The Brothers Nazaroff / The Happy Prince

Another Ben Katchor masterpiece

The Brothers Nazaroff
The Happy Prince
Smithsonian Folkways, 2015
CD, downloads available from Smithsonian Folkways, and from fine vendors on- and off-line.

Now for something completely different. In 1954 a rough singer named Nathan "Prince" Nazaroff went to Folkways records and got Moe Asch to record an album of Jewish Freilach Songs. The recording was so undistinguished that it almost certainly failed to cover the minimal cost of recording it. But, that record captured a certain folk-spirit; an anarchic, fun, "guy" spirit that had an influence far beyond the number of album sales. In the liner notes, luminaries Michael Alpert (older klezmer revival generation) and Daniel Kahn (a newer generation) reflect on their positive and amazed reactions when they each, separately, stumbled over the record. The bandleader of Hungary's "Di Naye Kapelye," told a similar story when he recorded "Der Mazeldiker Yid" on his band's recording of the same name. In short, if your Yiddish isn't on a pedestal, if you merely love it and live it, then "Prince" Nazaroff represents the spirit of Yiddish as the people's language. The Brothers Nazaroff are the Ramones of the klezmer revival.

As I try to describe the intense joyfulness of this album I am stuck by the memory of a long introduction to "Old Blue" by the Dillards on a live album fifty years ago in which they describe how awestruck they were by the Joan Baez version of the song, and in which they apologize for singing it differently, given that they live with hounds like "Old Blue" and have a familiarity with their faults ("at least once or twice a year you struggle to the outhouse in the middle of the winter—which means it's kind of a desperate things for you, only to open the door and find a worn out hound, feet worn to raw pads, that is defending the privy like he built it.") Debate the proposition if you will, but this is Yiddish sung as though as though the songs were meant for fun. They mine every known recording or demo by our Prince. And this is the band to put it across: Psoy Karolenko and Daniel Kahn; Bob and Michael, and some additional top-flight musicians like Jake Shulman-Ment and Hankus Melin to keep things tuneful (certainly more tuneful than on the original). There are a couple of golden moldies like "Tumbala Laika." There are sad lovelorn songs like "Maidlach vie blumen" (Girls are like flowers). But more important are the drinking songs like "Ihr fregt mich vos ich troier" (Now you ask me why I'm mournful), the geographic inclusiveness of "Ich Flee," or the title song, an amazing, wonderfully raucous "Ich a mazeldicker Yid"—title song of one of the amazing, and rare "Di Naye Kapelye" albums.

In short, this is an impeccably produced, wonderful recording that recreates the spirit, if not the world, of the immigrant Yiddish-speaking communities in the New World of a century ago. No sentimentalizing or beauteous sterilization. No tuxedo on these blues. For all I know, the repertoire would have been just as common in Europe, but would have lacked the ambience of the people's mandolin orchestras or the Americanizing influence of the Catskills. Not only is the music exquisitely messy (if impeccably sung and played), but you get an intro by Michael Wex and album artwork by Ben Katchor, which is to say that this is the sort of recording you put on when you have friends over and want to have a great, hilarious time. As befits such an effort, copies may be procured from reputable vendors everywhere, or directly from Smithsonian Folkways.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 16 Sep 2016.

Personnel this recording:
Michael Alpert: guitar, vocals
Bob Cohen: mandolin, fiddle, tsuras, vocals
Daniel Kahn: accordion, whistle, tsuras, 'Hava Nagila' music box, vocals
Psoy Korolenko: vocals
Jake Shulman-Ment: fiddle, vocals
Hankus Melin: poyk

Guest: Yuriy Gurzhy: vocals (9)
Merlin Shepherd: whistle (9)


  1. Vander ich mir lustig—While I'm happily walking 5:16
  2. Tumbala Laika 4:03
  3. Ihr Fregt Mich Vos Ich Troier—You ask me why I'm mournful 4:38
  4. Arum Dem Feier—Around the fire 3:25
  5. Freilachs 3:12
  6. Maidlach Vie Blumen—Girls are like flowers 4:00
  7. Der Koptzen—The poor man 1:24
  8. Fishalach—Little fish 3;12
  9. Ich A Mazeldicker Yid—Oh! am I a lucky Jew! 3:52
  10. Maidlid—Maiden song 3:06
  11. Ich Flee —I fly 2:20
  12. Yiddel Mit Zein Fidel—Little Jew with a fiddle 4:42
  13. Krasnoarmeyskaya Pesn' —Red Army song 3:40
  14. Now sing along with the Prince—Hava Nagila 0:20

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