Psoy Korolenko's 21st Century Humor

The 'Shaman-Journalist' Remains an Enigma to Many

mark tso

By Rokhl Kafrissen

Published February 28, 2012, issue of March 02, 2012.

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.



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