Polina Shepherd Vocal Experience / Baym Taykh

This is rather nice! Is that 'Mezz' on the CD title?

Polina Shepherd Vocal Experience
Baym Taykh

Oriente Musi, RIEN CD64, 2007
Web: www.oriente.de

When James Joyce wrote about the East shaking the West awake, he was thinking of Asia. In Jewish cultural life, however, just as a mass migration 100 years ago totally changed Jewish life in the United States, a new wave of migration, both physical and cultural, is doing the same again now that the totalitarian regimes of the last century are gone (in some cases, replaced by new and improved totalitarian regimes, but that is sarcasm and political discussion better suited for elsewhere). In particular, the understanding that the world Jewish community was going to help the remnants of Jewish communities, survivors of the Holocaust and Communism, refind the Jewish culture we carefully preserved for them, are being laid to rest with increasing force.

One excellent example of new Yiddish music comes from Polina Shepherd. Founder of the Quartet Ashkenazim, her latest CD shows how much new Yiddish poetry and music is springing from the former Soviet Union. Now residing in the UK, she is accompanied on this recording by Ashkenazim and husband—now Ashkenazim member—Merlin Shepherd (whose solo saxophone perfectly opens the CD).

Much of this music is a capella or sparsely accompanied. And the music itself? A feast of harmonies and new music, some sounding familiar and Jewish, or familiar and art song-ish; all sounding marvellous. This CD is a choral music listener's treat, and yet, the group consists of only four voices. Sometimes the voices are together, sometimes, as well the various members trade solos and duets. There is this joyous celebration that belies the words of "Nit ikh veyn un nit ikh lakh,"

Let hot tears be blessed
A man must be a man
But my eyes are dry top to bottom
There is not a single tear left.…

The words are the other surprise of the album. This is not old material, reinterpreted. These are poems, old and new, which are newly set to music written by Polina Shepherd. Fourteen songs, featuring 11 poets, in Yiddish, male and female. And their poetic voices? These are new worlds, demanding the diversity of expression and the amazing interplay of clarinet, piano, solo voice, and ensemble in so many forms.

This CD is a revelation. Like the music of bands such as Konsonans Retro, or Kharpov Klezmer and Dobranotch, the East is shaking us awake, yet again, not to be nostalgic, but as part of our own reclaiming of a heritage that was almost assimilated away and lost—not just as a result of oppression and genocide in the East, but just as easily lost in the opportunities in the West. This music doesn't sound quite like anything else. The art-song paen to "Der heliker Balshemtov," the wonder of "Shpitsn berg," Merlin's voice describing loneliness and a wondering, bitter despair in "Tsvey," followed by the joyous interplay of voices in "Tirtl-Taybn,"

Impulses of memory:
Lightning, noise
Gleam of the Sun on a knife's blade
Keyder years and a word,
No more than a word: …

Listen to Shepherd on Mani Leyb's poem, the title track, "Baym taykh." In the poem we witness, both in Merlin Shepherd's jazzy saxophone and in Polina Shepherd's voice, a young girl's transition from childhood to adulthood, but also to being an active part of her world, whatever will befall her:

On the other side of the river
the Sun is going down
On the other side of the river
a young girl is walking
With longing in her heart
and teams in her gaze
She's searching for her maiden's good fortune …

Happily, I am not the only person who has noticed that something special is going on. A few months ago, Jewish-Music list member posted asking if anyone knew what had happened to the Ashkenazim, a group whose harmonies and music she loved.:

Thanks to M. Gordon I found the band I used to LOVE when they performed in the FSU. They are called the Ashkenazim, and they have web sites and a myspace page with lots of music there. … I am not selling anything here, so I won't give you the link to where to buy their newest CD (September 2007!!!), but it's easy to find on the internet. I can't buy it because I live in Russia, and Internet payment is not quite here yet … Singer and pianist Polina Shepherd lives and works in Brighton with her husband Merlin Shepherd their CD "Intimate Hopes and Terrors" was a Songlines magazine "Top of the World" selection. They both are among the most innovative musicians in the Jewish Music scene—be it New Yiddish Song or Classic Klezmer. Polina is also an original writer giving voice to a wealth of ideas and the Quartet Ashkenazim are the perfect interpreters as they range from beautiful unison to four part harmony often within the space of a single bar,. Settings of wonderful Yiddish poems, with themes as diverse and as intricate as can be expected from the canon.…

List member Günther Schöller, responded in kind:

I got their newest CD "Baym Taykh" about a month ago and absolutely fall in love with their work. The melodies Polina composed are beautiful as well as the way the songs are arranged. You don't find this type of arrangement with four voices and sparse piano often in yiddish singing. In fact I only know Mikveh does a similiar thing, but it's different, because the Quartet Ashkenazim does more mimicking of instruments with the voice.

You can get the new CD from the webshop of the Oriente label from Berlin, www.oriente-express.de, and you can hear songs from the new CD on their myspace site, www.myspace.com/ashkenazim

By the way, Oriente is the most active klezmer and yiddish song label nowadays and has many new interesting artists in their catalog, including Konsonans Retro (Klezmer Brass Band from the Ukraine) and the Klezmer Alliance.

I can only echo those more articulate than me and suggest that a copy of this CD is now an essential part of any library where interests tend towards Yiddish, art song, choral music, or simply, "music that makes you joyful."

Reviewed by Ari Davidow (quoting Anya Politkovskaya & Günther Schöller from the Jewish-Music list) , 24 Feb 2008.

Personnel this recording:
Polina Shepherd: piano, vocals
Merlin Shepherd: clarinets, saxophone, guitar, vocals
Simon Russell: double bass
Yana Ovrutskaya: vocals
Evgenya Slavina: vocals


  1. Ai-yai-yai 5:44
  2. Shpitsn berg (lyrics: Osher Shvartsman) 1:48
  3. A frisher vint (lyrics: David Hofshtein) 3:00
  4. Tsvey mol tsvey iz fir (lyrics: H. Leivick, i.e., Leivick Halper) 3:15
  5. Nit ikh veyn un nit ikh lakh (lyrics: Shike Driz) 2:36
  6. Der heyliker Balshemtov (lyrics: Zisha Landau) 4:47
  7. Tsvey (lyrics: Moyshe Kulbak) 2:09
  8. Tirtl-toybn (lyrics: Abraham Sutzkever) 1:02
  9. Lernendik geyen (lyrics: Yitskhok Leybush Peretz) 0:59
  10. Dertseyl (lyrics: Moyshe-Leib Halpern) 4:42
  11. Oy, a shuster darf ikh nisht (lyrics: trad.) 3:11
  12. A nigndl (lyrics: Shike Driz) 3:01
  13. Vos vilstu (lyrics: trad.) 3:23
  14. Baym taykh (lyrics: Mani Leyb) 5:16

All music composed by Polina Shepherd

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