December 5, 2002
Shtetl Rock ‘n’ Roll
Wolf Krakowski and other musicians have transformed Yiddish music from nostaglic to new.
Much to the chagrin of cultural nationalists in places such as France, no culture seems immune to the seductive rhythms of American pop and rock. Fed by a steady diet of American TV and movies, young musicians from places as disparate as Zimbabwe, Paraguay, New Zealand, Mynamar and Egypt have learned to combine their indigenous folk music with U.S.-born-and-bred rock -- making for a kind of transglobal, world-beat music with a heavy blues and R&B influence.
It has taken a while, but Yiddish music has finally caught up with the rest of the world in swinging to the rock 'n' roll beat. While Yiddish popular music was dealt a near-death blow by the Holocaust, it has been undergoing a fertile revival for the past 20 years.
While much of that revival has focused on picking up where the music left off in 1945, driven in large part by nostalgia for a lost world, the cutting edge of Yiddish song is advancing the music through the natural evolution that would have occurred had there not been a violent break in the chain in the mid-20th century.
The latest and one of the greatest examples of this can be found on "Goyrl: Destiny," the new recording by singer Wolf Krakowski. The follow-up to "Transmigrations: Gilgul," Krakowski's new recording posits him as a kind of Yiddish Willie Nelson, singing a mix of Yiddish folk, theater and art songs in roots-rock arrangements worthy of the Byrds and the Band -- the latter, like Krakowski, a group of players originally hailing for the most part from Toronto.
Born in a displaced persons camp in Austria, son of Polish-Jewish survivors, long-haired, black-leather-jacketed, poet, vagabond and itinerant musician, Krakowski is the Jewish bad boy, the one who turned his back on college, hit the road with his guitar, hopped rides on trains and worked at odd jobs.
His mentor was the late Mississippi bluesman Big Joe Williams, with whom he used to room. Yet Krakowski now performs the music beloved of the generation that perished during the war. He sings Yiddish songs with a deep tenderness, respect and knowledge of what happened to the people of his mama loshen (mother tongue) -- all with a driving blues rhythm. Think "Fiddler on the Roof" laced with Bob Dylan.
Krakowski isn't the only musician of his generation finding common ground between Yiddish and rock 'n' roll. Bands at the cutting-edge of the klezmer revival, such as the Klezmatics, Brave Old World and Klezperanto, have noticed how naturally the Ashkenazic modes blend with a funky beat.
Groups, such as Mikveh, Pharaoh's Daughter and Golem, and singers, including Adrienne Cooper, Michael Alpert, Judy Bressler and David Wall, are finding correspondences between Joni Mitchell and Molly Picon, Paul Simon and Moishe Oysher.
Krakowski, however, is the first to give voice fully to the songs of Itzik Manger, Shmerke Kaczerginski, Sholom Secunda and Mordkhe Gebirtig in the style of contemporaries such as Tom Waits, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen.
When Klezmatics trumpeter and all-around Yiddish music maven Frank London first heard Krakowski's music on "Gilgul," he thought it was what Jewish music would have sounded like had the Holocaust never happened. So he signed on as producer for "Goyrl" and gave the singer's second album -- which includes instrumental help from Bob Dylan keyboardist Brian Mitchell and saxophonist Charles Neville of the famed New Orleans group, the Neville Brothers -- a more refined, spare sound. It emphasized Krakowski's timeless baritone, the haunting melodies and the heartbeat rhythms.
The core musicians in Krakowski's band are neighbors from the rural Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts that Krakowski now calls home. Bassist Ray Mason, drummer Bob Grant and Jim Armenti -- who handles duty on guitar, mandolin, violin, bouzouki and saxophone -- can often be found together playing as the Lonesome Brothers in area bars and honky-tonks. That experience pervades the sound of "Goyrl," and is no doubt partly responsible for the authenticity of Krakowski's unique, electric shtetl-rock.
Kicking off "Goyrl" is "Tate-Mame" ("Father and Mother") by Benzion Witler, a Polish singer, actor and songwriter who died in 1961. The song begins with luminous guitar licks.
The lyrics are darkly existential: "Our lives are only empty dreams/Mindlessly rushing by/We ask time, allow a little happiness/It vanishes at the doorstep."
"Not all Yiddish music was frailikh, cheerful," Krakowski said from his Northampton home, which he shares with his wife, Yiddish scholar and singer Paula Parsky, known as Fraidy Katz. "There's an expectation that I'll be a frailikhmeister."
"In the minds of most people," he said, "Jewish music is klezmer. I like it, but that's not my music. Sometimes I think my dead relatives, who were so brutally silenced, are channeling through me. Singing in Yiddish is how I touch them."
Krakowski introduces the dark, the sexual and the ironic in traditional Yiddish songs by Oysher, folksongs such as "Khvel Shoyn Mer Nisht Ganvenen" ("No More Will I Steal"), and the sophisticated music of conservatory-trained Emil Gorovets, whose "Tife Griber, Royter Laym" ("Deep Pits, Red Clay") is propelled by a syncopated reggae beat. Manger's "Mit Farmakhte Oygn" ("With Eyes Closed") is drenched in pedal steel guitar, and Abraham Levin's "A Shod Dayne Trern" ("A Waste of Your Tears") finds common ground between tango and surf-rock.
Krakowski's vocals are tinged with pain and compassion born of witnessing firsthand the suffering of his survivor relatives. He sings "Hundert" ("One Hundred"), a counting song by an anonymous concentration camp inmate, accompanied only by a ghostly tsimbl. Krakowski also breathes new life into the familiar Joan Baez hit, "Donna, Donna," which began life as a Yiddish song with lyrics by Aaron Zeitlin and music by Secunda. Krakowski's version restores the song's horror at the slaughter of the innocent goat.
Even the seemingly easygoing, breezy, country twang of Witler's "Lomir Trakhtn Nor Fun Haynt" ("Let's Just Think About Today"), sung as a George Jones and Tammy Wynette-style duet by Krakowski and his wife, is belied by lyrics that in translation ask, "Who knows? Will a time come, and the two of us will be separated, and never see each other again?"
Both of Krakowski's CDs are issued as part of John Zorn's aptly titled "Radical Jewish Culture" series on Zorn's label, Tzadik. Though Krakowski's music celebrates Yiddish language and culture, it is most likely to be found on the world music charts.
"It's a thrill to see yourself on record charts with Bob Marley, Femi Kuti and the Gypsy Kings," Krakowski said. And even more, he added, to hear his reggae-filled version of the traditional folk song, "Shabes, Shabes," being played on a Berlin radio station while he was visiting Germany in 1997.
His last CD, "Transmigrations," was nominated the Record of the Year for 2001 by the German magazine Folker."It's a good thing I have a capacity for irony," he said. "Because singing in Yiddish is my personal, ongoing epithet to Hitler."
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