Metropolitan Klezmer,
Yiddish for Travelers
(Rhythm Media, 1998)

The music covered by Metropolitan Klezmer on Yiddish for Travelers is of an impressive breadth. The at-times eight-person-strong ensemble consists of topnotch music professionals with a wide array of specializations: ranging from the Balkan, Middle Eastern and Eastern European music to Afro-Caribbean, jazz, ska, R&B and Cajun. Apart from Metropolitan Klezmer, they have been involved in many other artistic projects.

But the common denominator on this album is the klezmer musical tradition that has evolved over centuries among Jewish communities throughout the Old World, before crossing over to the other side of the Atlantic -- sadly often under far from felicitous circumstances, to say the least.

To give the listeners a comprehensive impression, Yiddish for Travelers carries them on a 24-track grand tour of the genre: from Jewish weddings via Warsaw film studios on to Greece, the Jewish quarter of Istanbul, into the Bulgarian countryside and on theatre stages of Rumania, visiting forgotten regions like Bessarabia and traveling into time with Sephardic music, betraying the influences of Arabic and Persian poetry.

The producers have even thrown in a travelers' companion to the Yiddish language: the typical Patois spoken among the Jews of central and eastern Europe. The CD flyer contains namely the lyrics of songs like "Farlangen," "Sheyn vi di Lemone" and "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen," with an English translation ("Longing," "Beautiful as the Moon" and "Raisins and Almonds," respectively), and adding the Hebrew text -- which I cannot read -- as well. However, if you know German, Yiddish is surprisingly easy to decipher. On all three of the above recordings we can credit the multi-talented Deborah Karpel for the vocals.

Judging by the details that are provided about most of the tracks, the musicians of Metropolitan Klezmer have made every effort to safeguard the authenticity of the covers played on this album. Two distinct examples of this are "Der Gasn Nigun" and "Ken O'Hara Freylekh," joint arrangements featuring Metropolitan Klezmer's key players: the versatile Michael Hess on viola, accordionist Ismail Butera, clarinet-player Steve Elson, Eve Sicular on drums and Dave Hofstra, who plays both tuba and bass.

I have a clear preference for the arrangements involving Butera, who appears to be the artistic driving force of Metropolitan Klezmer. With Hess on the Turkish ney flute and Butera taking up the bendir or hand drum, "Oy Tate (Oh Father)" seems to come straight out of an Ottoman seraglio. "Mangiko" again features Hess as co-arranger and performing on the Middle Eastern zither or kanun, in an instrumental duet with Bureta's accordion. Sicular, the organizational genius behind the band, was not only involved in arranging the number but also signed on as percussionist.

The four traditional Roumanian tunes towards the end of the album betray a mixture of Balkan influences and can be considered sublimations of the genre. All these examples underscore the syncretic nature of Klezmer music. Equally impressive, finally, is "Fifth Floor Khosidl," another Butera-Sicular arrangement based on a Chasidic-style composition.

Yiddish for Travelers offers an entertaining musical journey through a unique and truly global musical tradition that deserves every effort to be preserved.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 27 December 2003

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