Tuning up the band: CMU students bring melodies from across the globe to Mount Pleasant
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When she first heard the bombastic Eastern-European folk music erupt from the stage at a local coffee shop, Melissa Bialecki was floored by the frenetic energy displayed by the 10-piece band.
“It was raw and raunchy,” she said of the April 2013 performance at Kaya Coffee Shop. “The thing that struck me was the power. I’d never heard anything like this. I was blown away.”
Bialecki was so captivated by the show that the Monroe senior, majoring in music performance and education, eagerly sought out band leader Mike Romaniak to become a member of Kavazabava.
Now playing cello in the group of CMU music students, Bialecki quickly fell into place, mastering the bass lines and melodies.
“I wanted to be a part of it immediately,” she said. “I was welcomed very warmly. I’ll be jamming with these guys for a while. We’ll all be gypsies.”
The band first introduced their “Balkan Klezmer Gypsy” music in Mount Pleasant in October 2012. Their acoustic instrumentation allowed them to engage in guerilla marketing at public places such as Wal-Mart and around campus.
“Being a band that can play acoustically is definitely an advantage,” said Romaniak, who sings and plays sopilka, a small wood-wind instrument. “Performing anywhere and everywhere is best. I think the community is going to accept us as something unique.”
Romaniak, a second-year grad student in music composition, first began putting together the band, whose name means “Coffee Party” in Slovenian, with a neighbor who overheard him playing the sopilka in his apartment.
Their decision to play eastern European folk songs, Romaniak said, was influenced by his Ukrainian heritage.
“It’s a personal thing,” the Toronto native said of his music choice. “I was brought up listening to this music.”
The normally 10-piece band, which has occasionally grown to 15 or 16 musicians, features several horns, up to three guitars and other classical stringed instruments.
They have gone through several recent personnel changes as multiple members left the area and were replaced. New recruits, Romaniak said, must quickly pick up on melodies and rhythms as they negotiate the multitude of fellow musicians.
“We do have a revolving door of bandmates,” Romaniak said. “When a new person does come in, they’re thrown into the lion’s den. It’s hard to give them individual attention at rehearsal.”
Planning a string of weekly performances at Kaya Coffee Shop in October, Romaniak looks forward to increasing the diversity of Mount Pleasant’s humble music scene.
“The overall goal is to promote a more eclectic scene here,” Romaniak said. “There are not many venues to play, and the ones that do exist are sort of particular about what they want their sound to be. With open mics and open minds, we’ll be able to bring something new.”
Along with next month’s residency, closing out Kaya’s Wednesday “Open Mic” nights each week, Kavazaba is also planning to tour in the next year, fostering creative relationships with other musicians around Michigan.
“We want to bring something fresh to those places,” Romaniak said. “We’re hoping to meet other musicians as well.”
Percussionist Kevin Stobbe, a Romulus senior in music composition, met Romaniak when the band leader was touring CMU before enrolling in his graduate program. Stobbe quickly fell into place as the drummer and has kept the pace ever since, despite a grueling study schedule.
“Music school can be dry and stiff,” he said. “They ram classical down your throat. (Kavazabava) is about making music fun again, getting people up and dancing. You’re able to make goofy faces at them, make it more than a show.”
According to Stubbe, the band operates without written sheet music. As the drummer, he enjoys the group’s strong emphasis on rhythm.
“I wave my arms, and they follow,” Stubbe said. “Everyone just makes the atmosphere their own. It’s so fun, why would I ever want to miss it? I try to make every gig.”
Guitar player Mike Burgess, a Fenton junior in audio production, said the practice sessions allow him to blow off steam during moments of stress. The group practices for one hour each week, on the second floor of CMU’s music building.
Burgess first discovered the group while on a scenic bike ride home to relieve the anxiety of exams.
“It’s my favorite hour of the week,” he said. “Music has always been my go-to thing when I get to that stress level. This band, these people, and this type of music do it for me.”
Jake Lubbers, a Muskegon senior in music education performed on trumpet during his third rehearsal, Wednesday. By having to quickly adjust to the free-form nature of Kavazabava, he said his musical instincts have grown noticeably in just three weeks.
“I’m just kind of thrown in,” Lubbers said. “Learning by ear is an important skill for a musician. I’m finally starting to develop it.”
He’s also begun developing new friendships in the band. From the very beginning of his short time with the band, Lubbers already senses camaraderie.
“The biggest thing I feel is a sense of community,” he said. “There’s not as much pressure as there usually is when performing. We can experiment. It’s about coming together and making music. I wanted to do something outside the standards. I wanted to do something for myself.”