Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jewish world-weariness with a jazz frenzy

Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird
Partisans & Parasites
Oriente Musik

I first encountered Daniel Kahn's music from his participation in 'The Unternationale' project, a group comprised of avant-klezmer musicians with a penchant for punk and cabaret music. The Unternationale's 2008 CD was a multi-lingual affair, with songs alternating between lyrics sung in Yiddish, Russian, and English: often within the same song. Further, Kahn and his compatriots Psoy Korolenko and Oy Division dug deep into Jewish labor songs, Zionist history, and religious texts, skirting the very thin boundary between postmodern irony and heartfelt sincerity. A wink and a nod here, a wry smile there, The Unternationale's debut was post-hip and reveled in Jewish outsider status.

One could argue that Daniel Kahn's latest project, Partisans & Parasites, offers more of the same, but the punk-klezmer-cabaret shtick has been honed to a fine blade. Kahn serves up dollops of East European Jewish world-weariness, and his band The Painted Bird cooks up a frenzy. Expect plenty of Kahn's wheezing accordion, and killer clarinet and horn arrangements courtesy of Michael Winograd. Frank London, the trumpeter of Klezmatics fame, also sits in on a few numbers, and Psoy Korolenko returns to contribute vocals as well. You could be excused for being reminded of Tom Waits' eccentric cabaret albums; but while Kahn does not share the raspy, late-night croon of Waits, The Painted Bird flirts with similar shadowy soundscapes. If Slim Cessna's Auto Club ever converted to Judaism and hung out at the circus, this would be their shambolic offspring.

But let's turn to lyrical content, where Kahn indulges us in apocalyptic Ashkenazi tales. Partisans & Parasites begins with "Yosl Ber," the tale of a Jewish soldier drafted into the Czar's army, but deserts, claiming that "…sir, I am indeed a faithful soldier! that's why I ran away from the front! I hate the enemy so much, I don't even want to look him in the eye!" The title track "Parasites" is a very long exegesis on the life of Toxoplasma Gondii as it invades host after host after host. Kahn relishes describing the life of the parasite and its use of each of the hapless organisms it inhabits, and The Painted Bird join in wailing, "Now you are living as a parasite/Ain't it easy living as a parasite?/You can make a living off another's life/When you are living as a parasite." Winograd's clarinet is especially effective here, soaring above the klezmer breaks that punctuate each upcoming verse. Of course, one could take "Parasites" as one enormous analogy for some parts of the human condition, in all its guts and exploitation. High marks must go for "Khurbn Katrina," a song that Kahn and his compatriots adapted from early 1900s Yiddish tunes, one of which memorialized the sinking of the Titanic. The Painted Bird cross Jewish melodies with New Orleans funeral band music, making for a memorable tribute to the ruin of the hurricane.

Kahn also serves up Kurt Tucholsky's 1931 "Embrace the Fascists" which slyly suggests not rocking the Nazi boat, while simultaneously undercutting that sentiment by warning that to give in to the Fascists would be ones' own fault. Another example of gallows humor surfaces on the spoken tale "A Rothschild In Your House": "A Jew goes to the Jewish cemetery in Paris/goes to see Rothschild's grave, with a beautiful gigantic monument./The Jew looks at the grave and says to his friend,/'see, Yankl? That's living!'"

For sheer chutzpah and controversy, however, probably nothing competes with "Six Million Germans," Kahn's recounting of Abba Kovner's endeavor to kill six million Germans in retaliation for the Holocaust. Kovner was a partisan from Vilna, the capital of Lithuania where Jews organized against the Nazis. Kahn details Kovner's plan to poison the water supply, from his trip to Tel Aviv, to his arrest by the British navy on the way back to Vilna. Some of the poison eventually ended up in bread served to SS prisoners. Kovner, though, became active and worked towards building Israel. Kahn presents Kovner's story as a cautionary tale, acknowledging the rage that Kovner and his compatriots felt at the genocide of WWII, the all-encompassing power of seeking revenge. Can revenge arise again? Should it? Kahn encourages the listener to "Six Million Germans" to tread carefully. Still, I can't imagine what the reaction to this song might be in Germany, where Partisans & Parasites was partly recorded.

Political, thought-provoking, and not afraid to stir up ghosts, Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird's Partisans & Parasites offers up challenging avant-klezmer that confronts the beauty, horror, and wit of being human. - Lee Blackstone

Listen to "A Rothschild In Your House"

More audio and CD available from cdRoots

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kaila Flexer & Gari Hegedus: inspired by the Arabic, Balkan, Greek, Jewish and Turkish music

Kaila Flexer & Gari Hegedus
Next Village Music (

Kaila Flexer plays the violin and viola, and Gari Hegedus knows his way around more instruments than I'm about to list here. Along with a few guest players, the duo have put together an album of instrumental pieces inspired by the Arabic, Balkan, Greek, Jewish and Turkish music they've embraced and put their own stamp on. Ranging from peppy to melancholic to mystical, these unplugged and unencumbered tracks prove to be both lovely and engaging. But quaint they ain't. These players have chops and don't hesitate to show them, particularly on the fevered "Petalouda," where they absolutely rock out (believe me, I wish I had a better term for it). Flexer's deftly emotional bowing squares off against whatever stringed acoustic axe Hegedus chooses to wield,be it oud, baglama or what have you, creating matchups that could sound at home anywhere from a ballroom to a Gypsy encampment. The disc's title refers to a Turkish term for a recurring musical theme, and Flexer and Hegedus have sought to cross cultures and ethnic distinctions to find themes that bear repeating. I'd say they've succeeded. Despite claiming in the liner notes that they will "always be students of these styles," it's hard to imagine them having learned their lessons any better. - Tom Orr

CD available from Amazon

Monday, August 17, 2009

Got Mariachi?

The longstanding presence and continuous growth of the Mexican-descent population in the United States has fostered an autonomous and dynamic sphere of cultural expression in which the folk music traditions of Mexico play a prominent role. For those seeking more than liner-note lite, Mariachi Music in America draws upon decades of field research, extensive knowledge of mariachi history, and enlightening interviews with ensembles on both sides of the Rio Grande, tempered by long experience as a mariachi performer himself. The result is a concise, well-informed and clearly written monograph that should interest practitioners, students, and fans alike. Also included is a glossary of Spanish-language terminology, historical photographs, a bibliography, a discography, an index, and an accompanying 26-track CD that illustrate the book's musicological and sociocultural observations. Michael Stone looks at this book and recordings of some fo the greats (and not so greats) of maricachi music...
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Ferran Savall : Mireu el nostre mar

world music cd cover
Ferran Savall is the son of the renowned early music conductor, composer, and musician Jordi Savall and revered singer Montserrat Figueras. Mireu el nostre mar marks a bit of a departure for the Savall family's Alia Vox label, as the focus is not on the interpretation of early music or classical masterworks in the traditional sense. Instead, Ferran Savall presents a program of folk songs, many from the Catalan tradition, as well as Jewish song and the lyrics of poets. At first listen, you would be forgiven for thinking that Mireu el nostre mar was a lost gem of breezy South American pop as interpreted by the late Jeff Buckley. However, Ferran Savall's album is an indication of how broad and centuries-spanning are his musical interests...
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