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George Robinson, GRComm@ writes for the Jewish Week. His book, "Essential Judaism," was published in hardcover by Pocket Books, March 2000. You can find out more at his website.

Articles by George Robinson, available on the KlezmerShack, are:

2004 Chanukah Roundup, by George Robinson, sent 2 Dec 2004.

The Year's Best: the annual "best of" column, by George Robinson, sent 25 Nov 2002.

A Religious Experience: A roundup of recent Jewish liturgical music, by George Robinson, sent 26 Aug 2002.

More Than Klezmer: A sampler of Yiddish vaudeville, folk music and even art song, sent 9 Aug 2002.

Spring Sephardic Music Roundup, send 3 May 2002.

The Spring Roundup, part 1, sent 9 Mar 2002.

The Spring Roundup, part 2, sent 9 Mar 2002.

The Best of 2001 - Hanukah suggestions, sent 7 Dec 2001.

Isaac Stern: Beyond the Fiddle to the Heart of a Man, sent out 5 Oct 2001.

Sounds for the Jewish New Year, sent out 23 Nov 2001.

Slobin on Beregovski (and the survival of Klezmer Music), sent out 30 Aug 2001.

Women of Valor, sent out 15 Aug 2001.

Shabbat, for Starters, sent out 3 Jun 2001.

From Liturgical Rock to the Postmodern, sent out 15 May 2001.

A Sephardic Passover, sent out 25 Mar 2001.

Oh, Klezmer, sent out 18 Mar 2001.

Jewish Classical Music, sent out 1 Mar 2001.

Best of 2000, send out 23 Dec 2000.

Holiday Music for Hanukkah, 6 Dec 2000.

Kidding on the Square, 9/29/00, from the Jewish Week

From the Catskills to Canada, 6/15/00, from the Jewish Week

Sephardic Survey, 05/00, from the Jewish Week

1999 Klezmer Wrapup, from the Jewish Week

Sisters in Swing, 12/15/99, from the Jewish Week

Bending the Genres, October 1998, from the Jewish Week

The Klezmer Drums of Passion, September 1998, from the Jewish Week

Drums of Passion, summer, 1998, from the Jewish Week

Other klezmer articles
on the Internet

The Best Albums of the Year -- Just in time for Hanukah

from the author, 7 Dec '01.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

by George Robinson,

Note: Don't click on any links until the entire file loads, or else the links won't work. I apologize for the inconvenience. webmaster

Bang on a Can / Renegade Heaven
Downtown Music Productions: Composers of the Holocaust
Klezamir / Der Bloyfoygl of Happiness
Klezperanto / Klezperanto!
Lang, David / The Passing Measures
London, Frank / Invocations
The Music of the Mountain Jews
Salzman, Peter and the Revolution Ensemble / Kabbalah Blues/Quantum Funk
Shirona / Judaic Love Songs
Starer, Robert / String Quartets 1-3
Waletzky, Josh / Crossing the Shadows: New Yiddish Songs
The Yemenite Jews
Za'atar / Mizrah -- Music of the Jews of Arab and Muslim Lands
Zrihan, Emil / Le Piout Marocain

If you are wondering what to give for Hanukah -- if gift-giving is your minhag, you could do considerably worse than to give a gift of Jewish music. With that in mind, I've compiled herein a roundup of the best recordings I encountered this year. Each of these records received five stars when I reviewed it earlier in the year; each is well worth your time and money.

album coverBang on a Can / Renegade Heaven (Canteloupe Music).
Here's an interesting conundrum. Bang on a Can, a wild bunch of avant-gardists, play music that has the textures and beat of rock and roll, but the composers they work with are clearly conservatory-trained, and their interest in shifting rhythm patterns and the dense colors that can be gotten by combining a rock rhythm section with cello and clarinet don't sound like a rock composer's idea of fun. But it's compelling, ferociously played and inventive stuff that demands careful listening.

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Downtown Music Productions: Composers of the Holocaust (Leonarda).
The dozen composers represented on this excellent recording are the victims of history in a way that almost no other composers can claim. Each died in the Shoah and, with the notable exceptions of Mordecai Gebertig and Ervin Schulhoff, the vast majority of their output was destroyed. Recordings such as this one perform a service that goes beyond the realm of musical history. That said, most of the music here is of more than historical interest, and the performances under Mimi Stern-Wolfe's baton are excellent. Understandably, a dark and brooding record but well worth hearing.

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album coverKlezamir / Der Bloyfoygl of Happiness (Self-produced).
Their third album is the best yet, a bouncy, tough set with a nicely balanced mix of Sholom Secunda shmaltz, Balkan bop and lively instrumental jams. I'm still a little skeptical of the flute as a klezmer (or jazz) instrument but Amy Rose can flat-out play, and new lead vocalist Felicia Shpall brings some smoldering to the recipe. Excellent.

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album coverKlezperanto / Klezperanto! (Naxos World). The purists are going to hate this one -- the tempi are way too fast for traditional klezmer. But this is spirited jazz-inflected klezmer. No vocals, just a sextet that can flat-out play. Imaginative repertoire, too. How about "Rozhinkes mit Mandln" and "Oyfn Pripitchok" as a Latin dance medley? A Gypsy tune reworked as surf music? "A Night in Tunisia" as a freilach? Believe it or not, it all works. The rest of the program is as unpredictable and varied as you can imagine. A swell change of pace, terrific fun.

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Lang, David / The Passing Measures (Canteloupe Music). Lang's composition "for bass clarinet, amplified orchestra and women's voices," is organized along similar principles to those of the classic works of minimalism and the British composer Gavin Bryars -- long, sustained tones, almost like drones in Indian music, against which small, incremental motivic changes occur. The women's voices fade in and out against the sighing chords and tinkling of percussion, while jazz reedman Marty Ehrlich weaves a series of slowly evolving melodic moments in a figure/ground relationship with the orchestra. When Ehrlich's somber dark tones suddenly emerge from the background, the effect can be devastatingly beautiful. A difficult album that requires real concentration but rewards it amply.

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album coverLondon, Frank / Invocations (Tzadik)
Although a quartet session, with London on trumpet backed by harmonium, bass and glass harmonica, "Invocations" is really a showcase for London, playing liturgical music from the golden age of hazanut. Anyone who has heard him with either of his regular bands knows that when the occasion demands he can play fast and he can play pretty, but this is a haunting -- and haunted -- sounding record, working on the listener in slow increments, with London's horn sounding as much like a shofar as a trumpet. Factor in the gentle wheeziness of the harmonium and the eerie shrilling of the glass harmonica and the result is powerful and strange, unmistakably spiritual music unlike anything you've heard before.

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The Music of the Mountain Jews (Anthology of Music Traditions in Israel). Extraordinary field recordings from eastern Caucasus, a region that is painfully familiar from the headlines -- Chechnya, Daghestan, Azerbaijan -- but whose Jewish traditions are little-known in the U.S. The majority of the Jews of this region have made aliyah, no doubt to their great relief, and it's possible that this recording will be one of the last examples of their musical legacy, drawing on folk, liturgical and dance tunes. From brusquely chanted versions of "L'Kha Dodi" and "Yigdal" to songs by Genady Sosunov that could pass for klezmer recordings from the '20s (if it weren't for the hauntingly unfamiliar microtonal intervals), this is a highly unusual collection, well worth investigating. Available from Hatikvah Music ( or 1-323-655-7083).

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album coverSalzman, Peter and the Revolution Ensemble / Kabbalah Blues/Quantum Funk (Self-produced).
This Chicago-based jazz group is definitely one to watch. This set, their first, is a wonderfully witty and passionate combination of a wide range of influences from Debussy to Mingus, from Gershwin to Webern, from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Eddie Palmieri. The result is a brilliant jazz-classical fusion with a seriously Jewish soul. Salzman is a superb writer and fine pianist and the rest of the group are inventive and skillful. (Available from the group's website,

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album coverShirona / Judaic Love Songs (Lev David Productions). It is very rare indeed for me to play a new CD twice in succession. This one I played three times in a row when I sat down to review it. Needless to say, that is high praise indeed. Simple, straightforward liturgical and biblical settings by this exceptionally gifted Jewish-American singer. Shirona has a lovely, rich voice and her writing is tasteful and intelligent. This is a keeper, one the best albums of Jewish religious music I've heard all year. (Available from Shirona's website,

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Starer, Robert / String Quartets 1-3 (CRI).
The Viennese-born Starer left his native country after the Anschluss for Palestine, then came to New York to study at Juilliard in 1947, when the first of these three works was written. Starer is a prolific and elegant composer, but he didn't return to the string quartet for 48 years, writing his second one in 1995 after hearing the Miami String Quartet perform his first one inspired him to write Nos. 2 and 3 for them. This lovely recording by the Miami gives us a neat encapsulation of an important American composer's career. Starer's writing is redolent of Viennese grace and harmonic richness, Jewish plaintiveness (although not in obvious ways) and American rhythms. A splendid record.

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album coverWaletzky, Josh / Crossing the Shadows: New Yiddish Songs (self-produced).
This CD began life as a song cycle which I saw Waletzky perform a couple of years ago with the same backing -- Deborah Strauss on violin and Jeff Warschauer on mandolin and guitar -- to great effect. I was struck at the time by the masterful way in which Waletzky adopted Yiddish song to a post-Holocaust Jewish world, recapitulating all of the musical themes of the great Yiddish folksongs while bringing them lyrically into a new, if considerably darker world. Having the leisure to hear and rehear these songs on record, I am more impressed than ever by both the writing and the performances, which are heartfelt and adroit. A deeply moving album.

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The Yemenite Jews (Anthology of Traditional Musics).
This recording, made originally for UNESCO, is a selection of Yemenite diwan; the diwan is a collection of poems meant to be sung or chanted. Perched between the sacred and the profane, the Yemenite diwan are composed in medieval meters and rhyme schemes. The musical settings, to judge from this collection, are spirited, impassioned and filled with the complex melismatic phrases that one associates with Arabic music. This anthology is full of thrilling performances, ranging from wedding and Sabbath songs to settings of Judah Ha-Levi. The recordings are a cappella or feature a simple percussion accompaniment (some as stripped-down as handclaps) that sets off the vocals beautifully. A gem.

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Za'atar / Mizrah -- Music of the Jews of Arab and Muslim Lands (Hatikvah Music).
Za'atar is a Berkeley-based band that specializes in performing the music announced in the title of this, its first, CD. These guys are great fun, playing Turkish, Syrian, Egyptian and Andalusian tunes in a style that is at once authentic and funky. Everybody in the septet sings and the result is driving, throbbing, exciting music. A must. Available from Hatikvah Music ( or 1-323-655-7083).

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Zrihan, Emil / Le Piout Marocain (Koliphone Azoulay).
The piyutim, liturgical poems, were originally written to enhance the prayers of the siddur. Set to music, they gradually took on another life beyond the walls of devotion. The Moroccan tradition is a particularly rich one musically, as these two recordings generously attest. Zrihan is a tenor with a powerful instrument and astonishing breath control, well-suited to the complex ornamentations and melisma of the genre.He has a breathtakingly, heartbreakingly pure voice and a sure sense of musicianship. In addition, the musicians backing him are excellent players. Available from Hatikvah Music ( or 1-323-655-7083).

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Contents copyright © 2001 by George Robinson. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 11 June, 2007.