit special sticks on wooden blocks of different length. Guzikov perfected the blocks, creating a modern model of a four-row xylophone of two and a half octaves of chromatic scale. He also changed the shape of sticks that hit the wooden blocks. He called the new instrument a wood and straw harmonica.

Researchers still cannot say for certain which parts of the instrument were made of straw. Most probably they were just decorative elements. Mikhael not only created a new instrument but also expanded the ways of using it, which made it popular among many virtuoso musicians.

Mikhael's musical gift allowed him to expand the repertoire quickly. The new performances included new remakes of old Jewish, Ukrainian, Gypsy and Russian folklore melodies. The instrument became a solo in the band. The new original sound and diverse repertoire made Guzikovs' band extremely popular. They were now invited to performances in Kiev, Kharkov, Poltava and Odessa. The musicians also listened to new European music based on Paganini themes, music of Rossini, Veber, Gummel and others.

In 1831, when the Guzikovs were performing in Kiev, an outstanding Polish violinist saw their concert. He was captivated by the music of the Jewish musicians and the authentic sound of the new instrument, created by Mikhael. Owing to his references, the band started giving eprformanes in Warsaw, Krakow and Lemberg (present Lvov).

The popularity grew so quickly that soon the band could be seen performing in France, Germany and other European countries. In 1835 Guzikov reached Vienna, one of the world music capitals. In Vienna he gained such fame that people began calling him the Paganini of wood and straw harmonica.

Mikhael Guzikov's band was the first klezmer band that toured in Western Europa at that time. In fact, his concerts promoted the interest in Jewish folk music all over the world, especially in Europe and America in the 1920s-1930s.

"The Jewish newspaper", No. 6 (94)
June, 2010

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