If there was one musical moment that has stood out so far that encapsulates Kulturfest — the international festival of Yiddish music being played out in venues around Manhattan — it may have been when Polina Shepherd ‘ from Tatarstan by way of the UK — launched into a version of “Avinu Malkeynu.” The audience took the opportunity of a familiar melody to attempt a sing-along. That lasted about two phrases and then died out. Shepherd’s performance, like all the best ones we’ve heard this week, was not about kitsch, sentimentality, or nostalgia. This wasn’t singing around the campfire. Delivering the prayer inimitably, with ornamentation reflecting her immersion in the chant of the muezzin as much as in the cantorial tradition, it was about transcendence via art. It was a cry from her own heart, an act of creation, and a transformation of time and space into pure beauty that in sum equaled the mystical moment.
There were quite a few of those moments scattered throughout the concert by Polina and Merlin Shepherd at Joe’s Pub on Thursday night, all adding up to the spiritual experience that musicians from time out of mind have been pursuing — at least as far back as the Temple choirs. That this couple — he’s one of the world’s greatest Yiddish clarinetists, she’s a stunning vocalist with a four octave range and no slouch on piano, either — is deeply in love only adds to their ability to conjure up a musical dance that is much more complex than mere harmony, but also about tension and release, joy and sorrow, agony and ecstasy.
Merlin Shepherd is more than just a mere interpreter of the klezmer clarinet tradition. His opening statement, a “taxim,” or solo lament, boasted an impossibly full, rich tone such that it hardly even sounded like a clarinet, all deep and breathy, full of vibrating air, a cry of anguish (he had the killings in Charleston, S.C., on his mind) based in an ancient folk music but rendered in an utterly contemporary manner resonant of classical and jazz. The duo’s program consisted largely of continuous suites of music, trading lead voices, alternately meditative and jaunty, so that some in the audience sat enraptured while others literally stood up and danced.
I like to think of the duo as the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of klezmer, with Polina Shepherd channeling the sound of Kashmir (the place and the song) through her evocative vocals like Plant and Merlin standing with one foot in tradition, like Page and the blues, and another foot in the avant-garde, like Page as Page, reinventing the sound and possibilities of what the instrument can do. Polina and Merlin Shepherd – the Led Zeppelin of contemporary Yiddish music.
On Wednesday night at NYU’s Skirball Performing Arts Center, trumpeter Frank London led his Glass House Orchestra in a diverse and radical program of self-described “Astro-Hungarian folk punk,” which indeed owed as much to jazz eccentric Sun Ra as to the rich multicultural music of Hungary. The eight-member ensemble, a polyglot assemblage of idiosyncratic virtuosi including Aram Bajakian, the lead guitarist for the late Lou Reed’s band; Pablo Aslan, a giant of Argentinian jazz; Yonadav Halevy, one of Israel’s best known jazz drummers; Jake Shulman-Ment, a Brooklynite ethnomusicologist and world-class klezmer fiddler, and three standout Hungarian artists on cimbalom, bass, violin, and vocals, was equally adept at evoking the sound of Gypsy-influenced Jewish music and then turning around on a dime and playing a spaced-out, prog-jazz operetta. Only from the visionary mind of musical alchemist Frank London could such a dazzling, provocative sound emanate, and we are all the better for it.
Seth Rogovoy is a frequent contributor to the Forward’s culture pages.
It would have taken the fanciful imagination of a writer like Haruki Murakami or Salman Rushdie to have invented a scrappy quartet of Japanese musicians who play a punk-rock infused brand of Ching Dong — a style of Japanese street music roughly analogous to New Orleans parade band music — until one day the leader finds and listens to an LP of the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s 1980 album, “Yiddishe Renaissance,” and decides this is the music he was always meant to play.
In this version of the story, the band gets so good at its unique fusion of all those influences that it gets invited to perform at Kulturfest — the sprawling international festival of Yiddish music and culture taking place this week at venues throughout Manhattan — alongside the greatest contemporary klezmer and Yiddish artists, and winds up being a highlight of the festival, a spark of yidishkayt that somehow landed in Tokyo instead of the Lower East Side and was taken up by this band of merry Tokyo-based musicmakers.
Jinta-la-Mvta did exactly this in its concert at Joe’s Pub on Monday night, proving itself not only unique with its Japanese-accented Yiddish, entertaining with its audacious punk-infused presentation, colorful costumes and infectious enthusiasm, and skilled at a level only surpassed by the very top tier of klezmer musicians.
Jinta-la-Mvta learned the music it plays in very much the same manner as the klezmer revival bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s. After listening to that album by the KCB, they went back and studied the original immigrant-era recordings of the likes of Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, learned from those clarinetists the repertoire, modes, and ornamentation, and played it in such a way that it came out as an organic fusion of Yiddish music accented by the particular language and place of its time.
Hence, the fusion of Ching Dong and klezmer that seemed utterly natural, even when the vocalist sang a Japanese accented rendition of the Yiddish standard, “Papirosn,” or when the band — featuring clarinet, accordion, tuba, and percussion — played its version of Brandwein’s “Heyser Bulgar” with the same brassy enthusiasm that the pioneering Bay Area revivalists the Klezmorim brought to the tune, and then turned around on a dime and rendered a stately and dignified “Bessarabian Hora” in the style of Tarras.
And then, like many of today’s best klezmer bands, the group tackled some unlikely source material, in this case, Frank Zappa’s jazzy funk tune, “Peaches and Regalia,” and gave it their own klezmerized imprint.
There was also something unique about hearing this music played without a drop of sentimentality or nostalgia that enlivened it and gave it even more vibrancy and joy, enabling one to imagine how Yiddish music may have naturally evolved without the interruption brought about by the attempt to annihilate the people to whom it belonged.
Jinta-la-Mvta was preceded at Joe’s Pub by vocalist Vira Lozinsky, who with superb piano accompaniment by Alla Danzig, took the crowd on a journey through the Great Yiddish songbook, avoiding the tried and true and emphasizing the more complex and artier side of Yiddish theater and folk song.
Again, it made a listener imagine that instead of being something extraordinary — to hear Yiddish music being sung at Joe’s Pub as comfortably and naturally as if it were Karen Akers or Andrea Marcovicci onstage — this would have been just another night out on the town in Yiddishland.
Seth Rogovoy is a frequent contributor to the cultural pages of the Forward and the author of “The Essential Klezmer.”
Kulturfest brands itself as the “first international festival of Jewish performing arts,” and on the festival’s first day, Sunday, it lived up to its billing with a grand opening concert featuring dozens of artists representing at least five continents and a panoply of musical styles.
The event was held at Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, and if you’ve never seen a concert there, don’t feel the need to rectify the omission, because it’s actually a shopping mall atrium. Nevertheless, every seat was occupied, every inch of staircase was taken up by concertgoers, and the rest were left standing on the sidelines or hanging over the railings of the balcony level of retail stores. It made for an odd juxtaposition, and not the best-sounding show, but it was also a testimony to the thirst for this kind of entertainment – call it a retail-music extravaganza.
Renowned Yiddish-American singer-actress Eleanor Reissa served ably as master of ceremonies for the evening, which given the number of set changes, with each artist doing one song in a kind of all-festival variety show, ran remarkably smoothly. The Grammy Award-winning klezmer band the Klezmatics functioned as the house band for the evening, showcasing their own musical chops and versatility in the process.
Highlights of the evening included singer-actress Joanne Borts’s tribute to the Barry Sisters, stars of the Yiddish-swing era of the mid-20th century. Turning on a musical dime, Josh Dolgin aka Socalled, from Montreal, did one of his signature klezmer-rap tunes, “These Are the Good Old Day.” Dolgin brings the cultural ethos, knowledge, and entertainment value of the old-time Catskills to the stage, rejiggered for the 21st century, and it’s quite easy to imagine that had the Catskills scene lasted this long, it would very much look and sound like Socalled.
In their colorful, outlandish costumes and infused with the punk energy of contemporary Tokyo, Japanese klezmer outfit Jinta-la-Mvta brought the house down with its upbeat style of klezmer (you can catch them in their own show tonight at Joe’s Pub at 9pm). Backed by the Klezmatics, the duo of Merlin and Polina Shepherd – both from England, he originally from Wales, she from the far eastern reaches of the former Soviet Union – cast a spell on the crowd with their soulful virtuosity, Merlin coming across as the Jimmy Page of klezmer clarinet, and Polina as the Aretha Franklin of Yiddish song. (They perform at Joe’s Pub on Thursday at 7pm.)
The concert – functioning as a sampler or smorgasbord of all the musical artists who will be performing in the festival through next Sunday – included the obligatory rendition of “Rumenye”; a nod to the tradition historically embodied by Paul Robeson of African-Americans singing Yiddish through a lens of spirituals, here delivered by Elmore James; and a set-closing appearance by pop legend Neil Sedaka, who accompanied himself solo on the Steinway Grand with a poignant rendition of “My Yidishe Mame.”
Earlier in the day, the Argentine duo of César Lerner and Marcelo Moguilevsky demonstrated to the audience at the Museum of Jewish Heritage that the klezmer revival is not only a North American and European phenomenon. The musical partners of 30 years have taken a similar approach to modern groups like the Klezmatics, rebooting the Yiddish music of their ancestors and performing it with the vocabulary and accent of their territory, which in this case includes the tango of Astor Piazzolla, avant-garde jazz, and Andean folk music. They don’t play for the sake of nostalgia, but for contemporary expression, and while Moguilevsky would render a familiar nign on a native pipe or whistle, Lerner would contextualize the number with orchestral blankets of sound on accordion or jagged counterpoint on keyboards. They left at least one listener spellbound.
Seth Rogovoy is the author of The Essential Klezmer. To learn more about Kulturfest, visit http://kulturfestnyc.org.
The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene has announced that it will be creating a new, bi-annual international festival of Jewish performing arts, the New York Times reports. “Kulturfest,” which will also be named after Yiddish preservationist and anthologist Chana Mlotek, will begin in 2015, to coincide with the Folksbiene’s 100th anniversary. It will be officially presented at the organization’s upcoming June 12 gala, at which Mlotek will be honored along with Neil Sedaka and H. Jay Wisnicki.
The festival represents one of the Folksbiene’s first major initiatives since appointing Bryna Wasserman as its executive director in June 2011. Previously Wasserman served as the head of the Segal Centre in Montreal, where she spearheaded an International Yiddish Theater Festival in 2009 and 2011. The Folksbiene currently is one of two Yiddish theater companies operating in New York City, along with New Yiddish Rep.
The theater has received $250,000 from the Stanley and Marion Bergman Charitable Fund and the Mlotek Family Foundation to produce the festival. It aims to raise another $2 million for the event, the Times reports. The festival will feature a range of performances and performers including “theatres, musical groups… filmmakers and media artists from around the world whose work creatively explores, either directly or indirectly, the Jewish identity.”
According to a statement by Wasserman, Kulturfest will be “the first international festival of Jewish performing arts in New York City” and will incorporate an academic symposium in addition to performances.
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