Metropolis Shanghai: Showboat to China

slice of '30s Shanghai postcard

Metropolis Shanghai: Showboat to China
Winter & Winter, CD 910 111-2, 2005

This isn't a Brave Old World album, although it includes some wonderful recordings by the band. Rather, it is a soundscape created to go along with the DVD release of "Zuflucht in Shanghai: Port of Last Resort", a documentary about the nearly 20,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust who made their way to Shanghai. Most of them survived.

The goal is to conjure up a visual image of one of the world's most diverse cities as it existed in the '20s and '30s, as it would have been heard by Jewish immigrants. Chinese traditional and pop song is juxtaposed with Jewish folk and traditional music. The result is something very special and especially good to listen to.

The CD opens with a young girl singing a popular song, "Shanghai Nights," the CDs ongoing theme. We'll hear this music twice more, including once a young girl humming in a shower. The CD continues with a traditional-sounding instrumental composed around 1939, "The moon over a fountain." Delving further into cityscape, an old Offenbach recording (the Bacarolle from "Tales of Hoffman", 1927) is played in the background as we listen to harbor and street songs. This is followed by "Slow boat to China," a jazz composition of the era, recorded with a bar's background noise. Some of these pieces must have been recorded then, and are impeccably cleaned up now. The rest have been recorded by contempory musicians.

What wouldn't have been obvious until one begins to listen, is how well all of this fits together, and how well it succeeds in creating a vision, not necessarily of Shangai in the 1930s—you would not be likely to center on that time unless you had just seen the documentary—but certainly of a pleasing and interesting occidental/oriental fusion. Like the best of such albums, it makes all of the music portrayed seem accessible and intriguing, from klezmer to Chinese.

It takes a while for the Yiddish to be presented. First, as I mentioned, we hear the Chinese music, European classical, jazz and sounds of the street and harbor. In fact, when we first hear Kurt's clarinet on the "Khsidishe nigunim", and then flowing into "Dem rebns khosid", it takes a while to realize that this isn't another European classical piece or Chinese melody. This is partly caused by recording at a distance—it is as though we are listening to these recordings from afar, slighly echoey, not just in time, but also at a distance in space. Some of it is exactly that distance in space, and the way it takes a few minutes to realize that the chanting that accompanies the bells at the Long Hua Temple is the davenning of another culture. (For those of us who saw the movie, one hint, of course, is that nothing in the movie mentions Jewish religious life. Cultural life? Yes. Religious life? Yiddish? Rabbis? No. This was not primarily an Eastern European Yiddishist crowd—these were refugees from what had once been German civilization.) When the sirens come over the loudspeakers signalling the outbreak of war, followed by shots, followed by martial Japanese music, we experience some of the displacement that must have affected those refugees. The net effect, as is usual on Winter & Winter CDs, is impeccable: Great music, wonderful production, and great CD layout for the hands and eyes, furthering that sense of displaced time and place.

This doesn't substitute as a follow-up for the "Lodz Ghetto" CD, but it is a wonderful interlude, none the less, and a delight to hear Brave Old World and the rest. It is also an interesting soundscape that goes not only to the "Zuflucht" documentary, but to a plethora of recent movies that touch on Shanghai of that era and its Jewish refugees, including the very last Merchant-Ivory film, the recently released "The White Countess".

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 4 Jun 2006.

Personnel this recording:
*the Chinese music ensemble, Wang Yongji: music director
Li Zhaofang: gaohu
Xu Guanlong: pipa
Gao Hai: xiao
Cao Yun: dulcimer
Peng Zhengyuan: cello
Wei Guofan: ruan

**Brave Old World
Alan Bern: musical director, accordion, piano
Michael Alpert: vocals, fiddle, guitar
Kurt Bjorling: clarinet
Stuart Brotman: bass, trombone

with special guest
Roswitha Dasch: violin, guitar


  1. A young girl sings Ye Shanghai—Shanghai Nights (Chen Gexin, Fan Yanqiao) 1:49
  2. The moon over a fountain (A Bing) 5:54
  3. In the French Concession/Barcarolle from "Tales of Hoffmann" (J. Offenbach) 2:28
  4. The Bar at the Peace Hotel in Shanghai—Slow boat to China (Frank Loesser) 3:11
  5. At the piano bar—Ye Shanghai—Shanghai Nights (Chen Gexin) 1:57
  6. Strolling on the street (trad. music) 5:56
  7. Raindrops rattling on the leaves of Bananas (trad. Cantonese music, He Liutang?) 4:56
  8. In the harbour—Der Weana is'all'weil leger (J. Schrammel) 2:31
  9. In the hustle of Bubbling Well Road 0:45
  10. Sehnsucht (Mischa Spoliansky) 2:44
  11. Khsidishe nigunim (trad.) 2:29
  12. Dem rebns khosid (trad.) 2:20
  13. In Shanghai's Little Vienna—Frisch gewagt (J. Schrammel) 2:55
  14. The refuge for the Jews—Rozhinkes mit mandlen (Abraham Goldfadn) 3:15
  15. Bells and chants at the Long Hua Temple (trad.) 6:58
  16. 1937 outbreak of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, Nocturne (F. Chopin) 2:41
  17. A young girl hums under the shower—Ye Shanghai (Chen Gexin) 1:07
  18. Aikoku Koshinkyoku (Tokichi Setoguchi) and Graduation Song (Nie Er, Tan Han) 3:25
  19. Ambush on all sides (anonym.) 8:01
  20. Birds flying back to the woods (Yi Jianquan) 4:16

to top of page To top of page

the KlezmerShack Ari's home page
to About the Jewish-music mailing list
to The Klezmer Shack main page
to Ari Davidow's home page