Gustavo Bulgach, clarinetist, likes to talk about the three spaces that music exists in—the past, present and future. Blowing into his clarinet, he states “the air must come before the note—and leaves afterward. You must make the air flow before you can ever make music.” Likewise, he is extremely conscious of finding that third component of music—the now—and living inside it. That sense of collectiveness and being part of the present is a big part of why Gustavo is one of the most highly-regarded clarinetists in LA
Gustavo also brings that same sense of the present to his band, Klezmer Juice. “Music has to be conducted by someone,” Bulgach states, “like a religious experience.” And when you learn to behave in the present, it’s something you start doing naturally. “My role is to conduct the band—and really draw in the crowd,” he continues, which is something he does effortlessly these days—and exactly why Klezmer Juice is gaining in popularity every day.
Gustavo got into Klezmer music as a child, in his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His mother used to sing both Yiddish and Hebrew songs at home (“that’s how you truly learn this craft”, muses Gustavo.) His grandfather Samuel, a Russian immigrant, came to Argentina in the early 1900s. He helped build a synagogue, which then expanded to a school, where he served as president for many years. Gustavo states, “we used to go to the synagogue, you know, the Hassidic ones where the men gather on the first floor and the women go up to the second floor, and watch both the services and the weddings. I fell in love with the Yiddish orchestra. Every time I play—even today—I feel like I’m playing with that orchestra.” However, he also soaked in the secular music of Argentina, learning folk music, sambas, tango—and had some classical training, and studied themes and variations, as well. Here, he also realized that if he mixed his two musical backgrounds, people would like the result.
Bulgach moved to NYC in 1992, where he met and collaborated with Kevin Johansen, a US-born, Argentina-raised singer-songwriter, who is now popular worldwide. A year later, he moved to Los Angeles, where he formed a band, Black Coffee and Jam—which soon became the House of Blues Foundation House Band. He worked in that Hollywood venue for six years, soaking in a wide variety of sounds, and growing as a result. He also played with Chris Botti and Panamanian rapper El General, and composed and performed the theme song for the movie A Wonderful Life, starring Bai Ling.
In Los Angeles, Gustavo met legendary bass clarinetist/saxophonist Bennie Maupin (featured on Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew), who had a profound effect on his development. Under Bennie’s mentorship, the full potential of Gustavo’s Klezmer music came to fruition. Maupin encouraged him, telling him, “You are Jewish, and Argentine, that in itself is a vast and profound background, and you have to represent yourself, your family and your people in every single note you play. That is the true mission of a MUSICIAN: you do not choose the music, the music chooses you.”
After recording their first CD, Actions Speak Louder Than Words, and having the good fortune of performing in The Wedding Crashers, Gustavo began meeting more people, from wider and wider backgrounds. All of which has made Bulgach realize that it doesn’t matter where music comes from. If it serves its purpose—to make listeners want to dance—anyone can like it. “When I perform in L.A., the biggest crowd is Mexicans and South Americans,” he states, “and they tell me they know the music, and they dance to it.”
And therein lies the greatest potential for music, Bulgach realizes: it can actually help people get along better. “If people get to understand each others’ background and get to know the culture of the other communities, they’ll stop hating and a peaceful revolution is going to happen,” he states. “If you dance to someone’s music, then it is impossible to hate them.”
Centuries ago, no matter what the culture, spiritual healers were often usually musicians, too.
Today, Gustavo Bulgach is adopting some of that same philosophy: using a little bit of the past to create something great now—that might, in the long run, help all of us grow together.