An Exclusive Interview with Veteran Musicians Shabsi Parnes and CM Schwarz
It’s 3 a.m. on a summer Motzoei Shabbos and Shabsi Parnes is on his way back to Monsey after a meeting with the Munkatcher Rebbe up in Monticello. He’s driving along Route 17 when he suddenly sees flashing lights and hears sirens behind him. He is being pulled over by a cop, a big scary looking cop, who asks him for his license and registration. Shabsi doesn’t know why he’s being pulled over, but he cooperates and hands over his documents. As it happens, his license reads “David Parnes,” and not “Shabsi.” The trooper stares at the documents for a long time and then shines his flashlight into Shabsi’s face. Finally, after a long pause, he asks, “David? Aren’t you really Shabsi?”
At 3 a.m., Shabsi thinks to himself that he must be hallucinating. And then, the trooper starts to laugh. It turns out he is Jewish, and as a young child he would attend JEP’s release time program for public school kids. He remembered Shabsi playing the music at those events all those years ago and he recognized his face. Even the name David didn’t throw him off.
Such is the awesome power of Jewish music.
It can be argued that more than the caterer, the photographer or the florist, it is the musicians who are integral to creating the atmosphere and the spirit at our Yiddishe simchos. Shabsi Parnes and his colleague, CM (Chaim Moishe) Schwarz, are widely considered trailblazers in this specialized field. Immensely talented and intuitive, they have both been on the music scene for several decades and have seen significant trends come and go. The following exclusive interview is a tribute to their outstanding work.
PLAYING SINCE CHILDHOOD
Both musicians started playing at a young age and began their musical experience on the accordion. (Anybody remember those?) Since those days, of course, the industry has undergone major changes, most notably when the keyboard was introduced a little over twenty years ago - only back then it was referred to as “the Casio.”
But their careers really took off several years later, when the concept of the “one man band” became a reality at Jewish simchos. And they both became iconic leaders in the industry, skilled at making one musician sound like six.
HISTORY OF THE ONE MAN BAND
Shabsi credits the chassidishe olam for creating this revolution in simcha music. Back in the 1980s, the Berach Moshe of Satmar implemented a takanah for his olam. He stated that only those baalei simcha who hired a one man band would be allowed to celebrate the chosson’s aufruf in the Satmar shul. He did this, Shabsi explains, in response to difficult economic circumstances at the time. It was a takanah that the Satmar olam, even the wealthy among them, took seriously.
“Suddenly,” says Shabsi, “I had a job every night.”
Pretty soon, other chassidishe kehillos, such as Pupa, decided to follow in Satmar’s footsteps, especially when simcha guests attended these weddings and were amazed by the quality of the sound.
Of course, there were plenty of naysayers who refused to believe that one instrument could sound so good, and the Litvishe olam in particular was reluctant to jump in. Shabsi says it was Rabbi Mintz, who had heard him play at a chassidishe chasunah and was greatly impressed, who tried it first. The rest, as they say, is Jewish musical history.
A one man band can only play at one simcha at a time, so Shabsi decided to encourage his friend, CM, to join the business.
Says CM, “I consider Shabsi to be my ‘rebbi’ in one man bands. He really showed me the ropes.”
CM remembers that the concept of hiring a one man band evolved slowly. He began playing at bar mitzvahs and sheva brachos on a regular basis, but chasunos only came later. He remembers that it was Rabbi Yaakov Reisman who first hired him for a chasunah.
“That’s when things really took off for me,” says CM.
Thus began an era of transition on the simcha scene, with a few determined pioneers blazing the trail for everyone else. People realized that one astute, skilled musician, with the proper updated equipment, can sound amazing, and that their simcha could be tremendously leibedik. The olam was loving it, and not just because they were saving a significant amount of money. According to CM, many baalei simcha felt that they had more control over the volume and the type of music being played when they were dealing with one dependable and experienced musician.
RUNNING A COMPUTER WITH A KEYBOARD
This is not to say that anybody who plays a keyboard can be a simcha musician. The instrument that these musicians play is actually quite complex. Shabsi explains that playing a keyboard at a chasunah is like “running a computer together with a keyboard.” He says that “you’re doing a lot of things at the same time.”
These musicians start out with sophisticated high-end keyboards, but that’s only the beginning. CM points out that “you have to be megayer the instrument.” Apparently, keyboards come preprogrammed with “goyishe” beats and rhythms and need to be reprogrammed for Jewish music. It’s a complicated process that can only be done by a specialist, and it’s also an expensive process. Add this to the original cost of the keyboard and one realizes that these musicians are making a very significant investment.
THE ROLE OF THE VOCALIST
Years ago, an orchestra featured five or six musicians, but very rarely a singer. Today, the singer is an integral part of the simcha, especially for the chosson and his friends.
Shabsi says it was Michoel Schnitzler who started this trend, which began at chassidishe simchos primarily to make the music more leibedik.
Most musicians are delighted with this development, as it certainly adds immeasurably to a simcha, and the singers generally work very well with them. They only caution baalei simcha to think twice before hiring a superstar.
“You don’t want to turn the chasunah into a concert,” Shabsi explains. “Although, to the credit of these singers, many of them take a wireless mike and join the crowd on the dance floor.”
NO COMPETITION IN A COMPETITIVE INDUSTRY
Both musicians emphatically state that everyone in the one man band industry is dedicated to helping each other.
“We have the highest regard for our colleagues,” says CM. “We recommend each other whenever we can.”
One evening, when Shabsi was scheduled to play at a simcha pro bono, he called CM and told him that his van had just broken down and he needed to have it towed. “Can you take over for the first hour?” he asked. Of course he would.
Another musician will call to say that his speakers suddenly malfunctioned. CM will be there within minutes to supply him with new speakers.
Of course, the abundance of Yiddishe simchos, boruch Hashem, means that there is usually plenty of work for everyone. Still, it is this kind of camaraderie and fellowship that makes these players so pleasant to deal with. They are, above all, a group of very nice guys.
CM Schwarz tells the story of a friend who is playing at a sheva brachos when he notices an unusual sight. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees one of the guests walking over to the keyboard and examining the wires intently. He pulls a wire, holds it for a moment and then shakes his head and puts it down. Then he continues examining the wires. The musician is perplexed. What in the world is this guy doing? Eventually, it all becomes clear. The men are about to daven Maariv. The fellow forgot to bring his gartel. He finds a wire that is the proper length and wraps it around his waist. Then he joins the rest of the group for Shemonah Esrei!
THE SIYUM IS THE ULTIMATE SIMCHA
The ultimate job for these two “ultimate” musicians is clearly the Siyum Hashas. Nothing else quite compares to that experience. CM Schwarz played at the last two Siyum Hashas events, the second time at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey. He was scheduled as a backup musician at the most recent Siyum in MetLife Stadium, but in the end it turned out it wasn’t necessary. He says that playing at a Siyum Hashash is by far the most memorable experience of his career.
Shabsi played at the Siyum Hashas this past August and he calls it “the ultimate job.” Being privy to all the behind-the-scenes preparations, he was amazed at the ongoing siyata diShmaya all night long.
“Murphy’s Law went to sleep that night,” he says. “So many things could have gone wrong. Boruch Hashem, it turned out to be unbelievable.”
He remembers looking up at the massive crowd and thinking that Moshiach must be coming right then and there.
“It was a tremendous zechus,” he adds.
THE FUTURE OF SIMCHA MUSIC
So where do we go from here? Are there other trends emerging in the simcha industry even as we speak?
CM mentions the new “takanah halls” that have evolved recently, where baalei simcha are offered a package deal that includes an in-house caterer, florist, photographer and musician at a cut-rate price. He agrees with the concept, he says, but wonders whether these halls could consider an “open market” policy in which any musician who is willing to accept the price could be considered for the job.
Shabsi finds that there are two big issues now taking center stage in the industry. They are the debates over the type and the volume of music being played. He says that the issue of loudness may have increased in recent years because of the acoustic conditions in the newer simcha halls. Years ago, simchos were held in grand old Italian ballrooms, many of which were carpeted along the walls, ceilings and floors. That element of décor, outdated today, served to absorb much of the noise level of the music.
“Now,” says Shabsi, “there’s nothing to absorb the sound. No carpeting, no curtains - just sheetrock and mirrors and high ceilings. The music simply echoes and reverberates off the walls. It can make you crazy.”
He says he tries to spread the speakers to minimize the effect, but it doesn’t help much. He also says that he never wears earplugs, because “I need to feel like I’m part of the wedding, not like I’m in the next room.” Inevitably, he follows the instructions of the baalei simcha regarding the level of noise.
As far as the type of music being played, Shabsi realizes that there are members of the community who are offended by some of the choices, but he feels he must concede to the wishes of the baalei simcha. He says the problem could be eliminated if a “mashgiach” of sorts were in charge of the affair, supervising the music and the dancing.
“Several roshei yeshiva are actually doing this,” he adds. “They insist that if their talmidim want them to serve as mesader kiddushim, they must approve of certain other aspects of the simcha. If other roshei yeshiva would follow suit, it would certainly be a tremendous help.”
It’s a hot summer day and Shabsi arrives at a simcha hall in Brooklyn only to learn that the heat wave has caused a major blackout. “What are you doing here?” asks the manager. “Don’t you know there’s a power outage? We are cancelling the simcha tonight.”
Shabsi sees the look of disappointment on the faces of the kallah and her family and decides to take action. “I called a friend who I knew had a generator. He said it was available, but it is located on the top floor of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.” Shabsi zooms over there with a friend, and together they drag the 300-pound generator down the stairs in the pitch dark hallway. They bring it to the hall, hook up the music, and are ready to begin.
“It was a beautiful simcha,” Shabsi remembers. “All the tables were lit by candlelight. We had a terrific first dance.” When the generator ran out of gas, it was refilled by siphoning gas from someone’s car. The gas held out until the very end of the wedding. It’s a simcha he will never forget.
A VERY SPECIAL ZECHUS
It may be their chosen profession, but neither Shabsi or CM take their work for granted.
“Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l once approached me before the chasunah of one of his grandchildren,” Shabsi remembers. “He told me to say a special yehi ratzon to be mesameiach the chosson and kallah. I’ve been saying it before every simcha ever since.”
Says CM, “My biggest satisfaction at the end of the night is when people come over and say how grateful they are, that I really made the simcha so special.”
At the end of the day, say these musicians, they never forget that what they are doing is a tremendous zechus.
And we can say that when dealing with such refined, mentchliche yirei Shomayim, the zechus and inspiration are truly ours.