Richard Shulberg: Musician and radio presenter known as ‘Citizen Kafka'

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The Independent Online

A man of many parts, among them, broadcaster, musician, film projectionist and cafébookshop manager, Richie Shulberg first came to notice as Citizen Kafka on WBAI-FM, the left-orientated, largely donor-financed Pacifica Radio Network station in New York. Few get to blur the distinction between icon and iconoclast quite as well as Citizen Kafka – “The Citizen”, or Sid Kafka, for short – did.

Shulberg, born in the Bronx, grew up in Canarsie in Brooklyn. As a teenager he played violin in orchestral and folk settings, although his real passion was for bluegrass music: he formed his first bluegrass group with two others during a holiday camp.

According to Johnny “Angry Red” Weltz – itself the alias of the violinist Kenny Kosek – Shulberg created his Citizen Kafka alter ego around 1976. Citizen Kafka first entered my consciousness while I was editing the magazine Swing 51. Cassette tapes of his monthly Citizen Kafka Show were circulated samizdat fashion.

Shulberg’s next development was the Wretched Refuse String Band, fronted by Shulberg himself, with lineups drawing on a pool of top-notch musicians including Kosek, the electric guitarist Jon Sholle, the mandolinist and wind player Andy Statman and the banjo maestro Tony Trischka. A movement called “newgrass” was redefining and reinventing bluegrass music and the Wretched Refuse String Band were the feral force behind the New York scene. On their 1978 album, Welcome to Wretched Refuse!, they played Bill Monroe material as if Lord Buckley had waylaid them on the way to the recording session and plied them with illicit substances before handing them on to Slim & Slam. One track, for example, was a deconstructed, tongue-in-cheek version of the actor, singer and comedian Danny Kaye’s “Thumbelina”, an apposite testament to the band’s anarchic spirit.

One of Shulberg’s foremost radio creations was a programme called The Secret Museum of the Air, which he created with Pat Conte. Broadcast on WBAI and later WFMU, these voyages into forgotten musical worlds drew on their personal record collections, with music from New Caledonia to Central Asia, North Africa, Bulgaria, Puerto Rico and beyond. Shulberg took 40 hours to digitalise each instalment, filtering out physical clicks and scratches by ear and audio technology.

After the Shirah Kober Zeller Foundation underwrote the project, Shulberg was able to concentrate on his passion for archiving. The Yazoo label, which specialises in early American blues, country and jazz, released a series of Secret Museum volumes.

The annual “Thank God the Citizen is Still Alive” concert is going ahead, as the Wretcheds would say, with or without him, at Brooklyn’s Jalopy venue on 9 May 2009. The Citizen is survived by his wife Annie Rech and their daughter, Sarah.

Ken Hunt

Richard Stephen Shulberg (Citizen Kafka), musician, broadcaster and music archivist: born the Bronx, New York 20 November 1947; married Annie Rech (one daughter); died Brooklyn, New York 14 March 2009.