Michael Alpert & Julian Kytasty
Night Songs from a Neighboring Village: Ballads of the Ukrainian & Yiddish Heartland
Ukraine, in Eastern Europe, was an important centre of Jewish life for 10 centuries or more. But modern times have not been kind to Ukrainian Jewry. A long history of anti-Semitic pogroms, the Holocaust and emigration after the fall of the Soviet Union have reduced a population of almost three million Jews before the Second World War to less than 70,000 today. And today’s Jewish community in Ukraine faces new threats from the latest waves of anti-Semitism and the territorial conflict with Russia.
On Night Songs from a Neighboring Village: Ballads of the Ukrainian & Yiddish Heartland, Michael Alpert, a singer and multi-instrumentalist best known for his work with Brave Old World, one of the most acclaimed ensembles of traditional and new Jewish music, teams with Julian Kytasty, a Ukrainian American singer and multi-instrumentalist specializing in the traditional music of his ancestral homeland, for a poignant program of Yiddish and Ukrainian songs and dance tunes as they might have sounded a century ago when musicians from neighbouring Jewish and non-Jewish villages heard each other’s music and might even have played together.
Some of the songs are in Yiddish, others are in Ukrainian – and both languages are occasionally heard almost in dialogue with each other. And while most of the songs are from traditional sources, there are also some contemporary compositions that have been steeped in the traditions.
There is a very traditional feel to the entire album with Alpert and Kytasty’s vocals accompanied only by whatever acoustic instruments the pair is playing on a particular song: Alpert on violin, guitar or accordion; Kytasty on bandura or flute.
The most moving piece on the album is “Night Songs/The Rye is Green,” a medley of a Yiddish poem and a Ukrainian welcoming song that speaks to the closeness and distance of the two cultures. Other highlights include “Adam and Eve,” a Yiddish song about the biblical creation story, which is interwoven with a Ukrainian song, and Alpert’s “A Shpay In Yam,” a contemplative ballad about hope.
And there is no language barrier to enjoying this album as the CD booklet provides transliterations of the Yiddish and Ukrainian lyrics alongside their English translations.
Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus
Litvakus is a New York-based klezmer band founded by clarinetist-singer Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, a scholar of Belarusian and Lithuanian Jewish music, in 2010, shortly after he immigrated to the United States from Belarus.
Rounded out by drummer Sam Weisenberg, violinist Craig Judelman, accordionist Joshua Camp and bassist Taylor Bergren-Chrisman, Litvakus plays an often joyous, sometimes contemplative set of Yiddish songs and klezmer dance tunes. While many contemporary North American klezmer bands are heavily influenced by jazz, Litvakus plays with a delightful Old World folksiness that, while somewhat reverent to its sources, is also often playful and fun.
My favourite song on the album is “Hey Antoshe,” Slepovitch’s setting of a poem by Belarusian Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak, a delightful send-up mocking the pompous faux-nobility of Belarusian society. Another is “Chashnik,” an up tempo portrait of life in a Belarusian Jewish village that references baking challah for Shabbat and going to the river, presumably for Tashlich, on Rosh Hashanah.
And there’s no language barrier to this album either as the CD booklet also has transliterations of the Yiddish lyrics alongside English translations.
Words Like Yours
Words Like Yours is a stunning, if all too brief – seven songs, 28 minutes – debut CD by Lily Henley, a young singer and fiddler, now based in New York after three years in Tel Aviv, whose music draws on American and Celtic folk influences but is most particularly inspired by Sephardic traditions. She sings four of her own songs in English, two traditional Sephardic folksongs in Ladino, and a contemporary Israeli song in Hebrew.
Among the most striking songs is “Dark Girl,” one of the Ladino songs. Built on an intense, acoustic arrangement, Henley sings with utter conviction rendering it moot whether the listener has any idea what the song is about.
Another is “Bluz Kna’ani,” written by Ehud Banai. Sung in Hebrew, the song is a lament for a lost love and for quieter, less chaotic times.
Throughout the album, Henley’s vocals and fiddling are well served by accompanists Dominick Leslie on mandola and mandolin, Duncan Wickel on five-string fiddle, Jordan Tice on guitar and Haggai Cohen-Milo on bass. The album was produced by Israeli jazz musician Omer Avital who also sings with Henley on “Bluz Kna’ani.”