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CD Review: My Hometown Soroke: Yiddish Songs of the Ukraine

How to do an archival recording right:

A review by Ari Davidow from The Klezmer Shack

Arkady Gendler / My Hometown Soroke, a project of the Jewish Music Festival, itself a project of the [Jewish Community Center of the East Bay], www.jcceastbay.org.

The collapse of the former Soviet Union, and the small attempts to rebuild Jewish life all over Eastern and Central Europe have yielded, in return, amazing gems of Jewish culture. According to the liner notes, Ellie Shapiro, of the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley, first heard Gendler in a Klezmer Festival in St. Petersburg in 1999. Shapiro, who has spent years working with folk traditions around the world (including significant work as research on a Pete Seeger biography) was amazed at his voice, his memory, and the songs that he knew, several of which were unknown, and some of which contained missing verses or variants on famous Yiddish folk songs of the last century. The connection many listeners will quickly make, however, hearing Gendler’s voice, is with a blues singer who sang about “Avalon, my home town”, Mississippi John Hurt.

Gendler did not begin his life as a professional singer. Originally from Bessarabia, he fled during WWII deeper into the Soviet Union and became a plastics engineer. Shapiro managed to convince folks in Berkeley to get Gendler over from the Ukraine to sing in the Jewish Music Festival. In the last few hours before he returned home, they recorded this album. Given the circumstances, it is amazing how good the resultant recording is. What we have here is a perfect example of how you record the music of older musicians whose knowledge and songs you wish to preserve. The recording quality is excellent. Jeanette Lewicki’s occasional accordion accompaniment provides the perfect counter to his voice without clutter. Some songs are a capella. A few are introduced by Gendler in Yiddish. Gendler’s voice is warm, strong, and tuneful. The songs are great. The production on the album is impeccable: There are background notes by ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin and Michael Alpert (of Brave Old World, and numerous Jewish folklore projects). The words that Gendler wrote out longhand in Yiddish have been painstakingly typeset in Yiddish, with transliteration, and translated. Jim Rebhan (Ellis Island, California Klezmer) notated most of the music.

Whether Gendler is singing a well-known song like “Tumbalalaika,” one of his own compositions, or a song by Itzik Manger about him and his friends, “Manger’s Testament,” one is transported to another world—not a world of nostalgia, but one in which the songs, current when Gendler learned them (in some cases, wrote them) are still current, still live, and still sound fresh. My subconscious must have understood this better than the fingers transcribing my thoughts. As I type this review, having heard the album innumerable times over the last few months, the CD changer puts on the next album, that of another older singer dear to my heart and recorded at her best after a career outside of music—blues singer Alberta Hunter. It was an apt choice.

Major kudos to everyone involved in producing this album—to Arkady Gendler who keeps the songs alive, and worth hearing, to Donald Brody, Shapiro, Lewicki, Rebhan, and everyone else involved in bringing Gendler to the States and to making the recording, to Matthew Fass for excellent typesetting, to Miriam Klein Stahl for the beautiful papercut which graces the cover, to everyone at the enormously wonderful Jewish Music Festival which has brought so many worlds of diverse and wonderful music to Berkeley for so many years, and to the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center where all of this lives and thrives—a community center in the very best sense of the word.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow 10 Feb 2002
Editor, The Klezmer Shack