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Remembering Mauthausen - Theodorakis and more

Mikis Theodorakis / Mauthausen Trilogy, 2000
Zakarya / (eponymous), 2001
Naftule's Dream / Job, 2001
Chava Alberstein / Foreign Letters, 2001
Monsieur Camembert / Live on stage, 2001

The flow of amazing new music never stops. This time out, we start with an amazing testament to humanity by Mikis Theodorakis.

white helvetica bold on red camp monotoneMikis Theodorakis / Mauthausen Trilogy, 2000 (Verlag pläne 88840;, available in the US from Hatikvah, E-mail: Hatikvah Music">Hatikvah Music).
This is the most awesome CD of new classical music that I have heard in a long time. I am a long-time fan of Theodorakis' music in any event. This setting of four poems written by in Mauthausen by a survivor of the camp is a stirring testament to the triumph of humanity against fascism, and of course, for Jews, much more. The recording of the original cantata, live, at a memorial held at Mauthausen in July 1995, in Greek, features the amazing voice of Maria Farantouri who first recorded the piece in 1995. Additional recordings were made in Hebrew, and then in English between 1995 and 1999. The CD concludes with remarks by Simon Wiesenthal, also recorded at the Memorial at Mauthausen in 1995.

Well, that's the bones--the where and when. The power of the music amazes. The versions are mixed so that the album opens with Hebrew, then Greek. When the English version of "Song of Songs" makes the lyrics comes on, reprising the Hebrew that opened the album, the familiarity of the music makes the words all the more powerful, "Beyond the bleak and frozen square / Above the yellow linen star / No heart will ever beat again / Because the beautiful have lost their way to paradise...." But this is not a sad album, despite the words. It is an affirmation that life is strong, and continues, and that humanity's spirit is unquenchable. Indeed, the yearning, the loss of god, are grounded in the more immediate, as the military march sounds of "When the war is over" chime in Hebrew, one last time, as the album concludes with the English version of the poem: "Oh girl with fearful eyes come listen to me / Oh girl with frozen hands please hear my yearning / Forget me not when this cruel war is truly over."

I am unbearably moved and strengthened by this album. The lithe, almost carefree flute of "The Fugitive", The shock of the opening "Song of Songs," first in Hebrew, is followed by the more forceful Greek version, and the singer's reprise of words first sung 30 years earlier, as the audience makes the connection and claps in recognition. The gentle arrangements of the English, contrasting the more forceful Greek and the span of art song--as if of folk songs set for stage--in the Hebrew arrangement. The different arrangements, voices, the different languages, all strengthen the core poetry and give the music even more power. The translations are superb. The closing "When the war is over in Hebrew, "Simkhat olam bo'i la-sha'ar" (Joy of the world come to the gateway) is perfect (even better than the English, I think--it makes me wonder if the English, somewhat less evocative, is translated from the Greek or from the Hebrew). The song first is song as more of a gentle love song, and then acquires power and near-operatic weight, countered, suddenly, by the words, in German, by Simon Wiesenthal. The words are translated in the liner notes:

... If we were ever to forget, repress or falsify what happened, our past would return to us over and again, unvanquished, and would prevent us and our descendants from building our future, in a way that is right and worthy of man.

I say this to you as someone who survived the death block of Mauthausen as by a miracle.

This is a vital album. A "must have". [GRADE: A+]

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another deep tzadik cover of unknown meaning or significanceZakarya / (eponymous), 2001 (Tzadik 7148), E-mail:
Beware the avant garde accordion! It is powerful, expressive, and, in good hands, amazing. Yves Weyh, the leader (?) of this French band has such hands. From the opening improvised dance, to the excellent (often searing) guitar, percussion, and bass, this is just plain excellent, thoughtful, expressive music based, sometimes, on Jewish themes, sometimes coming from places that sound less familiar. It is powerful, driven music--a sort of folky high-powered jazz-rock at times. Unlike most Tzadik recordings, there are composer's notes to several of the songs here:

'Le trou' (the hole): This piece takes its inspiration from the story of a friend's mother. During the Second World War, this mother hid in a hold in a German forest for two years to avoid being deported

Paul K.: This tune is written like an Alsatian folk song. In Alsace (France) there exist several folk melodies used by both the Alsatians and Jews: the same melody with different lyrics. Are the songs Alsatian or Jewish?

In a funny way, the urgency of much of this album also reminds me of David Krakauer's most recent ensemble work ("A New Hot One"), although this is not connected to klezmer, per se. On the one piece in which the ensemble claims to stray towards familiar Yiddish music, "Du goudron et des plumes" (tar and feather), the result has more of a general swing feel, than the memory of the specific songs listed in the notes, with the guitar occasionally flashing through a Django-like scale (not that Django was likely to have so much fun with feedback, subsequently). Similarly, one can sense a deconstructed simkha in "Wolf's Gang," or almost comically improvised folk melody in "Paul K." even if the music, again, moves onward and elsewhere. It is the deconstruction, or rather, the construction of space that one senses in "La chêre" (The goat), echoed on "La Dette," with the space created in part by the silence between the slowly searing guitar. And then, following the happy folky sounds of "Paul K," one is confronted by the slowly intensifying rhythm and pounding of "Couvre-feu" (curfew), a song memoralizing the bell which rang every night for centuries in Strasburg Cathedral signalling to Jews that it was time to return to the ghetto. In its fusion of Jewish themes and the avant garde, and in the consideration of Jewish text and history as theme, this ensemble ends up cooking one of the most interesting and vital stews of new music I have heard in a long time. I'm a latecomer here--this album has been out for a year. If you haven't heard it yet, it's time.


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yet another tzadik coverNaftule's Dream / Job, 2001 (Tzadik, TZ7153),
Naftule's Dream was formed several years ago when the gap between traditional klezmer (which the band continues to play and to record under its original name, Shirim) and the exploration of music beyond klezmer, became too great. In this latest outing, the band moves even farther from simple dance music and into almost completely into the realm of improvisational sound. The album title, and title track comes from the character in the TaNaKh. (It says something for how out-of-context most people see Jewish music that the band uses the linguistic symbol for the long "oh" in Job, lest someone Bible-unfamiliar think that the album reflects on the work market.) The explosion of clarinet, trombone, accordion, guitar, tuba, kept in place by a variety of percussion, continue to excite in this third Tzadik release. Even as the music seems to go farther and farther from familiar bulgars and sirbas and doinas, the soul of the music is so firmly anchored that one can still, often dance. At the same time, this is also darker music than usual dance fare. It is not simkha music. It is, however, incredibly intricate music. From the opening "Dirge Sirba", into laid-back explorations of dance rhythm like "Shasha", the band never loses sight of its klezmer roots. But it is also a post-klezmer band. From the occasional touchs of the Nutcracker in the album's first cuts, or a more obvious transform into klezmer and then out into exploratory improvisation, as in bandmember McLaughlin's transform of Satie in "Gnossiene #3" (and then again, on Gnossiene #1), the band never ceases to be interesting.

One of the things that becomes very clear to me as I listen, is that this is improvisation on the music, itself, not a cultural statement. At times, as I listen, I feel that for Naftule's Dream, exploring music and finding the doina within is the cultural statement. Happily, there is much more. Glenn Dickson's reworking of "Naftule's Dream," from Shirim's second album, opens with both a delightfully gentle clarinet improvisation, and then reworks the themes and manic energy that typify the band overall, the tuba-powered, over-the-top wailing of dance in the 21st century, grounded by gentle melody. Years later, the music reminds me of the very laid back explorations of that album, but this reworking also serves notice of how far the band has moved since. It's like hearing "The Other One" in a context decades later than "Live Dead". (Indeed, at the time, the intricacy and interlocking way that the band improvised reminded me very much of the Grateful Dead, however far their music was from the Dead then, and is even further now. The flash of connection comes, I think, in the ability to improvise in so many directions that fit together so intricately, at once). This outing ends with a lovely, improvised "Prayer for No One," and then "To Life," an wailing new version of a piece first released on the JAM compilation, "Knitting on the Roof" [GRADE: A]

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ugly ugly lettering in pastels on b/w photo. what is this, kids?Chava Alberstein / Foreign Letters, 2001 (Rounder 11661-3195-2),
In the last few years, Chava Alberstein has gone from the folk artist most people associate with Israel, to something more. For me it started with her reworking of the traditional Passover song, "Khad Gadya," into an anthem for peace, on her stellar "London" album. Most recently, she set the work of several Yiddish poets to music in an album created with the Klezmatics, The Well. In performances in support of that album, and subsequently, Alberstein seemed to be singing a different kind of peace, a pulling together of European and American Jewry's two major Jewish languages, Yiddish and Hebrew. For those aware of recent Jewish history, the cultural wars between proponents of one language vs. the other reached near-violent proportions*. Here, she continues, breaking the barriers which have limited Jewish song to one language or another per recording. The lovely, haunting, opening Yiddish-language "Bletterfall" (Leaves fall), then matched by the Hebrew of "Mirele." Only the closing "Foreign Letters" is in English.

Musically, this album also continues a trend that I first noted in "The Well"--the music is less and less specifically anything. Rather, with producer Ben Mink she seems to have found an international pop folk sound that is extremely pleasing, but will often not sound particularly Jewish nor Israeli. Musically, the album works. The arrangements and the underlying music are graceful accompaniments to Alberstein's voice. But, for people unfamiliar with Yiddish or Hebrew, this could conceivably be an album in French or Swedish. I overstate the case, of course, but it is true that friends unfamiliar with Jewish cultures or the language sung here could not place the album. What I can't tell you is whether or not this matters--only that it doesn't prevent this from being a most listenable album.

Having said that, I have to say that I would be more excited if the album did hark more strongly to location or to culture. Instead, as much as I enjoy this (and as much as I suspect that it will be heard as accessible by far more people than a more musically-specific album would be), the album feels less compelling to me, less grounded. I can't find any songs that I don't like, but neither do I find myself humming any of them afterwards. Having said that about the music, I must note that the words to the songs do stay with me. Post 9/11, the words to "Passport Control" resonate to all travelers: "He keeps turning my passport / He is asking me something, but I don't understand...." The near-panic and urgency of the music work well. The blend of Alberstein's voice with incredibly evocative and beautiful poetry is wonderful. In many ways, the journey, and the sense of "international" are brought together most obviously, and most accessibly in the title song: "[Foreign letters] I hope they mean well / I hope they're not against me / ... / How do you say 'love' in your language?" Alberstein's world is subversive. It is a world in which the unfamiliar can threaten, but it also opens one up to new experience, new joy. In the post-9/11 world, it is an affirmation. The haunting depth of the words here, and throughout the album, cause this album to stay with me, in my mind, and bring peace. [GRADE: A]

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interesting pictures of band playing on red backgroundMonsieur Camembert / live on stage, 2001 (CAM002),
I've written before on the phenomenon whereby a band takes klezmer music and other influences, and creates something interesting and worth hearing, but without ever having really gotten "klezmer". Here is another example. Monsieur Camembert begins with a lovely jazzy evocation of traditional music, Jewish, Russian, and otherwise, but the impression, in the end, is of jazz, and of something else. The notes are the notes of klezmer or of Russian folk music, but the end result is otherwise. The very non-Yiddish, not-related-musically-or-accentwise-to-anything-familiarly-Jewish rendition of "Grine Kuzine" or the "Yiddish medley" cements the idea. The band's rendition of "Istanbul" (American Jazz pop novelty!) seems to miss the point of the original without finding a comfortable new place. The appropriation of "Avinu Malkeinu," a prayer from the Jewish Day of Atonement is also problematic**. The problem, for me, is that without a mastery of the music being drawn into the band's jazzish amalgam, the result is less interesting than the sum of the parts. A piece like "Elixir in C," with a more trance-ish background to improvisations with a digideroo (sp?), remind me a bit of Grace Slick's first band, Great Society, but also feel less artificial than other music played here. For those interested in this sort of melding of all sounds into one, this is a good example, and a spirited, well-played album. It has problems, but there is a lot to like, as well. [GRADE: B+]

* Those interested in knowing more about this fascinating subject, and those who didn't realize how interesting a subject it is, will be richly rewarded by Benjamin Harshav's Language in time of Revolution, Berkeley: UC Press, 1993. [return]

** Of the problems I have with this piece, one that doesn't exist is the idea of putting it on an entertainment album. Singing this particular song in concert seems to have a long tradition. In an interview at KlezKanada in 1999, German Goldenshtayn, a Bessarabian klezmer then recently moved to the United States, talked about having just that song requested by non-Jews at non-Jewish weddings. The interviewer and audience were quite astounded--did the audience know it was a Jewish liturgical piece of great importance to Jews? Goldenshtayn seemed to be saying that they liked the sound of it. It is soulful music. Which it is, but not when sung by someone who has not mastered the nusakh--the appropriate scale and melody with which it is sung, as here. [return]

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