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The Sounds of Summer

Rokhl’s Golden City: A midyear Yiddish music roundup

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 11, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

If I added up all the time I’ve wasted on mediocre dudes, I’d have a whole ’nother lifetime to spend on fantastic music. Every once in a while, though, I manage to hit just the right life-dude balance. In February 2013, for example, I got an invitation from my friend, musician and sound archivist extraordinaire Lorin Sklamberg. The occasion was a birthday dinner and the location was Ninos Tuscany Steak House, complete with live music. Before impulsively shouting “yes!” at my computer, I checked the calendar, only to find a prior commitment that same night. It was a cold, dark winter and I had a rare, hot date, one which could not easily be rescheduled. What to do?

A midtown steak joint was not the first place you’d imagine Lorin bringing his friends for a party. But Nino’s was much more than steak; the live entertainment was provided by a pioneer of Latin fusion in the United States, the man who brought bagels and bongos together, none other than Irving Fields.

By the time I got this particular invitation, Fields had been in residency at Nino’s for years, taking requests from the crowd and playing all night, six days a week. At 97, Fields was almost as old as New York City (it seemed) and like the city itself, one got the impression that he had always been there and would always be there. Hence my (extremely foolish) lack of urgency in heading to Nino’s up to that point. But now I had the perfect excuse to make my long-delayed visit.

With a little finessing, I moved my date to post-dinner drinks and canoodling and enjoyed a delightful dinner with friends, and Irving Fields, of course. It was one of those nights you treasure, both for the time spent in good company, as well as the reminder that nothing is forever, not even New York City. Whatever it is that brings you joy, don’t forget that you better grab it while you can.

I wouldn’t have been so heated up to hear an Irving Fields medley in person if it hadn’t been for the work of multitalented musician-composer-puppeteer-producer Socalled (known as Josh Dolgin to his friends). Dolgin spent years building a collaborative friendship with Fields. He brought Fields to Klezkanada in 2006, where he got to play and interact with our klezmer world faves, resulting in one of the best crossover events I’ve ever personally witnessed.

Dolgin has undertaken a number of important projects with regards to Fields’ body of work, like publishing an Irving Fields fakebook, complete with facsimiles of letters and color photos of his encounters with celebrities. When Fields presented Dolgin with a stack of 78 discs of his music, Dolgin digitized them, had them remastered, and released a hand-picked selection of tracks as a love letter to Fields on his 100th birthday in 2015. Irving Fields 78s had a very limited distribution in 2015. But in May 2021, Dolgin finally made it available for purchase through Bandcamp and I promise you won’t regret buying it.

Irving Fields died in 2016, and with him went a very special piece of New York nightlife. But Irving Fields 78s is an elegant, effervescent delight. If you find yourself feeling blue some evening, I suggest you make yourself a steak, pour a nice glass of wine, and crank up the Irving Fields cha-chas for a few moments of perfect contentment.

The Seattle-based band Brivele popped on my radar in March, when I found a YouTube video of them performing the classic labor anthem “Bread and Roses.” I listened once, and then I listened another five or six times. Their a capella version uses Mimi Farina’s melody, with a new Yiddish translation next to the 1911 English text. Add the hopeful uplift of a political anthem like “Bread and Roses” to Brivele’s gorgeous vocal harmonies and the result is simply stunning.

Brivele describe themselves as “Yiddish antifa folk-punk” and their new album, Cradle Songs, Grave Songs, absolutely delivers on that promise. On Cradle Songs you’ll find a mix of textual sources, from Howard Zinn to contemporary pop music to old Yiddish commercials and theater songs, alongside the aforementioned political anthems. Though the instrumentation is more stripped down, the rad-trad blend of Cradle Songs reminded me of Tsibele’s exquisite 2017 album, It’s Dark Outside/Indroysn iz Finster.

Cradle Songs dropped, appropriately enough, on May 1, the international day of workers and labor. But the texture of the album is also deeply marked by our long pandemic year. Half was recorded in 2019 and the rest finished in December 2020. As they describe in the liner notes, the album is a combination of tunes perfected in performance, mixed with others only performed in private, band members distanced from one another, “with harmonies filtered through layers of cotton.” If Cradle Songs is a musical pandemic snapshot, it is one that reflects the best of our capacity for resiliency, and hope.

As Brivele’s Cradle Songs, Grave Songs so deftly demonstrates, the old political anthems may have gone out of style, but they never lost their power. That’s a great thing when we’re mobilizing friends and neighbors to fight injustice. But what if that power is used in service of evil itself? That’s just one of the many knife-sharp questions raised by Mark Rubin’s terrific new album, The Triumph of Assimilation, released June 1.

I thought I knew about the 1915 lynching of Atlanta factory manager Leo Frank. But I had no idea that popular music had been so crucial to motivating the mob to murder. Mark Rubin’s new song, “The Murder of Leo Frank,” turns our attention to the role of Fiddlin’ John Carson, an old-time country musician. Carson wrote and recorded “Little Mary Phagan,” proclaiming Frank’s guilt. He performed it on the steps of the Georgia state capitol for a bloodthirsty crowd.

For his accomplishments, Carson was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1984. Even today, his music is played and celebrated by musicians and audiences. “The Murder of Leo Frank” is a challenge to anyone who plays or enjoys old-time music, a challenge to name and root out the antisemitism tangled up in so much of American culture. And it’s the kind of challenge Mark Rubin was born for.

Rubin is a big guy with an even bigger persona and fittingly, he plays the classic big guy instruments: tuba and double bass. He’s lived a big life, with a stream of stories always at the ready, to entertain and educate. Oklahoma born and raised, he moved to Dallas to be a professional musician at 19. He’s spent his career gigging across genres, from bluegrass to punk to the Central European roots music still kicking in Texas.

But it’s through klezmer that I met Rubin, at my very first Klezkamp in the late 1990s. Rubin himself landed at Klezkamp in 1993 and started teaching there soon after. His link into the klezmer scene was Klezkamp founder Henry Sapoznik, who also had deep roots in the old-time music scene.

Rubin not only has superb musical chops, honed over decades, but he’s clearly been thinking deeply about everywhere he’s been and everything he’s played. Sick of being told that he’s not Jewish enough for Northerners and not Christian American enough for Southerners, The Triumph of Assimilation is a musical manifesto, an electric declaration of being exactly enough, to hell with the haters.

What surprised me the most about Triumph was Rubin’s dip into the Yiddish songbook of Mordkhe Gebirtig. He’s produced two excellent adaptation-translations of Gebirtig songs: “A Day of Revenge” and “It’s Burning.” Both will be new to most listeners of the album, but are familiar to anyone inside the contemporary Yiddish music world. Benjy Fox-Rosen, for example, included “A Day of Revenge” in his Two Worlds song cycle. He calls the song the “darkest and most vitriolic text” in the cycle. But he went on to set it to an intentionally “approachable” and “hummable” tune. This was to highlight the dissonance for German-speaking audiences, those who presume an understanding of Yiddish, but who would not understand the loshn-koydesh of the song’s title (nekome, revenge) and the fury contained therein.

Rubin’s approach to “A Day of Revenge” is quite different, but just as powerfully captures something essential within Gebirtig’s song. It’s the first track on the album, busting it open with brash ay-day-days over a big 4/4 beat. Here there is no subtle subversion of expectation, no subtext; only text:

There’ll come a time, there’ll come a day
And though it seems so far away
I promise that we’ll make them pay.
There’ll be revenge for the suffering and pain
Revenge for those who still remain …

In a recent interview, Rubin said he was attracted to Gebirtig because in his songs he saw “messages that I feel were super-prescient, written on the cusp of the devastation of fascism in Europe, and trying to present them now during what I fear could be the rise of fascism in our own country.”

The theme of self-help in the face of fascism pulses underneath the entire album, but especially on Rubin’s brooding adaptation of “It’s Burning”:

It’s burning
Well the flames have swallowed up our town
But your heads are bowed and you’re staring down

It’s burning
Listen up, you’re all damn fools
Pick up the bucket, you’ve got the tools
It’s burning

And here’s another one of the dangerously sharp questions posed by The Triumph of Assimilation. As 21st-century Jews, how much claim does recent history have on our current understanding of the world? Who are my allies? Just how scared should I be?

In interviews, Rubin is fairly blunt in his belief that American Jews have to develop self-reliance, because they cannot always count on allies. He comes from a place where gun culture is the norm. And for him, teaching young, progressive Jews how to buy and use guns has now sadly become praxis.

As far as I’m concerned, these questions currently hover in the deeply uncomfortable zone between somewhat theoretical and terrifyingly not. And they require tremendous amounts of nuance and good faith analysis. But I do know for certain that 2021 New York is not 1942 Krakow and giving in to overdetermined bleakness can be a danger, too.

This summer, I’m gonna luxuriate in both Cradle Songs, Grave Songs and The Triumph of Assimilation. My optimism needs vigilance, my historically informed paranoia needs some hope, and my soul desperately needs more of Rubin’s “Yiddish Banjo Suite.” You can’t count on much in this stupid world, but great music is never a waste of time.

LISTEN: Bandcamp is a great, artist-centered place to explore music from Socalled, Brivele, and Mark Rubin … If you find yourself in New Orleans, you can also find Rubin at the newly opened Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.

ALSO: On June 16, Golden City favorites Eleonore Biezunski and Ty Citerman will be playing music at “An Evening of Contemporary Yiddish Song.” I wrote about Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah a few months ago and it’s my (and your!) first chance to hear it live, in person, at the Flatbush Jewish Center … On June 19, 2 p.m. ET, Yiddish translator Reyze Turner will present work from her collaboration with Paris-based musicians Nicolas Dupin and Bastien Hartmann. They’ll be playing nine new songs based on texts by Yiddish women writers. The program will be mostly in Yiddish, though audience members will be able to ask questions in French or English. Make sure to register in advance … On the evening of June 24, three of my favorite musicians, Zisl Slepovitch, Psoy Korolenko, and Ilya Shneyveys, will assemble as power trio The Beary Brothers. They’ll be playing “Music of the Jewish Diaspora” in a free outdoor concert at Wagner Park … Following on from my recent interrogation of the Jew in nature, I noted that my friend Marek Tuszewicki will be giving a talk on July 1 called “From shtetl into wilderness: Exploring nature in Yiddish culture.” It’s part of the Summer Seminar in Yiddish Language and Culture in Warsaw … On June 27, YIVO’s Yiddish Club meets again, this time to talk about the wildly popular new Duolingo program for learning Yiddish … July 15 is the due date for scholarship applications for the magical Klezkanada festival. Don’t delay! … Wonderful news from the Workers Circle: Their incredibly popular Trip to Yiddishland retreat returns in person this year, Aug. 16-22. If a week of Yiddish classes, relaxing by a beautiful lake, and chilling with great people sounds good to you, make haste to reserve a spot now.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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