Haunting, Eclectic Jewish Songs from Romashka’s Inna Barmash

by delarue

Inna Barmash is the intense, inscrutably charismatic frontwoman of fiery Russian Romany string band Romashka. She’s got one of those rare voices that comes along maybe once a generation: a bell-like, bolt-cutter soprano that’s so clear it’ll give you chills. In a city stocked to the brim with great vocalists, Barmash is one of New York’s most rivetling. Hailing originally from Vilnius, Lithuania, she cut her teeth singing music that these days falls under the broad rubric of klezmer. Her debut solo album, Yiddish Lullabies & Love Songs, is a powerful and haunting return to those roots. The whole thing is streaming at her Bandcamp page; she and her band – including her husband, viola powerhouse and composer Ljova Zhurbin, along with along with Shoko Nagai on piano and accordion, Dmitri Slepovitch on clarinet and bass clarinet and Dmitry Ishenko on bass  – are playing the album release show on Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. $20 advance tickets are still available as of today but it’s likely that this show will sell out.

The songs here, spanning several centuries and drawing from across the Jewish diaspora, are short and to the point. Likewise, the band keep their solos short and sweet as well. The acerbic minor keys and haunting chromatics typical of Jewish music echo thoughout the album, although there are lighthearted moments as well. Barmash sings in character – she can sweep your off your feet one moment and then rip your face off the next. She further distinguishes herself with strikingly crisp if seemingly nonchalant diction, an enormous help for listeners trying to remember or come to grips with the language. This blog being in English, the titles used here are the English versions provided on the album.

Wake Up Dear Daughter, the opening track, is a potent example of Barmash at the top of her plaintive power, a brittle vibrato trailing off at the end of her phrases to enhance the song’s sense of longing and unease. She does that even more affectingly on the album’s longest song, Ever Since I Remember, lit up with glimmering solos from piano, viola and then clarinet as it reaches its moodiest peak. She pulls back a little, adding a sense of resignation, on the pensive waltz  If I Had Wings.

Don’t You Dare Go Out with Other Girls, with its menacingly shivery clarinet solo, has a tongue-in-cheek bounce, but Barmash leaves no doubt that she means business. She contrasts that with the sweetly hypnotic lullaby Sleep My Child and its gorgeous viola/piano harmonies.

Afn Boydem (Over the Attic) is a duet that takes on a droll, dancing quality as it moves along and then goes straight into vaudeville.  Barmash brings back the nocturnal mood with Sleep, Sleep, Sleep and Nagai’s surrealistic piano, equal parts Satie and blues. Oy Abram is a showstopper both for Barmash and the band, rapidfire counterpoint from the clarinet and viola leading to a rich interweave of instruments – to the uninitiated, it’s the most recognizably “klezmer” song here. The rest of the album includes By the Road Stands a Tree, a wistful, skeletal waltz; Reyzele, which sounds like it could either be a tale of seduction or seduction gone wrong; and the triumphantly soaring Play Me a Song in Yiddish.