Beyond Tumbala, Tumbala...


By Rukhl Schaechter

Published December 24, 2004, issue of December 24, 2004.
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In Camp Hemshekh, a Jewish socialist summer camp in Mountaindale, N.Y., where Caroline Chanin first heard Yiddish music, singing was an integral part of the program. At breakfast, in the dimly lit dining room, campers belted out popular camp tunes to the accompaniment of an aging piano; during rest hour, selected campers would rehearse the Yiddish musical numbers for the Visiting Day plays, the midsummer Holocaust commemoration or some other cultural event; and a favorite pastime for campers and counselors alike was sitting with friends under a tree, strumming the guitar, and trying to remember all the lyrics to Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs hits.

It was the early 1970s, and folk was in.

Today, Chanin is a Yiddish singer in her own right, but with a slightly different twist: She is an accomplished mezzo-soprano who has gone against the trend of unadorned Yiddish folk and klezmer music and become a leading singer of Yiddish art songs — sophisticated collaborations between classically trained composers and Yiddish poets. Her repertoire does include folk and theater songs, but because of her operatic style and the frequently complex harmonies of the accompaniment, they sound more like classical pieces than like folk music.

To the music lover unfamiliar with the typical audience at a Yiddish concert, the dichotomy of folk versus art music might seem a bit puzzling. As many Yiddish performers will tell you, most audiences at Yiddish concerts come for the nostalgic experience of hearing — and singing along with — the same familiar tunes, again and again. Runaway favorites are “Tumbalalayka,” “Oyfn Pripetshik” (“On the Hearth”), “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”) and “Mayn Yidishe Mame.” (“My Jewish Mother”). “Many people just want to hear the songs their grandmothers used to sing to them,” Chanin remarked in an interview with the Forward. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But I don’t do it, because frankly, I don’t find it that interesting.”

As a way of introducing the genre to a larger audience, Chanin has just released a CD called “Eybike Lider” (“Eternal Songs”), a rich selection of 19 pieces by a variety of composers. Joyce Rosenzweig, a talented pianist who has collaborated in recital with ensembles from the New York Philharmonic and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and performs frequently in concerts throughout North America, Europe and Israel, accompanies Chanin. She is also on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-School of Sacred Music and is the music director of Manhattan’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.

Not surprisingly, the music of Lazar Weiner, a well-known, prolific composer of Yiddish art song, cantatas and choral music, figures prominently in this collection. The beauty of this CD, though, is the wide range of composers other than Weiner, and the masterful way in which the various songs are interpreted. “Der Yeger” (“The Hunter”), for example (lyrics by I.L. Peretz and music by Moses Milner), is a short, whimsical piece about a little boy whose fantasies are frustrated by his own shortcomings. As a way of humorously winking to their listeners, Chanin and Rosenzweig end the piece abruptly, thereby cleverly mimicking a child’s well-known tantrum, tactic of banging shut the door behind him.

In “Viglid” (“Lullaby”) and “Umru Mayner” (“My Unrest”), Rosenzweig’s arrangement helps create a haunting, dreamy mood suitable to the text. Even more importantly for a language often saddled with the lament of being old fashioned and out of touch, Rosenzweig imbues it with a refreshingly contemporary American accompaniment, thereby helping to bring Yiddish music into the 21st century.

However, there is one shortcoming to the CD: The accompanying blurbs list the 19 songs in three different places, but nowhere does the CD clearly differentiate the lyricist from the composer, leaving the listener to figure out who’s who on his own. If one of its goals was to attract new listeners to Yiddish music, more care should have been taken in educating a potentially new audience.

Nevertheless, the CD is a marvelous treat for those who have been thirsting to hear a new Yiddish repertoire. Its artistry will, hopefully, inspire other Yiddish poets, musicians and singers to challenge their nostalgic audiences beyond the familiar drone of tumbala, tumbala, tumbalalayka.…

Rukhl Schaechter is on the staff of the Forverts and sings alto in the Jewish Philharmonic Chorus.

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