“Yiddish Glory” was released last winter. As it is a collection of songs from the Second World War, a few more months may not be relevant, and so a review telling prospective listeners that it is available is still pertinent. As explained by producers, the record “tells the remarkable story of folklorists in the Soviet Union who risked their lives collecting songs from Jewish Red Army soldiers, Jewish refugees, victims and survivors of Ukrainian ghettos.
Following the war, the researchers were arrested by Stalin; their work was confiscated, and they died thinking the collection was lost to history. But the songs were later discovered in unmarked boxes stored in the basement of the Ukrainian National Library, and brought to life through painstaking research, for the first time in 75 years.”
Perhaps the most striking feature of this anthology of Holocaust victims’ musical memories is their normality. While the lyrics address genocide, brutal destruction and a terrible conflict against Evil, the songs themselves are delivered as small ensemble tunes based on traditional melodies. These patterns were used for popular songs, weddings, local celebrations and private gatherings for many decades prior to the war. They are no more dramatic, no more agonized, no more pontification about great, universal truths than any other Yiddish songs. And no less. They are solace and distraction from an extremely harsh world.
It is a world so harsh that Stalin looked good; better, at least, than Hitler. Concerning the latter, as is sung in “Happy New Year 1944,” “Some peace and joy around the world / Just to spite those silly little Germans / Hitler will be thrown around in fiery and icy hells / And he can kiss our asses.” It is a world where every Russian victory and every German non-victory, even inconclusive battles where neither side gained anything but casualties, is cause for hope and celebration. Soldiers say goodbye to girlfriends, the exploits of Jewish soldiers are told, Polish Jews resettled in Kazakhstan after fleeing the Nazis thank their new host home, a list of failed historical oppressors of the Jewish people is counted, and Hitler “can kiss our asses.”
This is not grim lamentation. It is human. It reminds us that the Nazis’ victims were human, and that we all are.
Vira Lozinsky is a leading voice among a new generation of singers cultivating Yiddish culture in Israel. She is also one of the freshest young talents in the international Yiddish music scene. She has performed at theatres and festivals throughout Israel and Europe.
Vira was born in 1974 in Beltz, Moldova (Bessarabia), to a family of Yiddish artists. Her father Michael Felsenbaum founded the Yiddish theater of Beltz in 1989 and is a prominent figure in the post-Soviet Yiddish revival. Well known as a poet and playwright, he has written many of the songs in Vira’s repertoire. Vira’s mother Fania was also a prolific performer and singer of Yiddish and Romanian songs throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Vira started playing the violin at the age of six, but her real passion was always singing. From the age of 13 until her immigration to Israel in 1991 she sang in the Beltz Yiddish Theater and also performed solo concerts throughout the former USSR. After emigrating to Israel at age 16, she earned her BA in Musicology and Yiddish literature at Bar-Ilan University. In 2000, she graduated with honors from the vocal program of Israel’s prestigious Rimon school of Jazz and Contemporary Music.
Perhaps the most significant event in her career occurred in 2002 when she met the great Yiddish singer Nechama Lifshitz, who has since remained her teacher and mentor. An enchanting performer in every way, Vira’s mellifluous alto voice is powerful, warm, expressive, and pure. Her unique repertoire includes new material written especially for her, as well as Yiddish folk songs, songs of Bessarabian, Romanian and Polish Jewish poets, and of classical and modern Yiddish poets like I. Manger, Z. Berdichever, M. Gebirtig, A. Greenbalt, M. Felsenbaum.
The original members of The Klezmatics, Alicia Svigals (violin), Dave Lindsay (bass) and Rob Chavez (clarinet) met after reading an ad in the Village Voice in 1985. Shortly after, Frank London (trumpet), of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, joined the group. Other musicians joined the band a few weeks later: Margot Leverett (clarinet), David Licht (drums) and Lorin Sklamberg (vocals, accordion)
In 1988, The Klezmatics were primarily playing clubs and parties in New York. Through the influence of Ben Mandelson of 3 Mustaphas 3, they were invited to play at the first annual Heimatklange Festival in Berlin, a proto-world music gathering held just as world music was emerging in the global consciousness. The Klezmatics played every night. At the end of the week, the festival’s organizers, who had recently formed a label called Piranha, offered them a record contract. An album, Shvaygn = Toyt (Piranha/Rounder, 1988), Yiddish for Silence = Death, was recorded live, at Radio Free Berlin (SFB). Just like that, the Klezmatics had a record company, and a future.
Musically, the band hadn’t quite found their identity. They did, however, tap sources no other Klezmer act had thought to emulate: the small American Klezmer bands of the 1930s and 1940s. They were also beginning to formulate their guiding thematic approach to music and life-seamlessly melding cultural statement (that Yiddish must be spoken, or else disappear) with historical politics (the ardent socialist anthems of their forebears) and modern activism, particularly a joyous affirmation of human rights.
Piranha’s director, Christoph Borkowsky Akbar, encouraged the band to take their time recording their second album. Borkowsky wanted the Klezmatics to find their own path and organically blend their many influences. Klezmer was the lifeblood, but the band also mined the multi-ethnic and cultural influences of New York. Mixing together Jewish drinking songs, socialism and Jewish mysticism, as well as punk, jazz and classical attitudes seemed strangely natural, as did maintaining their reputation as an ecstatic party band. This extended recording period allowed the Klezmatics to forge their own unique musical identity.
By the time they’d finished their follow-up, in 1990, the band was ready to break away from anything resembling predictability. They stated their intentions in the album’s title, Rhythm & Jews (Piranha/Rounder, 1990). Jewish music had always been thought of purely as melody; the Klezmatics felt the true backbone was rhythm, challenging the supremacy of sobbing clarinets, violins and voices. This was also the first time “Jew” appeared on the cover of a Klezmer album. By using the word, the band was boldly asserting their own brand of cultural pride: Jew Positive, a non-exclusionary belief that to find common ground with other traditions, they first had to unabashedly embrace their own.
Rhythm + Jews thrived on energy. The band brought in non-klezmer musicians like the Nubian percussionist Mahmoud Fadl, taking their source material to wildly divergent destinations. They played Eastern European melodies over Arabic and African rhythms; introduced their trademark multi-part group vocal sound (a tribute to British folk-rock pioneers Steeleye Span); and incorporated classical music’s bass clarinet into their already multitudinous palate of sounds. They also began testing the waters of writing their own music with a whirling, homoerotic interpretation of the love poetry of King David. In a pattern that would perpetually repeat itself, the Klezmatics showed that, while they would always view the world through the lens of Eastern European Jewish identity, they would not be fetishistic about it.
The Klezmatics’ next album, Jews With Horns (Piranha/Rounder, 1995) included the breakneck, pun-fueled Man in a Hat (the band’s first song in English), a Hasidic-style wordless chant and a stark, minimalist treatment of 20th century Yiddish poetry. Musical guests included electric guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, The Lounge Lizards), Canadian political folkies Moxy Frevous and New York theatrical girl rock band Betty
In 1994 the Klezmatics pulled out of the archives a century-old socialist anthem called “In kamf” (In Struggle) for the soundtrack of the AIDS epidemic documentary Fast Trip Long Drop (Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee), about a gay Jewish man’s struggle with the disease. They put in a modern arrangement, while strengthening the link to the composition’s roots with a chorus of native Yiddish-speaking seniors, who had sung the song in their own politically active youth.
In 1995, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Kushner (Angels in America) furthered the Klezmatics’ collaborations when he asked the band to write the score for his adaptation of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, the classic Yiddish folk drama of ghostly possession. Those compositions formed the bulk of the next album, Possessed (Piranha/Rounder, 1997). Kushner also wrote the Possessed CD liner notes. The band was joined on the CD by John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood, among others.
The Klezmatics next had the honor of working with acclaimed violinist Itzhak Perlman, who requested that The Klezmatics join him and three other Klezmer bands to record an album called In The Fiddler’s House (Angel/EMI, 1995). This album and ensuing tour dramatically raised the awareness of Klezmer music in the United States. As the ultimate compliment, Perlman selected six original Klezmatics compositions for inclusion on the CDs and live concerts.
The Klezmatics then paired with popular Israeli singer Chava Alberstein. Alberstein brought the band fifteen Yiddish poems set to music. The band then created striking arrangements to frame the voices of Alberstein and Sklamberg.
The resulting album, The Well (Rounder, 1998), was produced by K.D. lang collaborator Ben Mink, who also played on the recording. It remains one of the band’s favorites, not just for the music, but for the opportunity to help an artist they admire achieve a personal triumph. The Well is one of the band’s (and Ms. Alberstein’s) most popular and beloved recordings and received rave international reviews.
Their next album, Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! (Rounder, 2002), was their first non-collaborative album in years. The album also featured a new permanent member, violinist Lisa Gutkin.
The tone of the record harkened back to Jews With Horns, with politics, religion, ecstasy and partying each vying for space, often within the same song. Some of the songs on Rise Up! had originally been commissioned for the band’?s collaboration with the innovative American dance company Pilobolus Dance Theatre.
The band’s intention at this point was to push forward with their own music, but another chance meeting would redefine their immediate future. A few years prior, after playing a concert with Perlman, they were introduced to Nora Guthrie-known to most of the world as Woody’s daughter and Arlo’s sister. The band, however, recognized her as the granddaughter of Aliza Greenblatt, an influential Yiddish poet who had lived in Coney Island and the mother of Guthrie’s Jewish wife. At the time, Guthrie didn’t recognize the importance of her grandmother to appreciators of the Yiddish language and culture. She did, however, know that her father had written a collection of Jewish songs, which she invited the band to record in much the same manner as the Billy Bragg and Wilco collections (Mermaid Avenue I & II).
Beginning in 2003, the band performed the music in a series of concerts, including a Thanksgiving celebration at Carnegie Hall, under the title “Holy Ground”. They also self-produced eight of Woody’s Hanuka songs, which resulted in an album called Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanuka. An album of Guthrie-penned Jewish Brooklyn Americana is planned for the near future.
In 2004, Piranha invited the Klezmatics back to the Heimatklange festival, a double invite rarely extended to performers. The show’s theme that year was New York, a theme fittingly embodied by the band. At Heimatklange, the band performed with jazz vocalist/organist Kathryn Farmer, as well as Joshua Nelson, an African American Jew practitioner of Kosher Gospel who was brought up on gospel icon and collaborative superstar Mahalia Jackson. They performed a series of shows, one night of which resulted in their first live audience album, Brother Moses Smote the Water (Harmonia Mundi, 2004), featuring contributions by Nelson and Farmer.
The Klezmatic’s Brother Moses connected to every side of Klezmatics philosophy. It was a Jewish offering, half of the songs concerned Passover. It also included two audience favorites: the socialist anthem “Ale brider” (“All United”) and ‘Shnirele, perele’, a Hasidic ode to the eternal Jewish yearning for the coming of the messianic era.
The 2006 line-up included Lorin Sklamberg – vocalist / accordionist; Frank London – trumpet; Matt Darriau – multi-instrumentalist; Lisa Gutkin – fiddle; Paul Morrisett – bass / tsimbl; and David Licht – drums.
In 2016, the band released Apikorsim/Heretics (World Village). Co-founder Frank London said the idea was “to make a great recording of Yiddish and klezmer music, as only the Klezmatics can.” Sklamberg added, “It continues in the tradition that we last visited with Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! in 2003. It’s a great collection of songs and instrumentals that could only have come from us. It is also unique in our history in that everything you hear on the recording is played or sung by members of the band. It’s our ‘roots record’, a return to the anarchic nature of some of our earlier music.”
The lineup in 2016 included Richie Barshay on percussion and vocals; Matt Darriau on alto sax, clarinet, vocals; Lisa Gutkin on violin and vocals; Frank London on trumpet, horn, vocals; Paul Morrissett on bass, tsimbl, vocals; and Lorin Sklamberg on lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano.
The Klezmatics, the grand masters and innovators of klezmer music continue to charm with their new album, Apikorsim/Heretics. On this recording, the six musicians dig into traditional klezmer roots, although, as usual, they add contemporary elements that make their sound current.
On Apikorsim/Heretics you’ll find lively Eastern European Yiddish dance music along with powerful brass, and jazz improvisation.
As to the title of the album, group founder Lorin Sklamberg says: “It’s seriously irreverent. It says, if you’re going to do something that some people might find unkosher, enjoy it as much as possible. It’s definitely our kind of song.”
Frank London adds “We called the new album Apikorsim/Heretics for many reasons: political, philosophical and philological. Apikorsim-heretics, rebels, questioners-are people who do not conform to established attitudes and challenge orthodox opinions. And the Klezmatics are decidedly unorthodox.”
The current lineup includes Richie Barshay on percussion, vocals; Matt Darriau on alto sax, tsimbl, clarinet, vocals; Lisa Gutkin on violin, viola, octave violin, vocals; Frank London on trumpet, organ, alto horn, flugelhorn, harmonium, vocals; Paul Morrissett on bass, tsimbl, baritone horn, guitar, vocals; and Lorin Sklamberg on lead and background vocals, accordion, guitar, piano.
Yiddish culture returns by way of pre-war films and contemporary performances, workshops of dance and song, Jewish paper cutting, ceramics, and Hebrew calligraphy …
(from the Festival’s website)
Jewish culture in Poland is experiencing a renaissance. Festivals of Jewish music, language, and ancient and modern history are among the finest undertakings of this kind in Poland. This was confirmed by the 13th edition of the Singer’s Warsaw Festival, organized as always by the Shalom Foundation. The creator of the festival is the General Director of the Shalom Foundation, Golda Tencer, an outstanding Polish singer, director, and theater actress.
Collaborating in the organization of the festival were The Ester Rachel and Ida Kamińska Jewish Theater, the Center for Yiddish Culture, and the Edward Dziewoński Teatr Kwadrat (Square Theater). Every year, some of the global music scene’s most prominent artists, their art inspired by and created in the spirit of Jewish culture and religion, come to the Polish capital. Many of these artists have Polish roots, and thus participate with even greater pleasure in this sentimental journey along the road of their lives, one that sometimes runs through countries such as Israel, the United States, Sweden, France, Canada, and many others.
As we read on the organizers’ website, “The Singer’s Warsaw Festival of Jewish Culture has been, for twelve years, bringing back the memory of the pre-war Jewish ‘Warsze’ praised by Singer in numerous short stories and novels […] Our goal is to recreate the pre-war climate around ul. Próżna and Plac Grzybowski, if only for a few days, and show the lost world of the Polish Jews. Here we situate Jewish cafes, restaurants, small shops, and artisans’ workshops. At one of the festivals, an old bookstore made an appearance; at another, the editorial office where Singer worked before the war; every year there is also a wine bar and bakery” (see: www.festiwalsingera.pl/en/cele-i-misja).
Thanks to the Singer’s Warsaw Festival, for a short time every year the streets of the city resound with klezmer music, synagogal singing, traditional Jewish songs, and even jazz (the Singer Jazz Festival, whose artistic director is Adam Baruch, constitutes a separate part of the Festival), as well as remarkable cantorial singing.
The third edition of the Singer Jazz Festival kicked off on August 26 with an opening concert featuring Wania/Bernstein/Parker/Grey (Poland/USA), comprising Dominik Wania (piano), Marc Bernstein (saxophone), Michael Parker (bass), and Devin Grey (percussion). The following day was marked by the appearance of the Dominik Bukowski Group (Poland/USA), featuring Amir Elsaffar (saxophone), Dominik Bukowski (vibraphone, marimba), Piotr Lemańczyk (bass), and Przemysław Jarosz (percussion).
The official opening of the Singer Jazz Festival took place during a concert by the Sefardix trio (the Oleś Brothers and Jorgos Skolias). This World Music ethno-style group forms a part of the Greek-Jewish tradition, reaching back for Sephardic themes and drawing on multicultural instrumentation. In 2013, Sefardix received the Polish Radio Folk Phonogram of the Year award.
Next was a musical event with the theme “Something’s Coming: Love or War,” created by Lena Piękniewska and Paweł Skorupki, who accompanied the poems of young poets from the Warsaw ghetto. Taking part in this event were Lena Piękniewska, Paweł Skorupka, Krzysztof Dys, Sebastian Frankiewicz, Michał Górczyński, Wojciech Pulcyn, and the Royal String Quartet, with visual effects by Karolina Fender Noińska.
The same evening featured a performance by World Citizen Band (Denmark/Germany/Ecuador/USA), comprising Ramiro Olaciregui (guitar), Kenneth Dahl Knudsen (bass), Alex Terrier (saxophone), Tomasz Dąbrowski (trumpet), and Rodolfo Zuniga (percussion), as well as by the duo Oleś Brothers (bassist Marcin Oleś i percussionist Bartłomiej Oleś), with the participation of Leszek Żądło (Germany).
Appearing at the Singer Jazz Festival on August 30 was the Israeli trio Savannah and the Stringz, known for their daring experiments at the crossroads of music and the performing arts, i.e., cabaret, jazz, and indie-rock all in one: real World Music! They were followed by Ugo Trio (DE), comprising Federico Eterno (saxophone, clarinet), Marco Papa (guitar), and Gioele Pagliaccia (percussion), as well as by the duo Maciej Obara/Dominik Wania with the participation of Leszek Żądło (saxophone).
Playing the next evening was Trio Kuby Stankiewicza: Kuba Stankiewicz (piano), Wojciech Pulcyn (bass), and Sebastian Frankiewicz (percussion instruments). Later, the Singer Jazz Festival hosted the Francesco Bruno Ensemble (Italy). At the end of the day was a concert by Łukasz Borowicki Quartet (Poland/Denmark), with Borowicki (guitar) accompanied by Mads la Cour (flugelhorn), Mariusz Praśniewski (bass), and Karol Domański (percussion), as well as an appearance by Trio Jachna/Wójciński/Szpura with a guest appearance by Leszek Żądło (saxophone)
The next day of the Singer Jazz Festival belonged to the Francesco Bruno Trio (Italy), including Marco Rovinelli (percussion instruments) and Jacopo Ferrazza (bass), and the Małgorzata Hutek Quintet (composed of Małgorzata Hutek, Dominika Kątny on viola, Bogusław Kaczmar on piano, Paweł Wszołek on bass, and Szymon Madej on percussion). The day closed with an appearance by the Nahorny Trio: Włodzimierz Nahorny (piano), Mariusz Bogdanowicz (bass), and Piotr Biskupski (percussion), with guest appearances by Lora Szafran (vocals), Sabina Meck (vocals), Zbigniew Namysłowski (alto saxophone), Wojciech Jachna (trumpet), and Wojciech Myrczek (vocals).
The next-to-last day of the Singer Jazz Festival showed that these final days of music would constitute a transition from cultural World Music towards traditional jazz. An encounter with Warsaw jazz was graced by the Kuba Płużek Quartet: Kuba Płużek (piano), Marek Pospieszalski (saxophone), Dawid Fortuna (percussion), and Jakub Dworak (bass). Immediately following this event was an appearance by the Leszek Żądło European Art Ensemble with the project “Expulsion from Paradise,” followed by Leszek Żądło again, this time performing with the concert band Sphere.
The last day of this monumental jazz undertaking featured a performance by the group Orange Train. We listened to Dominik Bukowski (vibraphone), Piotr Lemańczyk (bass), and Tomasz Łosowski (percussion). Appearing immediately afterwards was MusiConspiracy (PL/UK): Zbigniew Chojnacki (accordion), Fabrizzio Brusca (guitar), Michał Kapczuk (bass), and Jacek Kochan (percussion).
Concerts by world-famous cantors are always a great event at the Singer’s Warsaw Festival. Cantorial concerts constitute truly unique encounters of traditional Jewish and Hasidic music. From this year’s stage we listened to the wonderful voices of Benzion Miller, Yaakov Lemmer, and Tzudik Greenwald. The singers were accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra of the Warsaw Chamber Opera, conducted by Yaakov Rotner and accompanied by Menachem Bristowski. As is true every year, the performing cantors pride themselves on a traditional education under the guidance of masters, enormous talent, and international renown. They perform Chazanut singing, works from liturgical, Jewish, and Hasidic music, and traditional Yiddish songs, along with selections from the repertoires of opera and Broadway.
This year’s Singer’s Warsaw Festival ended with an open-air concert by The Klezmatics (US), consisting of Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals), Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals), Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals), Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals), and Richie Barshay (percussion instruments). Their music is valued around the world for its experimental connections with multilingual singing, development of arrangements using many traditional and modern instruments, capitalization on Yiddish culture, and combination of contemporary styles of music. During the concert in Warsaw, The Klezmatics celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of their presence on the world music scene. Every year, the Singer’s Warsaw Festival brings us more and more excellent music.
We asked Nadia Issa, a Polish artist in the art of light who presented her work in the course of Singer’s Warsaw Festival in 2015, what she associates with this festival. Nadia said: “Nostalgia, tradition, music, memory. In the Old Testament, hell (Hebrew: sheol) is understood as a place of silence and forgetfulness. The Singer’s Festival protects us from the ‘sin’ of forgetfulness. In the context of the tragedy of the Second World War, there are memories about the past generation and about tradition, as well as an attempt to save the timeless values in Jewish culture as a debt to our tragically deceased ancestors.”
The influence of Yiddish and klezmer on modern, Western popular music is tremendous. Listeners have osmosed it for many decades, in music halls, theaters, the pop and classical works of George Gershwin, the pervasive radio presence of Simon & Garfunkel throughout the 1960s and 1970s, film scores and advertising. It is one of the elements of our days that is most familiar, but that most of us have never sought to trace or isolate.
ARC Music has done much to make the broad range of Jewish music available to us. “Yiddish Journey” may be the easiest first step down this path of musical exploration the label has released to date.
Ms. Lichtenberg spotlights every part of the “journey” from the Middle East to Poland to Spain. Born in Czechoslovakia to a child survivor of the Holocaust, she was raised Catholic and left unaware of her Jewish roots until age 10.
Like most converts, she became intensely enthusiastic about proselytizing others, and that is fortunate for her listeners. This is a collection of 18 beautiful, thoughtful, artistic songs.