It’s about two hours before their show at the JCC in Manhattan, and I’m having dinner with Psoy Korolenko and Daniel Kahn, the duo known as the Unternationale.
As a solo performer, Korolenko has been winning fans in the United States, mostly at clubs and gatherings catering to young Russian émigrés and at university campuses. Dov-Ber Kerler, a Russian-born professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University (where Korolenko has performed), says, simply, “Psoy Korolenko is a phenomenon.”
Korolenko, who sometimes bills himself as an akyn (a kind of Central Asian shaman), doesn’t fit easily into any American entertainment category. Shaman-journalist is still a micro-niche compared to singer-songwriter, going some way to explain why Korolenko is something of an enigma to English-speaking audiences.
That enigma has drawn me to Hummus Place, across from the JCC, where a bunch of us are jammed into a table inches from the front door. It’s a working dinner; Korolenko and Kahn are ironing out a new translation for that night’s performance.
Korolenko, a 40-something, lifelong resident of Moscow, has promised a friend that he and Kahn would perform his song, “Nevsky Prospekt,” but Korolenko wants a new translation for the chorus, which is Russian, into Yiddish and English. The duo take turns singing potential lines while the rest of us watch.
Kahn sings first:
The world’s a brothel, and
everyone’s a whore
so don’t trust people, you’ll turn into a whore
we all are whores
the world is awful and life’s a bore.
Korolenko and Kahn together:
Isn’t it awful to know that you’re a whore?
For the big finish, Kahn suggests, “S’iz take vor [That’s the truth].”
Korolenko is dissatisfied; it’s too declarative, too certain. The line needs an element of contingency: “It’s awful to be a whore but is it true? That but is important. Nor s’iz vor?”
I’m not sure if I’m seeing a stylistic imperative or an invitation to a Socratic dialogue.
Korolenko and Kahn sing through the lines again, testing the effect of each option. Finally, the clean-cut guys at the table across the way ask what’s going on. “We’re opening a brothel and we’re working on the jingle,” Kahn answers mischievously.
Dinner has turned into an Unternationale performance, an irruption of multilingual puns and happy provocation.