Yidish Vokh '01 and Josh Waletzky's new "Crossing the Shadows":
di alte heym cordially meets the New World in the Berkshires and beyond
by Dena Ressler
[Note: An earlier version of this article was posted to the Jewish-music mailing list.]
Instead of attending KlezKanda this year I decided to travel to another bucolic setting 2 1/2 hours north of The City and attempt to speak Yiddish in for a whole week - in Yidish Vokh (a meykhaye oyb ir redt yidish).
I didn't expect that much music (Silly me! The organizer, Benyomin Schaechter, is an accomplished pianist, arranger, choral leader and composer). Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by a number of planned or spontaneous activities which I'll list below since this article is long and I want you to know more about the above-mentioned CD in case you, like me, missed its release last spring.
Erev shabes people sat around singing songs and nigunim - of note were some composed and sung by two very much living and present authors: Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman and Josh Waletzky. After I heard Waletzky sing a beautiful and classic-sounding song I asked him where it was from and how old it was. He told me he'd written it! The song is "shabes, koydesh" on his new album, "ariber di shotns" - "Crossing the Shadows."
You may be familiar with Waletzky's other work - he is an accomplished film director and producer ("Partisans of Vilna," "Image Before My Eyes,") and editor ("In the Fiddler's House" featuring Itzak Perlman) and a founding member of one of the first klezmer revival groups, Kapelye - but this is his first solo album.
You should know about this CD, you should get it for yourself, your family, and your friends! Why? Because it is an important new work, but mostly because it is beautiful.
It's important for a couple of reasons. One is obvious: Waletzky is only one of two people who come to mind who are writing a body of new Yiddish songs - Schaechter-Gottesman being the other.
All 14 of the cuts are originals. Three of them are instrumentals, the rest vocals. They do not fit neatly into the usual Yiddish, Jewish, klezmer or even popular American forms.
One is tempted to compare this album to Chava Alberstein's/The Klezmatic's "di kreniste" The Well; both have fine poems and melodies accompanied by some of Yiddish music's finest musicians. The feel of this album is different, however.
The spirit of Waletzky's music is both old and new. He has succeeded in capturing a quintessential yidishkayt in both the religious and cultural meanings of the word, and he also shapes a new-world sensibility with his compositions. He does this on both musical and textual levels, with a sound unique to him but with many allusions to various Jewish musical traditions.
For example, let's return to shabes koydesh. At first hearing, the song sounded traditional, perhaps Hasidic. But on closer analysis, it is both old - the words could have been written 200 years ago. There are beautiful harmonies - traditional in Jewish singing. At the same time the song sounds contemporary - the musical structure is complex and modern: at the beginning of the song three singers sing for half a minute; the tempo is 3/4. The tempo then changes to 2/4 for another half minute. Then, the refrain becomes a slightly faster 2/4, befitting the admonishment to lomir freylekh zayn (let's be happy!) It's not way traditional or even modern songs are shaped.
The melodies, the music, and the composition are all oysergeveyntlekh sheyn (extraordinarily beautiful) and quite interesting. The melodies are catchy - inviting one to sing along and harmonize. Once again, the forms are not just your run-of-the-mill stanza and chorus. For example, in sholem-toyb/Dove of Peace, there are two refrains, one Biblical/Hebrew, one Yiddish; they are not always sung consecutively. The instrumentals, especially, can be likened to miniature symphonies, both in structure and in musical arrangement.
Waletzky uses both old and new musical elements. All of the melodies are in natural minor vs. the freygish or misheberak modes one often finds in Yiddish song. Many of the songs start out with wordless singing - not usual in Yiddish or non-Yiddish songs, but very common, of course in Hasidic nigunim. As mentioned above, the structure of the songs are not routine, but there is a venerable Lubavitch tradition of multi-sectioned songs constructed to correspond to different spiritual levels.
The subjects of the songs are also both old and new. Tantsn kales (Brides Are Dancing) is about a modern subject - a reluctant bridegroom. The story is told with traditional words and semi-modern images (brides dancing around him as in a dream sequence from a Yiddish film from the '30s) and the song ends in the traditional khusn-kale mazl tov! Ireland, 1998, rejoices at the peace accords there, framed in images of Noah's ark. Der nisnboym / The Nut Tree is an old-fashioned Jewish vig lid (lullaby) where the child's growth and independence is set among a nest, tree, and the moon which recalls the classic Yiddish song "afn veg shteyt a boym". There is a moving song to Waletszky's late father which simultaneously invokes his personal loss and his connection to Jewish history: "so take my pain and take my joy, and hammer my link into the golden chain" [the classic Jewish chain - goldener keyt]. ("iz nem mayn layd un nem mayn freyd un shmid mayn ringl arayn in goldener keyt.")
Waletzky has chosen two of the best klezmer musicians on the scene today to accompany him - Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warchauer. Strauss's violin is perfect: haunting, mournful, playful, and singing in turn. For instance, tantsn kales opens with a breath-taking violin solo that is in the tradition of the playing that used to cause our great-grandmothers to swoon at weddings. In der nisnboym/the nut tree lullaby, the violin enters softly after a long voice solo, and then accompanies the voice in soft harmony, a perfect complement.
Warchauer, too is able to invoke all sorts of moods with his mandolin, guitar, and percussion. In eyns un tsvey/One and Two, the mandolin is melancholy; in der tom/The Abyss, he plays a regal klezmer/Romanian jok/hora (dance in 6/8) which, at the same time, reminiscent of Spain.
Waletzky's piano playing is also notable. It took me several listenings to tantsn kales before I realized that he was accompanying Strauss, so unobtrusive and subtle is his playing. On the other hand, in the instrumental der tats/the cymbal, the piano is quite percussive and energetic.
Waletzky is a true poet; the words to his songs can stand by themselves. They take one's breath away; bring tears to one's eyes; make one smile....
Don't pass over this CD just because you don't understand Yiddish. The music is wonderful - and English translation and Yiddish transliteration stand alongside the Yiddish oytses/letters on each pair of pages in the notes - so you'll know the meaning of the words. And if you know some Hebrew, you will find many Yiddish words of Hebrew origin in the songs. This is another perhaps unintentional device that makes the songs traditional since it invokes old Yiddish which is itself routinely invoked the Bible.
This may sound corny or commercial (it's not an ad, though), but this album makes a perfect gift for those who love Yiddish song/music including klezmer music (a lot of people)...those who understand Yiddish or are studying it (my vocabulary is already larger only days later!)... those who like cutting edge CDs (no garage punk, though)...and, I daresay, any Hasidic friends you may have.
Other musical delights at Yidish Vokh were:
a wonderful choral concert of Yiddish songs led by Benyomin Schaechter.
a workshop led by Raphoyl (Raphael) Finkel which resulted in a new workers' song - words written by the participants, melody by Finkel. (see www.cs.uky.edu/~raphael/yiddish/kind.html for the content)
Michael Spudic (accordion), Waletzky (piano) and I (clarinet) got to play klezmer twice for dancing. (!)
Last but not least Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. Unfortunately, we didn't get to hear much of her work except Erev Shabes and when Peshe Charnis sang one of her songs at the talent show. Schaechter-Gottesman has two CDs to her credit, both wonderful and also accompanied by extraordinary Yiddish-music-makers. They are available through www.yv.org or by e-mailing Itzik Gottesman.