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When music is a family matter, harmony is easy

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A thread that weaves its way through different generations, a powerful way to connect and express ourselves creatively, music has been a unifying force in numerous talented families.

For renowned opera singer, Aviva Pelham (73), some of her best memories are of performing with her sisters, Naomi and Ruth, also talented singers. It started with their parents, Santa and Jack, who knew one another only through letters before becoming engaged.

“These two strangers lived a 63-year marriage, and the things that glued them together were yiddishkeit, the fact that they were both casualties of war situations, and music,” says Pelham. “They were both highly musical. There was always music in the house, and my mother had a stupendous voice.”

This passion, particularly for opera and Yiddish songs, was passed on to the couple’s three daughters. “There would be two of us playing piano duets from different sides of the house and there was always a lot of singing and harmonising,” Pelham says. “We used to sing in the car, at picnics, at Shabbos, at lunch. It was very natural, our voices resonated with one another.” Although, as adults, the sisters have long lived in different cities, they remain bonded by music, rehearsing telephonically and performing together whenever possible.

Having built an illustrious opera career, Pelham used music to convey her mother’s fascinating life story through her acclaimed musical, Santa’s Story, which she performed internationally.

“My mother herself used to come onstage in her 90s and sing for the encore – people were so moved. We filmed it so that after she passed away, it was still on the screen behind me as an encore. In Sydney, I had four generations singing simultaneously. There was my mom on the screen, and my son, Adam, and his daughter, Noa, alongside me onstage. It gives me enormous joy when my family take pleasure in music. Hopefully through my singing, directing, mentoring, and teaching, I have inspired others through music.”

Indeed, one of the many performers Pelham has influenced is her great niece, Ariella Barnett (25). Naomi’s granddaughter, Barnett is a passionate actress and singer who recently penned her own musical, a three-women show titled Feeling Pretty, soon to be performed in Cape Town. Her grandmother, great aunts, and especially Santa’s Story had a particular impact on her.

“I grew up listening to these stories from my great granny, Santa, and from my grandmother, Naomi,” Barnett says. “Seeing Aviva performing it live on stage through musical theatre was a big moment that spoke to me about what I wanted to do with my life. It was also a special way of connecting to my heritage and ancestry.”

Barnett’s mother and Naomi’s daughter, Natalie Barnett, have also been touched by music. “One of the most magnificent experiences for me was to sit in the Baxter Theatre and see my gran, my mom, her two sisters, and my two daughters all singing in Yiddish together on stage,” she recalls. There was another occasion where Natalie joined her family singing at the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

“It was much more than just the four generations; it was thinking about the past and how we have this unbelievable Jewish heritage through music. My gran, Santa, as a refugee survivor, represented that. Her legacy is to pass that down to her three daughters, and to me and to my daughters, who will pass it down to their children. There really is something spectacular about that thread of music that connects the generations.”

With the marriage of Pelham’s daughter, Gabi Sulcas, to Craig Nudelman, another musical thread was added to the family tree. Craig, his sister Leigh, and brothers Jake and Zach are all very musical. Craig and Leigh, performed with the Pelham sisters and all the Nudelman siblings have sung in shul choirs. Leigh also plays the saxophone, Jake the piano and keyboard, and Zach the guitar and bass guitar. Together, they form The Nudelman Band. “Making music together has become almost habitual when there are family gatherings,” says Zach.

Music connected the family during COVID-19. “For the past two years, the four of us have put together songs for our Pesach seders,” says Leigh. “We live in three different cities and couldn’t come together in person like we usually do because of the pandemic, but through technology, we got our voices together. It was very moving.”

“It’s been a massive part of our relationship as siblings to share in our love for music,” says Jake. “Not only because we have something to enjoy together, but also because we have all influenced one another’s musical journeys.”

Growing up in a musical home with a piano-playing mother, the siblings recall singing along to the Disney musicals that formed the soundtrack to their family holidays. “My parents also listened to Classic FM, where I got a taste for classical music,” says Nudelman, who sings for the Symphony Choir of Cape Town. “I later found a love for chazonus and classical singing.”

Leigh has also used music to do outreach work, and has delved into her Jewish heritage by making a celebrated Yiddish-language album. “Music has always been inside of me,” she says. “It allows me to discover the parts of myself I never knew existed, to connect with my family, and with those who are far removed from me, like the homeless.”

Music also connects brothers Isaac and Matthew Klawansky, who both infused it into their careers. They recall becoming completely engrossed in the songs their parents would play on road trips, their dad’s 60s and 70s rock n roll and their mother’s classical tunes. Matthew also credits his mother for sending him, Isaac, and their two other siblings, Daniel and Ruthanna, to music lessons early on.

“Music was always just part of our lives,” says Isaac. “My mom played the violin for as long as I could remember, while my dad used to be a drummer. Growing up, he played in a band with his two brothers and a friend.”

Matthew, now a music and podcast producer and one half of husband-and-wife musical duo, Breindy and Matt, loves the fact that two generations of brothers have performed together. “Hearing those stories about my dad and uncles and bouncing ideas off them and my cousins, who are also musical, played a big role,” he says.

Matthew discovered his beloved guitar at around 11, while Isaac was hooked on drums the minute his father bought a drum kit. “He gave me one lesson on how to get all your limbs moving at the same time, and taught me a simple beat,” recalls Isaac, who has since drummed for well-known groups including Shadowclub and Flash Republic. “It was the most valuable drum lesson I’ve ever had.”

Once they chose their instruments, the brothers would spend hours jamming in their parents’ garage. They were sometimes joined by Ruthanna on violin. “Having each other to play with was hugely beneficial to our musical growth and relationship,” says Matthew.

“Matt and I formed a band together with a friend, and played together for ages,” says Isaac. “Even though we’re in different cities now, I still often collaborate with him.” Having played together for so long, the two instinctively feed off one another’s strengths.

A deep connection to music and the memories and emotions it evokes continues to bond the family across cities and continents. It’s an appreciation that’s filtering through to the next generation. “When I play the songs I grew up with to my kids, it creates new experiences for them and reconnects me to my childhood,” says Matthew.

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