Yiddish Under the Stars

On Wednesday night, stylistically diverse musicians delivered crowd-pleasing performances in Yiddish at Central Park’s SummerStage in New York. Klezmer was front and center, but there were elements of rock, cantorial, bluegrass, jazz, rap, American folk, world fusion, and show tunes along the way. I went primarily for the two punk-oriented klezmer acts—and they didn’t disappoint!

Golem

Golem

Golem opened the show with a four-song set. Golem started with their “klezmer-punk anthem,” “Odessa,” and the danceable “Freydele.” Next came “Tzadikim,” the only new song that they’ve regularly played since releasing their 2014 album, Tanz. They concluded with “School of Dance,” which had all six band members (even the drummer) showing off their dance moves.

Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird

Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird

“Radical Yiddish Punkfolk Cabaret” musician Daniel Kahn received the Yosl and Chana Mlotek Memorial Prize for Yiddish Continuity, presented by actor Mandy Patinkin. Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird’s radical, socialist message shined through in two songs off last year’s The Butcher’s Share, “99%—Nayn-Un-Nayntsik” and “Arbeter Froyen,” and what Kahn called an “oldie but baddie,” “March of the Jobless Corps.” English supertitles helped Kahn get his message across more compellingly, and art from Eric Drooker was projected on the screen. Kahn’s quintet was joined at times by his frequent collaborators, singers Sarah Gordon and Psoy Korolenko and guitarist Vanya Zhuk. More musicians from the evening’s other acts supported Kahn for his Yiddish translation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which has garnered nearly 900,000 views on YouTube.

The finale

The finale

For the finale, all the musicians from the show performed together, including Golem, Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird, Andy Statman, and Pharaoh’s Daughter. If you had to put a name on this all-star gathering, it was Frank London & His Klezmer All Stars. They closed out the show with a rousing medley that started with “Ale Brider.” I know the song from multiple bands, but it was fitting that London (the Klezmatics‘ trumpeter) seemed to be at the helm. I most associate “Ale Brider” with the version that the Klezmatics released on their debut album thirty years ago this week.

The medley that began with “Ale Brider” got people dancing. One woman initiated a hora-like dance in front of the stage. When I tried to join hands with both the leader in the front and the person in the back, the former waved me off. She didn’t want it to be a circle dance, so I’m not sure it technically counted as a hora. Regardless, it was fast-paced, frenzied, and wild. Dozens of people joined this fun, anarchic, would-be hora. At one point, people in different sections were high-fiving each other in the aisle. For a little while, the dance turned into a conga line!

The Essential Klezmer author Seth Rogovoy wrote for the Forward, “By starting off the show with Golem, the statement was clear: this was not going to be an evening of your grandfather’s klezmer. … There was a panoply of sounds, musical and otherwise, emanating from the SummerStage sounds that at once fit right in with the festival’s broad, open-minded program, but that were also proudly and defiantly Yiddish.”

Photos by Michael Croland

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