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Klezmatics/Alberstein: "The Well"
album release concert at Town Hall, NYC, 10/10/98

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A The Klezmatics tour Israel: A Fantasy, inspired by a first outdoor concert featuring Chava and the Klezmatics, 7/98

Reviews of the album, "Di Krenitse (The Well)".

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Other writing by Ari Davidow

In a few words, the concert will rank among the most marvellous that I have seen. Attendees, all of whom left the concert with smiles and most cheerful demeanors ranged from Debbie Friedman, of Jewish spiritual folkie fame, to Zalmen Mlotek, the foremost arranger of Yiddish music in our time (in my opinion). And, a lot of us who aren't particularly famous or talented, but enjoy good music when we get the chance.

Alberstein, unique among Israeli folk performers with many Yiddish language recordings interspersed with her usual Hebrew, has never been among my favorite performers. But I only knew her from a spotty few recordings that I have deigned to listen to over the years. Clearly, just as I was jolted politically by the release of her shocking, astonishing, wonderful and prayerful "Chad Gadya" a decade ago, I have been guilty of serious underestimation with regards to her abilities as a peak performer, live.

For the recording of "The Well," Alberstein enlisted the help of The Klezmatics, a band that is among the best, and arguably, evenings such as last Saturday night, entirely without peers, in the field of modern Jewish music. Although the Klezmatics are best known for their fusion of klezmer with the American jazz, avant garde, and rock music with which many of us are more familiar, they have long demonstrated an ability to play just about anything (starting with very traditional klezmer), and in their collaborations, individually and as a band, have spanned the globe, physically and stylistically.

The project involved recording poems written over the past century by Yiddish poets, many of whom are unknown outside of Yiddishist circles. There have been similar projects in recent years: I recently reviewed an album in which the Austrian band, Di Goyim, set poetry written in Vienna in the 20s to Weilish, jazzish, industrial-sounding music. My own "homies," the Boston band, Naftule's Dream, did similar work with a broader range of Yiddish poets, and performed the material extensively a couple of years ago.(A cut from those recordings, not otherwise publicly available except for bootlegs, was on the JAM compilation, Guide for the Perplexed.)

This project was different, in that the melodies to which the music has been set are far more mainstream, far more familiar-sounding and accessible. This is not edge music (although anything on which the Klezmatics play is going to be near the edge, periodically). Indeed, although the music was written by Chava Alberstein and primarily reflects her Israeli Hebrew and Yiddish folk roots (about which, read further, below), the Klezmatics added an obvious overlay of their own music, and there was even a moment when producer Ben Mink joined them on the stage last Saturday night, he who achieved early prominence as a member of Toronto's seminal "String Band," one of the most amazing folk bands of the 70s, when I could hear his Canadian Folk/Quebecois influence, as well.

In short, the music is not traditional Yiddish. Nor is it klezmer. It is definitely folkish and wonderful. This goes well with the poems, which span the gamut of life, from poems about hearts broken in love, to longing, and peaceful times, to a precurser to Bob Dylan's song about serving someone, Abe Reisen's "One Has Got" (We must all have something/Must believe in one of/A devil down below/A good Lord up above/....), to the amazing, evocative, "My Sister Chaye," one of the strongest, most compelling songs about those who were murdered set to music in recent times.

But, perhaps, these are words that better belong in an album review. After all of this time, I should at least talk about the performance a week ago in Town Hall.

The Klezmatics opened with a reasonably usual set of hot, mostly dance music. The material was drawn mostly from their most recent two albums, "Possessed" and "Jews with Horns," and if they strayed a bit further from klezmer into avant jazz a bit on one of Matt Dariau's horas, this is neither entirely unexpected, nor an unwelcome event. Their set closed with the usual "Shnerele Perele" and "Fisherlied", songs that I am convinced will continue to move me at least as long as I am ready to hear "Mr. Tambourine Man" yet again.

Rather than go directly to a set by Alberstein, the band, instead, called Alberstein onto stage and they launched into the new material. Hopefully, someone kept a set list. All I can say is that the pleasure of watching, listening, to incredible musicians playing new music that they clearly love almost as much as they love playing together is something very special.

After a first set together, the Klezmatics left the stage for a while so that Alberstein could perform some of her older Yiddish (and Hebrew material). It was then that I realized how thoroughly I may have missed what a great performer she is. Along the way, she performed a couple of Israeli traditional folk songs (melodies, according to Alberstein, imported just recently from South America), in part forming her explanation of the Israel "folk" process, by which songs are brought by immigrants, are heard for a while in their native language, and reappear after a while as Israeli traditional melodies. In this, she was also hinting at the sources, and eclecticism, of the music to which the new material had been set.

She then concluded her set with an amazing rendition of "Chad Gadya," an adaptation of the traditional Aramaic seder song (the recording was originally released as part of her 1989 "London" album). It was, she said, about the need to end the cycles of violence. Clearly she was referring not only to the context of the intifada, in which the song was released, to a more universal message worth hearing in a world and in a week, where bombings in Kosovo were imminent (to single out one conflict, one that happened to grab a headline above the fold in the Sunday paper following, next to reportage about the latest meetings between Netanyahu and Arafat.) She then concluded with a song that she used to dedicate to Yitzhak Rabin, and now dedicated to his memory and to the cause of peace, a Shlomo Carlebach song that has long been part of the general Jewish folk repertoire, origins obscure to many of us. (And which song? I, who am unfamiliar with Carlebach's music, can only say that I knew the song, but which one? That was a week and several lifetimes ago.)

It was during the songs that closed the set that I found myself thinking about the implications of what I was seeing on stage. It wasn't just the amazing music and pleasure of watching a band having such pleasure--although, usually, and even here, those would be excuse enough. It was impossible to miss the symbolism of hearing Yiddish and Hebrew on stage as both relevant to each other. The war of Hebrew vs. Yiddish in Israel was long, complex, and bitter. Hebrew won, in part with help of assimilation in America, and the destruction of European Jewry by Hitler. In the aftermath, not only have issues such as the character sets available on computers for writing using the Hebrew alphabet been affected (interested folks can contact the UYIP mailing list, see for further info), but recent knowledge of European Jewish culture as expressed in Yiddish was less familiar, and less accessible to Israeli children than stories from 2000 years ago. On last Saturday night's stage, that antagonism was gone. The inclusion of Aramaic, in Chad Gadya, symbolized not only that healing, but reminded us of how many languages have been part of our history and culture, and how important the cherishing of each is. Seguing so quickly to the Carlebach song, made not only a strong overt political statement ("politics!" snorted the person in the seat ahead of me, but he neither left, nor appeared uninvolved in what he was hearing), but reminded us of how deep and rich our culture is.

The Klezmatics came back out, and continued to play through "The Well," including "My Sister Chaye," surely one of the most beautiful songs, and one driving home so much of what the Holocaust meant on a personal level, and also including other songs from Alberstein's repertoire. This song also drove home how good the words to all of these songs are. There are no moon/spoon/June songs here, nor is their piety, or tradition, other than the universal tradition of the human condition, and of the particular human condition of Jewish life in this century.

The thing is, by now, this was not just amazing music. It was amazing healing music. We all stepped outside, not just awed by an amazing performance, but all, to some degree, more at peace than when we entered. Not that the music had necessarily been gentle, but that the performance had broadened our world just a bit, and made us realize how precious and beautiful it was. As the band performed it's encores, I had an image of the Lubavitch story, from "Tanya" if memory serves, in which they explain the variant spellings of the word for "light" in Genesis. When G-d first spoke, an immense, inconceivable light filled the universe: "Y'hi or." Later in the chapter, as creation proceeds, a shorter spelling is used; according to the Lubavitchers, this is because that original light had to be shattered to allow creation, and shards of that original light are embedded in all of creation. Part of our job on earth is to perform "tikkun olam," to repair that world by uniting those sparks by our prayers.

Last Saturday night, Chava Alberstein and the Klezmatics created such a light, gushing out into the world (to borrow a metaphor from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai), and over us, shattering the perfection of the music's conception, washing over us with peace and something larger than ourselves, or the music, itself, as "The Well" was not just performed, but was embedded in each of us, as a healing, and as a reminder of who we are and how beautiful and wonderful that is.

The rest, I guess, is commentary.

concert review by Ari Davidow, 18 Oct 1998

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