The Chai Folk Ensemble comes back to life

The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble has appointed a pair of new artistic directors: Jesse Popeski and Sarah Sommer.

The ensemble is also no stranger to the ensemble, which has been singing, playing and dancing to Jewish and Israeli music for crowds across the city and around the world since its founding in 1964. Renowned guitarist on the music scene local, Popeski joined the Chai Orchestra. in 2015 and eventually became the band’s musical director.

“It all started because they needed a guitarist,” says the recent graduate of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of music, who says he was the first member of his family to become a musician, let alone to join and one day lead a Jewish folk music group. together.

Not so for Sommer, a singer, music educator and choir director who is named after her late grandmother, Sarah Sommer, the organization’s namesake, founder and, although she has no official title, its first artistic director.

In 1964, Sommer’s grandmother brought the group together for the first time, leading young dancers in rehearsals held in the basement of the family’s Garden City home, listening to the folk tunes on a record player while walking the stairs. The ensemble grew in size and reputation, performing across the country and earning rave reviews not just as a dance group, but as a choral group, accompanied by live music.

Five years after the founding of Chai, which means life in Hebrew, Sarah Sommer passed away. But the group continued to perform and continues to maintain a presence in the city, with dozens of performers and musicians keeping intact the original vision of sharing Jewish and Israeli culture through music over the years.

It’s a big undertaking, says Sommer, who performed with Chai for a decade and served as vocal director before taking a break to focus on her teaching career and continue studying singing. she recently completed her post-baccalaureate degree at the University of Manitoba, under the tutelage of singer Tracy Dahl.

“It’s not something I had thought about or seen myself doing,” said Sommer, who was flattered by the opportunity. “It’s a big job. But the more I thought about it and talked about it with others, the more I came back to it. It’s very different. I’m no longer a performer, so (Jesse and I) can create a vision and put it in their hands to execute.

For the past seven years, veteran Chai performer David Vamos has led the band as artistic director and has been involved with the ensemble in various capacities since 2002. Popeski said he was delighted to take on the role with Sommer and build on what Vamos has established during his tenure.

The last major projects supervised by Vamos are about to see the light of day. One is the release of Chai’s latest album, A big Light, which features some of Chai’s older standards as well as newer contemporary numbers, says Popeski. From the start of the pandemic, the group – which consists of more than 30 singers, dancers and musicians – began recording.

Two years later, the album will be released on June 16 at the Royal Manitoba Theater Centre, the ensemble’s first live performance since before the pandemic began. Popeski says the concert will feature the album played back and forth, with the dancers, singers and musicians fitting in for something “different from what we’ve done before.” Ticket information is available at

“We’ve all seen over the past two years how arts groups have had to change and evolve to reach audiences and survive,” Sommer says. “We’re so excited to get back to live performances and find ways to push boundaries and connect with people.”

After the show ends, Popeski and Sommer will officially assume their new roles.

Ben Waldman

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