Hal Aqua talks about The Lost Tribe, the early days of Swallow Hill, and more

As the creative force behind the popular Jews Do concert series, and leader of the klezmer fusion band The Lost Tribe, Hal Aqua is well known to Swallow Hill and Denver audiences.

This has been a particularly busy month for Hal. Last week’s Jews Do Who Knew? concert at the Central Presbyterian Church added another successful chapter to that series. On February 23, meanwhile, The Lost Tribe play Tuft Theatre here at Swallow Hill.

Hal recently had a moment to catch his breath and answer several questions for us about his upcoming concert, the Jews Do planning process, playing music with his children, and the earliest days of Swallow Hill.

See Hal Aqua and the Lost Tribe in Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill Music on Saturday, February 23 at 8 p.m.

Hal Aqua and The Lost Tribe play “klezmer fusion music.” I know your sound is constantly evolving and that you continually draw in new influences. What can audiences expect to hear at your concert in Tuft Theatre on February 23?

We’ve been hard at work on a new album called Klezmer Without Borders, and we’ll be previewing a lot of the songs at our concert on February 23. A theme that emerged as we worked on this project: echoing the political and social turmoil of the present day with the tumultuous period in Europe between World Wars I and II. So we rework some tunes from that period (including a song by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht), and alternate them with original songs that use funk, reggae, and middle eastern grooves and rap-inflected lyrics.

You daughter Annie is in the band with you. She must have grown up in a musical household, how does it feel to share the stage with her? What have you learned from her as a musician?

Well, nothing makes me prouder and more grateful than playing music with Annie and her older sister Zoë (a violinist who lives in Brooklyn and is a rising presence in the NY klezmer scene). From Annie in particular I continue to learn how important it is to take musical risks and put in the time and effort to learn new styles. In addition to our band, she performs with Spinphony, a pop/classical group, and Zuruna, a Middle Eastern ensemble, and she’s adept at everything from Balkan music to country fiddling. Whenever I feel like an old dog who can’t learn new tricks, I look to my daughters for inspiration and energy.

Hal Aqua and The Lost Tribe
Hal Aqua and The Lost Tribe perform at KlezFest 2018 at the Mercury Lounge in Denver. Photo by Jake Holschuh
You just completed another successful Jews Do concert – congratulations! These concerts have become an annual event, how soon do you start thinking about the next one?

Right after a Jews Do Jews concert, the musicians are still buzzing with energy and good vibes, and everyone has suggestions for next year’s event theme. I politely jot down everyone’s suggestions and then take a break from thinking about Jews Do Jews for at least a couple of months, after which I try to approach it with a fresh take. I usually start discussing it in earnest with Roger Menell during the summer.

You created concert posters and events calendars for Swallow Hill just as we were getting off the ground in the late 1970s and early 80s. What was it like to work with (at?) Swallow Hill in the early years?

When I moved to Denver from the East Coast in 1973, I felt like a fish out of water until I discovered my two comfort zone spots: Denver Free University and the Denver Folklore Center. I spent many hours hanging around the Folklore Center in the ensuing years and got involved with the transition from Harry Tuft’s music store and concert venue to the fledgling nonprofit Swallow Hill Music Association. I served on the first board of directors, did some pro bono graphic design work (calendars and posters), played in folk and traditional music groups, and helped launch the Swallow Hill Troubadours, a roster of volunteers who brought live music to nursing homes and hospitals.

Do you have one or two memories that really stick out to you from the early years of Swallow Hill? Has anything from those early days carried through to the present-day Swallow Hill?

What I remember fondly about the folks who were dedicated to Swallow Hill in the early years was an attitude that today would be called DIY and then was a seat-of-the-pants approach. Few of us were experts in fundraising, marketing, running a nonprofit business, or much of anything practical… we mostly just loved playing homegrown music and hanging out with like-minded people. That was a long time ago, and some of my old friends have “stepped on a rainbow” (to quote Kinky Friedman), but many of those friendships have endured and mean a lot to me.

From what I can see about Swallow Hill Music these days, the organization has certainly learned how to build a successful nonprofit and expand in both numbers and professionalism… and yet somehow has managed to retain that homey, friendly atmosphere that attracted us old folkies back in the ’70s.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I hope to see new and old friends at Tuft Theatre on Saturday Feb. 23! It’s a warm and intimate space that will be perfect for a klezmer party.

See Hal Aqua and the Lost Tribe in Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill Music on Saturday, February 23 at 8 p.m.