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Summer Coldwave

Rokhl’s Golden City: The music of Polish singer-songwriter Maria Ka

Rokhl Kafrissen
July 11, 2022
Photo courtesy Maria Ka
Photo courtesy Maria Ka
Photo courtesy Maria Ka
Photo courtesy Maria Ka

Submissions are now open for this year’s Bubbe Awards, the closest thing we have to the Grammys for new Yiddish and Jewish music. You have until July 31 to submit your original Yiddish song, or Yiddish translation of an already existing song. True, I didn’t win last year for my own Yiddish cover, a song I thought was pretty fabulous. Nonetheless, I’ll be submitting again this year. If you didn’t like Jimmy Buffett in Yiddish, you’re definitely not going to like it when Atomic Rooster gets the same treatment. (Details coming soon.)

In 2021, the People’s Choice for Best Original Yiddish Song went to “Krankhayt” (Illness) by 35-year-old Polish singer-songwriter Maria Ka. For many folks in the Yiddish world, this was their introduction to her work, though she’s been making music professionally since she was a teenager. I spoke to Ka recently at her home in Gdansk, Poland, on the Baltic Sea. She told me she only started writing original Yiddish songs in 2019, so winning a big award right out of the gate seems like a pretty auspicious start.

Krankhayt” also fit the zeitgeist last year quite well, as you can imagine. Here, the virus is both very real, as well as metaphorical.

Krankhayt, krankhayt
Zay gezunt, zay shtark
Ober un vider, dos zelbike lid
Ikh veys
Krankhayt, krankhayt
In der televizye, gantse tsayt zay
Vi a shteyn, zay fray

Illness, illness
Remain healthy, stay strong
Here and there, constantly the same song I know
Illness, illness
On the TV all the time
Remain like a stone, be free

Krankhayt” appeared on Ka’s 2020 album Di arumike velt. While that song had something of a Tori Amos, girl-with-her-instrument vibe, the album overall is more eclectic in its sound. The song called “ShaWoman” is a play on the word shaman and the sound veers toward coldwave, a subgenre of electronic music. Ka names Bauhaus and Siouxsie Sioux among her musical influences, and you can hear it here, as well as her other influences, like Bjork and Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick.

Ka’s feminism is woven through all of her creative work, whether it’s her songs or even her social media. On her Instagram post for Mother’s Day, she posted about her mom, a female metallurgist in a field dominated by men, with the hashtag #MetallurgyMom. While staying with her parents during lockdown, she stumbled upon a patent in her mother’s name for a metallurgical invention. Ka mentioned this in our talk, too. Being raised by a mother who broke through stereotypes was key to her development as an artist.

She told me “ShaWoman” grew out of her desire to make women more visible, especially through language, whether in Polish or Yiddish. This is no trivial thing. After decades of full legalization, abortion came under more and more restrictive legislation in Poland, starting in the 1990s. In 2021, Poland made all abortion illegal except in cases in which the life of the mother is at risk or the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act, and Ka has been involved with the mass protests against the new abortion law.

Ikh hob mayn land
Andere vi dayn
Du balerst mikh un bafelst hobn faynt
Du gibst mir tsufil, tsu tunkele gedanken
Ikh bin shoyn ongeshtekt
Khotsh s’iz nit mayn krankhayt
I have my land other than yours
You preach and instruct me, command hating all
You give me too much, too dark thoughts
I’m already infected,
It’s not my illness though.

Ka started her first band when she was wait-listed for a spot at drama school in Krakow. Though she never made it into drama school, she stayed in Krakow for the next 10 years. During that time, she got two master’s degrees from Jagiellonian University, in psychology and Jewish studies, learning Yiddish along the way. But drama remained an important part of her work. Her master’s thesis was on the women of the golden age of Jewish cinema in Poland. In 2018 she released The Music to the Lost Yiddish Movie, an album of music for the lost 1924 silent film Tkies Kaf, starring Esther-Rokhl and Ida Kaminska.

In June 2022, Ka released “Enigma,” the first single off her latest album, Di shaykhesn (The Links). Di shaykhesn is a four-song EP, but each song is being released separately, one per week. “I try to create work with multiple layers and I want people to digest it,” she told me. In a world of way too much content, I appreciate more than ever the ability to let ideas breathe on their own. I also appreciate her commitment to dramatic flair.

The first single off this album was “Bingo.” The word never appears in the song and I wondered if bingo had some unfamiliar (to me) meaning in Polish. When I asked Ka, she started to describe a game played by many people, where numbers are called and filled in on a card. I had to laugh and assure her that I was, indeed, familiar with the game.

The connection to bingo (the game) becomes more obvious when you see the video, in which she appears. The lyrics take the form of a counting song, and Ka appears as multiple singing heads, floating over dreamy, synthy loops. As the lyrics count down, more heads appear, as if filling in an invisible bingo card. The result is both super serious and seriously playful.

Di shaykhesn features Ka’s songwriting in Polish, Yiddish, and English. In both words and images, she plays with the idea of the multifaceted nature of the self. While Ka doesn’t wear makeup on a day-to-day basis, “the visual side of the music is important to my approach because I use intense makeup on stage,” she said. “The stage makeup is like a mask and I can develop this idea on stage,” highlighting the fact that her “musical material is inspired by the multiple identities” within all of us. The three languages, too, are separate but intertwined facets of her identity.

These links are my hidden shrines
their perfect lines
are like enigma, enigma
all built on blue Ocean’s tides
with language of hearts
and enigma, enigma

Two more songs will be released from Di shaykhesn by July 14.

In addition to joining the Jewish studies faculty at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities near her home in Gdansk this fall, Ka already has another album lined up for release in the next few months. Der hemshekh (The Continuation) features Ka on vocals, keyboards, and electronics, joined by the unusual combination of oboe and drums. Der hemshekh is “dedicated to and inspired by invisible women’s biographies ...” Five of the songs are new compositions and five are traditional, adapted “to a female perspective.” The five new compositions are consciously linked “to chosen threads of prewar Jewish writings.”

Ka told me that when it comes to Yiddish influences on her music, “it was the Yiddish cinema and theater that I was and still am very much into.” Indeed, there is not one note of klezmer to be found in her already impressive discography.

It’s no secret that I am a passionate devotee of all things klez. But I also believe that it’s vital for artists to find their own musical way with the Yiddish materials at hand, something Maria Ka demonstrates with a very modern verve.

You can find Maria Ka in person at the upcoming Jewish Culture Festival- Singer’s Warsaw, Aug. 22-30. Her new music videos will be dropped on her YouTube channel, and all her music can be purchased on her Bandcamp page, with more information available on her website.

ALSO: Brooklyn’s Barbes will host a dynamic klezmer double bill on Sunday, July 10. At 7 p.m., violinist Alicia Svigals with Pete Rushefsky (tsimbl) and Michael Winograd (clarinet). At 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., Michael Winograd plays music from his sizzling new album with the Honorable Mentshn, Early Bird Special. In person at Barbes and streaming live … The Yiddish Summer Weimar festival week will be Aug. 9-13, in Weimar, Germany. Details here … Brooklyn Conservatory of Music Summer Klezmer intensive will be Aug. 15-19. The intensive will be taught by Ira Temple and Zoe Aqua, of Tsibele fame. Age 16 and up, no prior klezmer experience is necessary … You can now stream the Folksbiene’s production of Kadya Molodowsky’s Ale fenster tsu der zun (All the Windows Face the Sun) as part of their Yiddish Women Playwrights series.

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

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