Photo: Fumie Suzuki
So, there in a gazebo on the boardwalk in Coney Island are The Brothers Nazaroff, taking refuge from the steamy afternoon sun. It is 92 degrees and horribly humid outside as the five Nazaroffs start playing and singing. A Hungarian documentary crew is shooting with two cameras as the brothers sing “Lucky Jew,” so I have to be on my toes to stay out of the camera shots. My t-shirt is drenched with sweat but I realize that as awful as it is being outside in the heat and humidity, watching these spirited Yiddish musicians play their raucous repertoire does indeed make me a lucky Jew.
Billed as a “Yiddish supergroup,” The Brothers Nazaroff is a tribute band to an obscure Russian immigrant in New York known as Nathan “Prince” Nazaroff. The man is known mostly by hardcore Yiddish music lovers. He is called an outsider, though he did record an album for Moe Asch’s Folkways label in 1954 and Nazaroff promoted himself as an established entertainer. None of The Brothers Nazaroff are actually brothers or Nazaroffs. Danik Nazaroff, Pasha Nazaroff, Meyshke Nazaroff, Zaelic Nazaroff and Yankl Nazaroff are in fact Daniel Kahn of Painted Bird fame, genuine Russian Psoy Korolenko, Michael Alpert of Brave Old World, Bob Cohen of the Budapest-based Di Naye Kapelye and Jake Shulman-Ment, widely regard as one of the best working klezmer fiddlers on the planet.
Thanks to Cohen’s connections in the Hungarian arts scene, a well-funded documentary on the Nazaroff project was begun. Various Nazaroffs were flown to New York for the film, which will also shoot in Paris and Berlin, where 35 year-old Daniel Kahn is based.
“Nazaroff had this sort of rough, workaday exuberance. He had an insistent, almost shrill, enthusiastic joy in what he sang,” Kahn, the project’s ringleader, told the Forward during a late lunch at a Russian cafe in Brighton Beach during a break in the shooting. “We can all be Nazaroffs. All we need to do is get infected by his groove.”
During the meal Michael “Meyshke Nazaroff” Alpert sang the traditional celebratory salute, “Lomir Ale In Eynem,” to the Hungarian film crew before downing a shot of vodka. About half of the Hungarian filmmakers seemed to be toking away on e-cigarettes during the shoot.
Alpert was the first of the five musicians to discover Nazaroff back in 1976, in his native Los Angeles.
“It’s what I call boardwalk music. It’s the music that older Jews of the immigrant generation would play in parks and on boardwalks,” Alpert said. “This was social music making. It was for hanging out. They would sing in Russian, they would sing in Yiddish, they would sing in Ukrainian, sometimes in Polish. It was the most widely heard public form of Yiddish music in North America. You didn’t have to go into a theater to hear it. This was not a club or cafe music.”
In addition to Nazaroff’s 1954 Folkways LP “Jewish Freilach Songs,” three or four 78s he recorded in the 1920s, including a “Red Army Song,” have been unearthed by these latter day Nazaroffs. But not much more is known about the mysterious Russian Jewish troubadour.
“He was buried in countless bargain record crates at used record stores,” Kahn said. “That’s the only grave of his we know of.”
Smithsonian Folkways will release an album by The Brothers Nazaroff in 2015. If you can’t wait until then to hear them, you can always show up for their concert at the Museum at Eldridge Street September 4 at 7 p.m. for their official New York debut.