New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: minsker kapelye

Litvakus Bring Their Rare, Deliriously Fun, Decades-Old Dance Tunes to the Upper West

On one hand, Litvakus’ latest album is kick-ass party music with lyrics – mostly in Yiddish – like “May you always have whiskey to fill your glasses.” On the other hand, it’s nothing short of amazing how frontman/clarinetist Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch’s band has rescued obscure songs hidden away, in some cases for more than a century, in dusty vaults that enterprising music students were very strongly discouraged from prowling around in. But Slepovitch doesn’t give up easily. Back in his native Belarus, his first band, Minsker Kapelye played their first-ever show across the street from KGB headquarters. And they got away with it. Litvakus’ new album Raysn may come across with a distinct, regional sound, but they have the fearless heart and soul of the Clash.

They’re playing Tuesday night, Feb 10 at 7:30 PM as part of one of New York’s most reliably exciting concert series in the basement of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 W 68th St (Broadway/Columbus) where drummer Aaron Alexander puts on more-or-less weekly shows featuring the creme de la creme of Jewish music from around the globe: in the klezmer world, a gig here means you’ve arrived. Concertgoers have more than one option: if you just want a quick shot of adrenaline before you head home, you can see the show for $15. For musicians, there’s a pre-concert music class at 5:30, followed by a long jam session afterward, and all of that’s $35. And maybe there’s a nosh, or a drink, who knows – it’s a lively, multi-generational, quintessentially New York scene.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its name from the old Yiddish term for what is now Belarus, for centuries a multicultural melting pot that resulted in some unique cross-pollination. Slepovitch has collected songs with both Jewish and Belorussian origins as well as a couple of boisterous originals, one of which he wrote in an inspired moment on the Q train.

The album opens with its most otherworldly track, a droning yet kinetic instrumental featuring Slepovitch on the svirel, the Belorussian counterpart to the English shawm. From there the group – Craig Judelman on violin, Taylor Bergren-Crisman on bass, Josh Camp on accordion and Sam Weisenberg on standup drum – weave their way into a swaying, minor-key, chromatically charged dance. The segue between the next two songs, Judelman handing off elegantly to Slepovitch, is so seamless that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins unless you listen closely. They keep the bouncing, bustling drive going with a fond look back at a little country town where people really like to party.

Bergren-Crisman bows his bass furiously as the next medley, a couple of pulsing traditional Belorussian dances, gets underway and then subtly segues into the Middle Eastern-tinged freygish scale, equivalent to the Arabic hijaz mode. Then Slepovitch brings it down with an ancient, plaintive, lovelorn waltz, his clarinet stark against the dark washes of bass and accordion and Judelman’s poignant doublestops. From there the band picks it up again, Slepovitch’s clarinet bobbing and weaving with an unselfconscious joy through an original that fits perfectly with the traditional romp – based on a rare 1934 Soviet recording – that follows. The clarinetist dryly describes the slow, gorgeous original waltz after that as being in the tradition of music designed for listening at weddings…or on the subway.

There’s also a wry, hair-raising tale employing lyrics from a 1922 epic poem by Moyshe Kulbak, reinvented as a lively reel; a trio of circle dances rescued from the archives; a rivetingly Middle Eastern flavored mini-suite; a rare Belorussian version of an ancient Hasidic a-cappella nigun; a dirge, a drinking song and a rousing. surrealistic tribute to a pretty Jewish girl who also happens to be the best-loved bartender in town. The more things change, right? If you like minor keys, infectious dance grooves and eerie passing tones, you’ll love this album. The cd also comes with extensive liner notes which provide all kinds of interesting historical background, very useful for western listeners and music bloggers too!

Litvakus Rescue Some of the Funnest Songs Ever Written

Onstage at the Center for Jewish Culture last week, Litvakus came across as a sort of acoustic Gogol Bordello, playing an exhilarating and frequently haunting mix of feral dances and haunting dirges. Frontman Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch bobbed and weaved and bounced as he played, firing off frenetic volleys or mournfully sustained notes on a series of clarinets, svirel – the Belorussian equivalent of a shawm – and dudka. As ambassador for the lost Jewish sounds of his native Belarus and also Polesia – the mysterious, rustic area bordering Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and what is now Lithuania – he held the crowd rapt. His mission to rescue decades-old and sometimes centuries-old songs led him to buck the authorities as he earned his doctorate in musicology in his hometown of Minsk, where he founded the city’s first klezmer revival band, Minsker Kapelye. With a gleam in his eye, he related that the band’s first gig, at a street fair, had been across the street from the local KGB headquarters. That group managed to get through the set without being hassled: New York is not the only city where that’s likely to happen to musicians on the street.

Sam Weisenberg played marching-band style, his bass drum strapped around his shoulders, a cymbal on top. Bassist Taylor Bergren-Crisman bowed his lines much of the time, adding a dark undercurrent to the lushness of much of the music in tandem with violinist Craig Judelman and once-and-future Chicha Libre accordiionist Josh Camp. The songs bristled with stark minor keys, eerie chromatics and the occasional odd meters (5/4 seemed to be a favorite of this band). They opened with a bracing reel with a Celtic tinge to it and closed on an unexpectedly pensive note. A handful of the songs in their roughly hourlong set juxtaposed brightly dancing verses with more moody, intense choruses. Slepovitch sang a couple of numbers drawing on the lyrics of celebrated Belorussian poet Hersh Reles. There were plenty of solos from everybody, including a handful of slowly unwinding improvisations to begin a small handful of songs and plenty of clapalongs from the audience, a mix of emigres and an energized younger crowd.

And much as the songs had a distinctly Jewish character, Slepovitch was quick to acknowledge how much cross-pollination there’s been over the decades in ethnic music from his part of the world – and how Jews were so often the catalyst. And he introduced a little controversy via a jaunty, pulsing Belorussian folk song, Khayka-Zhydouka, whose title translates in Russian as a slur against Jewish women. In an interesting Q&A after the show with the CTMD‘s Pete Rushefsky, Slepovitch revealed that in Belorussian, the word simply means “Jewish girl,” (or in the context of the song, “hot Jewish girl”). And he reminded that throughout the Soviet Union, Belorussian was repressed just as cruelly as Yiddish and other ethnic languages. People were literally killed for speaking them. No wonder so many of the evening’s songs were left on wax cylinders in archives, waiting for guys like Slepovitch to discover them. Litvakus are at Barbes tomorrow night, Nov 4 at around 7 if you’d like to hear the acoustic Gogol Bordello in a small club; the larger, horn-driven but similarly fun Slavic Soul Party play afterward at 9.