Isolation Drills: Dan Blacksberg

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Blacksberg: The year 2020 is over, and we get to look ahead to a shiny, exciting 2021. At least that’s what’s “supposed” to happen. The vaccine is here! Life is going back to normal soon! Start booking gigs again! You’re going to hug your friends! Whether you thrived or just barely survived, you did it!

But here I am in February of a new year and the pandemic is still peaking. People are still getting sick and dying, and we don’t have the help we need from people in power. I still have to awkwardly air hug with friends and family, and my work calendar contains blank spaces instead of exciting performances. 

It’s so easy to feel bad or scared when I’m in my day-to-day that I have to work harder than I’d like to to remember: I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m most thankful that I don’t have to face these hard times alone. I get to live with my wife and our cat. I have friends and colleagues who really stay in touch, who I still get to see from far away and on Zoom.

I’m a part of an international community bound together by our mutual love of klezmer music and Yiddish culture that actually stays tight on social media. And I’m very thankful that I can continue to make a living as a musician by teaching privately and doing my work at Temple University—where I founded and lead Temple Klezmer and teach in the jazz department—all online. I’ve released an album from one old band (Joy, by Electric Simcha) and have another from another old band (II, by Superlith) that just came out. I’m a lucky man, and I don’t take any of it for granted. 

Some days, though, I find I’m adjusting so fast to the pandemic “normal” that I need to actively remember everything I’ve lost. Three-quarters of what was supposed to be one of my most exciting years performing music, evaporated. Momentum for my own music and for bands I play put in stasis at best. A good 50-60% of my income that I was just starting to solidify so I could plan farther than the next month or two, gone. It’s actually devastating, and I’m sure I haven’t looked at how much this has actually hurt me, materially and spiritually.

But I am so lucky. I can’t overstate how much of a life preserver being part of the klezmer community is. We were used to spending most of the year apart, only coming fully together a couple times a year for big festivals, which all happened online. Not only was I still able to teach at these festivals, but the good feeling and the connection between everyone, even after hours on Zoom, was so sweet and energizing.

At the cabaret at Yiddish New York in December, people stayed on zoom for more than six hours, just hanging and listening and watching each other perform from their homes. Some Europeans stayed up all night and into the morning! It’s a testament to how our shared love for music and culture can grow to encompass clear love and care for each other. I’m grateful beyond words to know in my heart that I can count on that right through this awful time. 

Back in March, when none of us had any idea what was going to happen, it felt for a little while that musicians everywhere were suddenly on the same level. None of us had any work, and so the hierarchies that sometimes exist to keep the power structures in the music business set looked like they might be changeable. But by the summer, people with power and resources used them to solidify their places. I actually hated watching people reiterating their tiers of fame or importance. 

So as the weather thaws and we get our vaccines, I hope we can remember how we were all in this together and what we have are each other. Instead of thinking about how I can get ahead, I want to focus on growing our connections with each other.

In Philly, I play some klezmer and a lot of experimental music—all music where you have to want to do it to do it. (You won’t get rich from either one.) We’ve got great people here in both fields in Philadelphia, but we need some help sticking together and getting back on our feet.

In 2021, I want something more for all of us, and I’m searching for ways to safely make that happen.