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Tag: jewish music

Haunting Klezmer Sounds and Protest Songs Outdoors in Park Slope This Week

One of the most powerful protest songs that’s been resurrected in recent years is Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn (We Will Outlive Them).

This old Jewish melody, reinvented by Brooklyn klezmer band Tsibele, is as indomitable an anthem as any freedom fighter could want. In this seven-minute live clip, the group lead a singalong in the deliciously Middle Eastern-flavored freygische mode. Midway through, they provide the grim backstory.

When the Nazis marched into Lublin, Poland in 1941 and rounded up the Jews there, they were as sadistic as usual. Driving the population out into the fields, they commanded the captives to dance. The response was this song. As we all know, those Jews did not outlive their tormentors, but they raised the bar for defiance in the face of evil about as high as it can go.

As sadistic as the lockdowner regime has been, there’s special resonance in that song for us. Inevitability theories of history are full of holes, there’s no doubt that if the world is going to survive, we will outlive them. You can buy an embroidered patch for your coat which says exactly that, in Yiddish and English, from the band.

Half of the group – violinist Zoe Aqua and accordionist Ira Temple – are teaming up for an outdoor show with trumpeter Dan Blacksberg on July 29 at 4:30 PM at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, 58 7th Ave at Lincoln Pl in Park Slope. It’s about equidistant from the Grand Army Plaza and 7th Ave. B/Q stations.

Starting in the mid-teens, Tsibele became a fixture across several scenes here, and made some waves with their album It’s Dark Outside – Indroysn iz Finster, streaming at Bandcamp. Bassist Zoë Guigueno, flutist Eléonore Weill and trumpeter Eva Boodman focus intensely on Aqua’s dark arrangements of some well-known, politically resonant old songs.

Aqua’s slashing, low-register lines pierce the brooding ambience underneath in the first tune, Dem Nayntn Yanuar/Ninth of January, a dirge commemorating the 1905 massacre of freedom fighters in St. Petersburg, The band maintain a somber atmosphere in the blue-collar lament Di Svet Shop, based on a poem by Morris Rosenfeld.

They pick up the pace with a dead-serious take of Nifty’s Eigene, violin and trumpet taking turns with the original lead written by legendary klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein. The album’s big, ominously atmospheric epic is a murder ballad, Tsvelef A Zeyger/Twelve O’clock, with a looming trumpet solo at the center.

Likewise, Boodman’s moody, soulful lines intertwine with the trills of the flute in the slow, darkly methodical Rosemont Terkisher. They close the record with the lilting, wistful title track, a love song.

Fun fact: tsibele is Yiddish for “onion.” Lots of layers to peel back here.

A Welcome, Outdoor Return Gig by a Familiar, Edgy New York Klezmer Powerhouse

Isle of Klezbos and Metropolitan Klezmer are the Parliament/Funkadelic of erudite Jewish party music. No, they don’t play funk – although they’re very danceable. And Isle of Klezbos are back in action, with a gig this July 22 at noon at St. Marks Park at Second Ave. and 10th St.

If not funkiness, what do the two klezmer bands have in common with P-Funk? Like George Clinton’s crew, they’re basically the same band. It didn’t start out that way. Clinton’s genius was in double-dipping a record label (albeit for double the studio work, so it was actually a fairer deal all around). Isle of Klezbos began as the all-female offshoot of the well-loved, theatrical, latin-tinged Metropolitan Klezmer, bolstered by a couple of ringers. They eventually became so popular and so good that at one point it looked like they’d eclipsed the original project. Then the Klezbos (would it be ridiculous to use Klezbo in the singular?) took a backseat to Met Klez again. Either way, both bands can absolutely sizzle onstage, and they were playing lots of outdoor shows years before the lockdown

Over the past decade or close to it, Met Klez earned plenty of coverage here, The last time anyone from this blog was in the house at one of their gigs, it was for a careening and tantalizingly abbreviated late-night set at Drom in January of 2020. Isle of Klezbos are also hardly strangers to the front page here. Their Live in Brooklyn album got the thumbs up in 2014, as did a subsequent Bryant Park gig. The show a little later that year at their frequent summertime haunt, the community garden on 12th Street in the East Village, was even more fun.

That one involved beer. Their gig in the garden the following year, over the Labor Day Weekend, did not, but it was just as entertaining, maybe because moving toward the front of the space to watch the band instead of hanging in back with the brew crew meant trading up to a more sophisticated kind of entertainment.

Was this the year the PA blew out and the band had to play all-acoustic? See a band enough times and everything starts to conflate unless you write it all down…or make a field recording.

Some highlights that still resonate after all these years: sax player Deborah Kreisberg’s plaintive solo during one of her originals, a quasi-cumbia; an epic take of drummer and bandleader Eve Sicular’s towering triptych, East Hapsburg Waltz; and accordionist Shoko Nagai’s quiet, moody rivers of minor chords. Trumpeter Pam Fleming led the group through an undulating reggae tune (she used to play with Burning Spear) and later, if memory serves right, her chromatically edgy, Middle Eastern-flavored Revery in Hijaz. Other players have filtered in and out of the band before and since: it will be fun to see who’s been engaged for the Second Avenue park show.

Aviva Chernick Mashes Up Haunting Old Ladino Songs With Americana

Aviva Chernick has an expressive, honeyed voice and leads an eclectic, sometimes psychedelically tinged band who reinvent old songs from across the Sephardic diaspora. Her album La Sirena, which also contains several of Chernick’s originals, is streaming at Bandcamp. If you think old Jewish songs and American country music have nothing in common, you haven’t heard this strangely beguiling record.

It begins with A Ti Espanya, a fond, gentle waltz.  Chernick sings Min Hametzar in Ladino and English, a brooding, metrically tricky psychedelic folk tune with Joel Schwartz’s moody washes of steel guitar over Justin Gray and Derek Gray’s rock rhythm section: “They call to you from an aeroplane,” is the refrain.

With Schwartz’s bluegrass-tinged leads Kol Dodi is the strangest old brooding medieval nigun you’ll ever hear, Likewise, the album’s title track, a muted bolero, has a simmering roadhouse blues undercurrent. And Arvoles Yorvan could be Dolly Parton…in Ladino, with National steel guitar and dobro swooping in the background.

The sad waltz Este Montanya de Enfrente has a delicate web of acoustic and Portuguese guitars. Notwithstanding her big crescendo on that one, Chernick’s alternately misty and acerbic delivery on a muted take of the traditional Adon Olam could be the album’s high point: the melody makes a good Balkan-tinged bounce. Chernick closes the record with the a-cappella miniature Rikondus de Mi Nona. The album also includes a couple of blithe tunes by Bosnian singer Flory Jagoda.

Haunting Music From Happier Times

While the past year has seen a lot of artists desperately mining their archives for concert recordings in order to maintain some semblance of a performing career, violinist Meg Okura’s Live at the Stone album with her NPO Trio is not one of those releases. This 2016 concert was one of the last at the iconic venue’s original Alphabet City digs before it moved to the New School, only to be shuttered in the lockdown. This particular set – released a couple of years ago and still streaming at Bandcamp – is expansive, klezmer-centric, and despite the energetic interplay between Okura, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, is rather dark.

As the initial 38-minute improvisation – divided up into six separate sections here – gets underway, Okura and Pilc are at their most orchestral. The violinist plays through a series of effects including delay, loops and massive amounts of reverb. The pianist, for the most part, maintains a glittering High Romantic gravitas.

Pilc echoes Okura’s cascades as she runs them through reverb turned up to the point of slapback. Building a series of builds variations, she’s joined by Newsome, who takes centerstage achingly as Pilc and Okura rustle and rumble underneath.

About three minutes in, Okura introduces the stark, central 19th century klezmer theme, Mark Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetchik. Newsome searches longingly with his microtonal washes until Pilc and Okura bring a steady rhythm back, the piano taking over scurrying, pointillistic variations. Then the violin moves to the foreground, leading the music from plaintive and insistent to spare and starry. Newsome’s stark clarinet-like tone, especially in the most somber moment here, fits this music perfectly.

Somber chromatics come front and center and remain there the longest in the fourth segment. Newsome leads the group down into minimalism, Pilc raising the energy with his jackhammer pedalpoint, a bit of a klezmer reel and a brief minor-key ballad without words. Newsome drives the band to a chilling, shivery coda.

There are two other improvisations here. The first, Unkind Gestures, is based on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, is vastly more carefree and jauntily conversational, Pilc’s rumbles and basslines contrasting with Newsome’s keening, harmonically-laced duotones. Okura opens the almost nineteen-minute closing number, Yiddish Mama No Tsuki, with a sizzling klezmer solo, Pilc following with eerie belltones down to what sounds like an altered version of the old standard Mein Yiddishe Mama. Revelry and wry quotes interchange with airy acidity, disorienting clusters, a brooding Newsome solo and surreal blues from Okura and Pilc.

One quibble: not one but two tracks cut off right in the middle of gorgeously melismatic Newsome solos, a real faux pas. People who listen to this kind of music have long attention spans and don’t care how long a track is.

Jacob Mühlrad’s Somber Choral Works Explore Ancient Jewish Themes

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad‘s new choral album Time – streaming at Spotify – weaves ancient Jewish melodies and rapturous original themes into a hauntingly intricate web of sound. Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin conduct the Swedish Radio Choir with an aptly meticulous touch throughout this serious, brooding, often gloomy and potently relevant music. Mühlrad seems determined to become the Jewish Arvo Part, and so far he’s off to a good start.

The album opens with Anim Zemirot, a five-part suite of miniatures inspired by the concluding hymm from the Jewish liturgy. Slow, somber waves rise and subside, often with a bracing contrast between men’s and women’s voices. As celebratory music goes, this is pretty dark.

The album’s central, title suite draws on the Tower of Babel myth and the increasingly arduous challenge to find global unity across borders. The composer bases it on the word “time” in 104 different languages. Like the album’s first track, its gravitas pulses slowly in waves, spaciously drifting or suddenly looming into the sonic picture. As he does throughout the album, Mühlrad employs pretty much the totality of the available spectrum, ominous lows balanced by similarly uneasy highs. Subtle echo effects are a deftly executed touch. Repetitive, rising figures which fall just short of imploring are very striking, as the ending, which is unexpected and too good to give away. Slow and methodical as this is, it’s also very challenging to sing, and the group rise to the occasion.

The simply titled Nigun is more nebulously immersive, with its long, sustained, enigmatically close-harmonied motives, a sort of liturgical paraphrase with a terse tenor solo at the center. The concluding suite, Kaddish, is a Holocaust remembrance utilizing texts by Elie Wiesel and the composer’s late grandfather – a survivor – along with the traditional prayer for the dead. The sheer stillness of the introduction packs a wallop, in contrast with the incantatory yet similarly otherworldly pace the ensemble reach as Mühlrad builds momentum.

Much as this is compelling music, the decision to separate each suite into its parts – many of them cut off suddenly after less than two minutes – becomes frustrating, and jars the listener out of a reverie. If that’s intended to boost Spotify nanopayments, someday somebody at the record label might have enough pocket change for a bus ride home.

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.

In Memoriam: Jewlia Eisenberg

Everything Jewlia Eisenberg did was big. The way she flashed that knowing smile. That hearty laugh. Her feisty sense of humor and lust for life. Her travels, which took her all over the globe in search of what would become an encyclopedic knowledge of music from across the Jewish diaspora.

Her generosity. She wore her heritage proudly, right down to how she spelled her name. But she didn’t just sit on that vast body of scholarship, or her commitment to social justice. As she saw it, it was only obvious that she should share her passion for, say, Bosnian protest songs or Jewish lesbian ballads from across the centuries, with any random audience who might be where she was.

As the leader of carnivalesque Eastern European folk-punk band Charming Hostess and innumerable other projects, she always found the universality in whatever music she was singing. She was a klezmer maven and also a soul mama, a cinephile, a theatre person and a devotee of dance, and did soundtracks for all of those media. Her repertoire ranged from ancient, witchy Babylonian themes to hip-hop-inspired theatrics and in the end, African-American gospel and blues in her Book of J project with guitar wizard Jeremiah Lockwood. Her career was over far too soon: we lost her this past March 11. Ostensibly, she succumbed to a rare immune disorder: it’s not known if she was given one of the needles of death, but that seems unlikely, considering how smart she was.

She leaves behind considerable scholarly work and an eclectically entertaining discography, both as a bandleader and solo artist. She sang at big auditoriums around the world, and also held down a number of Barbes residencies. She loved making field recordings. Fortuitously, this blog’s archive includes one of Eisenberg singing with Book of J at Barbes in mid-July 2018, a show that got an enthusiastic thumbs-up at the time. Eisenberg would no doubt approve of the idea, if not that the tape still needs to be properly catalogued: she was always as much a consummate pro as bon vivant. Condolences to all who had the good fortune to know her, work with her or witness her charismatic antics onstage.

Summoning the Witches with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

We just went through a wild month of eclipses, so what could be more appropriate than an album of 13 Lunar Meditations Summoning the Witches? That’s the title of singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s new moon-themed album, streaming at Bandcamp. The concept is counterintuitive: where you might typically expect calm, nocturnal, possibly mysterious themes, this is a generally playful, upbeat record.

As usual, Gottlieb’s songs here span a vast number of styles, from jazz, to art-rock, to sounds of the Middle East and the avant garde. The lyrics are in many different languages as well. With a joyous surrealism, she finds moon imagery in unexpected public places in the first number, Lotte and the Moon, set to Aram Bajakian’s hypnotically loopy, pointillistic guitar backdrop with a deviously scrambling Ivan Bamford drum solo midway through. It reminds of Carol Lipnik at her most exuberant.

The second number, Yare’ah is a spare, bouncy Israeli tune spiced with Eylem Basaldi’s spiky pizzicato violin, Bajakian’s guitar and the rhythm section: that’s Stéphane Diamantakiou on bass. Mond – “moon” in German – is a surreal cut-and-paste mashup of a blippy indie classical chorale and a spoken word piece contemplating the passing of generations.

The astrologically-themed Venus and the Moon has a balletesque pulse, a tango-inflected melody and a tiptoeing bass solo. Moon Story has sailing violin and vocalese balanced by punchy bass and starkly jangly guitar.

Wafting, Middle Eastern flavored violin takes centerstage behind Gottlieb’s spoken word and wordless vocals in Patience, a spacy soundscape. Yasmoon’s Moon, the most haunting and vividly nocturnal piece here, is also a showcase for plaintive violin and Bajakian’s acerbically rhythmic, oud-like phrasing. Dissipating Discus, the free jazz freakout afterward, is irresistibly funny: hang with it until the punchline.

A Spanish-language bass-and-vocal bendiction kicks off the album’s strongest track, Moon Over Gaza, a stark, politically-themed, guitar-fueled noir swing tune. The group follow Tsuki, the most ambient tableau on the record, with its longest and most darkly orchestral epic, Traveler Woman. Gottlieb winds it up with Desert Moon, an only slightly less expansive, slinky, latin-tinged anthem. Ages come and go, but the moon remains for us to dance in its light.

A Sly Christmukah Ballad From Jazz Guitarist Peter Curtis

A couple of years back jazz guitarist Peter Curtis put out the album Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend, a competently played collection of Xmas songs written by Jews. And there’s historical context for that. More than a century ago, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Russia and the Pale to celebrate the Christian holiday. What’s somebody else’s simcha, anyway, when it all used to be Saturnalia?

The album’s title track is the real piece de resistance, and Curtis’ only original on it. And it’s a hoot, Curtis crooning to his shiksa GF about all the ways they can have Christmukah fun. No spoilers!

Soprano Meets Bass Reinvent Sephardic Treasures with Passion and Elegance

The new Sephardic Treasures album by the Soprano Meets Bass project – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous and expansive take on a very old idea. Classical ensembles have been appropriating ancient Jewish themes for centuries; this album is more eclectic, drawing on tango, flamenco and jazz as well. In general, the music is sleeker than you would expect from a klezmer or tango band playing this material. For those of us who don’t speak Ladino, singer Ana María Ruimonte gives the material much more clarity than most operatically-trained vocalists typically deliver. And she maintains power and edge through many of the melodies’ challenging, rapidfire melismas and ornaments.

This is a long, rewarding album: fifteen songs. Most of them are sad; kings typically do not fare well in them. Minor keys are everywhere, along with the occasional slashing Middle Eastern mode. Bandleader/bassist Alan Lewine puts on a master class in terse, purposeful solos, notably a triumphantly churning facsimile of flamenco guitar playing in a Romany-flavored anthem toward the end of the record.

Some of the songs have a full rhythm section, with Shai Wetzer on drums; others feature lighter percussion by Víctor Monge. Pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, flutist Hadar Noiber,  Spanish guitarist Julián Vaquero and violinist Alicia Svigals all punch in purposefully, often with echoes of flamenco or the Balkans, when the vocals drop out, or in response to Ruimonte’s lyrical phrasing. She sings in character, whethe plaintive, pensive – or simply unable to keep a straight face, in a goofy nursery rhyme about a cat. That’s the album’s lone moment of comic relief.

In a handful of songs, she reaches for the rafters with arioso power, especially in a dancing, subtly shifting North African-influenced ballad. There are quieter songs and laments here as well, including one with a spare, hypnotic, almost Indian atmosphere, an almost completely rubato tableau, and a welcome departure into flamenco jazz. What a feast for fans of flamenco, klezmer and classical music alike