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.
Of the two, Kahn is the more straightforwardly political. Despite having relocated to Berlin a number of years ago, he’s still a singer-song writer in the American tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Kahn’s got the “Rise Up Singing” songbook at his fingertips, albeit with the added value of a grounding in Brecht and an immersion in both German and Yiddish song craft.
Korolenko is much harder to pin down, especially for non-Russian speakers. With his casual references to Chekhov, his shoulder-length hair and a beard worthy of Brooklyn’s Boro Park, Korolenko could easily be taken for an eccentric Russian professor, or at least an American cliché of an eccentric Russian professor. And in this case, that wouldn’t be so far off the mark.
Korolenko does indeed have a doctorate in Russian literature, and he has been invited to teach around the world. But teaching is only one item on his curriculum vitae. In Moscow he’s known as a journalist and as an author of serious literature. One of his many roles is as a champion of the work of Vladimir Korolenko, a turn-of-the-century Russian author and political figure, probably best known in the West for his key role in the Mendel Beilis blood libel case. It is after this earlier Korolenko that Psoy Korolenko (born Pavel Lion) named himself.
Today, Korolenko is probably best known as a performer. Mikhail Krutikov, professor of Russian at the University of Michigan and columnist for the Forverts, has said that Korolenko reinvented Jewish music in Russia. But unlike his colleagues who’ve established a Russian klezmer sound at festivals like Klezfest in Saint Petersburg, Korolenko is not a klezmer musician, though he performs with klezmer bands.
He’s not a Yiddishist, either, though Yiddish, which he began studying in 1986, is an integral part of what he does. For one of his latest projects, Korolenko contributed original Yiddish texts for a new piece of art music with the Timofeyev Ensemble. The work, called “Shloyme,” is a response to “Schelomo,” composer Ernst Bloch’s ‘Hebrew Rhapsody’ for cello and orchestra, a work inspired by the Jewish experience, if not by traditional Jewish music.
Many of the people I asked about Korolenko said the same thing: Perhaps the only way to describe him is as a bridge among languages, cultures and people. As Kerler put it, he “brings together things that are unrelated, or don’t want to be related, and discovers something original in its own right.”
Because Korolenko’s method is so deeply multilingual, a performance of his inevitably involves some degree of audience alienation; English speakers won’t understand Russian, Russians won’t understand Yiddish, and so on. These lacunae are by design. Korolenko flirts with his audience, hiding as much as he reveals, forcing his listeners to make their own connections, teasing them to meet the artist more than halfway.
As a non-Russian speaker myself, I was intrigued. The Russians in the audience at the JCC seemed to laugh a lot more than the English speakers. After the show, I asked one of the audience members what she found so compelling about Korolenko’s performance, which included singing in Yiddish, rapping in Russian and dancing around the JCC theater in mock balletic style.
Ira, a non-Jewish 27-year-old transplant from Pinsk (and a linguist by training), put it this way: “The way he rhymes things might seem too easy, but it’s really not. He doesn’t just rhyme words, he rhymes concepts in Russian and English.”
Fans in Russia and the United States love him as much for his sophisticated Russian wordplay as for absurdist classics like “Pizza Pizza,” an English-language incantation of pizzas around the world. It’s a kind of dialect(ic) humor for the 21st century. Rather than flowing from one fixed idea, his genius lies in bringing together opposing languages, concepts and styles in pursuit of some deeper truth.
The Unternationale is probably the most accessible of Korolenko’s work for non-Russian speakers. “The First Unternationale” (2008) featured Zionist and anti-Zionist anthems, including the songs of the Betar movement and the Bund. Korolenko and Kahn recorded it in Israel with the Israeli klezmer band Oy Division.
“The Second Unternationale,” set for release later in 2012, takes on anthems and counter-anthems of the Soviet Union. This is Korolenko’s dialectic method. As he puts it, “A bird must have two wings to fly, a right wing and a left wing.”
It was Korolenko’s grandfather who taught him French, what he calls his other mameloshn. But it was his grandmother who introduced him to Yiddish, teaching him how to say ikh hob dikh lib fun der vaytns (I love you from afar.) It wasn’t just a sentence, he says, but a “spell.” Most artists who perform in multiple languages will try to narrow the distance between language and audience. Korolenko finds an almost erotic tension in that distance. Perhaps it’s this tension that casts such a spell on his audience.
Rokhl Kafrissen is working on her first book, “The Myth of the Yiddish Atlantis: Toward a New Theory of Dynamic Yiddishkayt.”