Sunday, November 21, 2010

Just in Time for Hanukkah

I have to confess that I sometimes surprise myself with what I find in my (rather massive) collection of CDs.  This morning I “discovered” Treyf 1929 a CD released by (the presumably Italian, in spite of its name) El Gallo Rojo Records of a group calling itself the Meshuge Klezmer Band.  I have no idea how this got into my collection;  but, on the basis of its 2005 date, I suspect it was something that caught my eye in a mailing from the Downtown Music Group.

Trying to find out about this group was no mean feat.  The album has a listing on but only for MP3 downloads of its six tracks.  No information about the album, the group, or any of the tracks is provided.  For that one must go to the group’s Web site, which is only in Italian.  As a result I think I have now had my first serious encounter with using Google Translate.

While there were definitely some speed bumps in the translation, I was able to discover that this album was “born from the discovery of two old records in a basement in Hester Street, New York, at the time still [the] beating heart of the Ashkenazi Jewish migration” from Eastern Europe.  Whether or Meshuge performs on top of those records or simply seeks to reconstruct the experience of listening to them remains a mystery;  but that experience includes that characteristically scratchy sound we associate with old vinyls (not to mention old shellac 78s).  Most of the tracks are listed as “Traditional;”  but the two “composed” selections bear the names of two of the major figures in Yiddish music in New York in the Forties and Fifties:  Naftule Brandwein and Mickey Katz.  (Katz, the father of Joel Grey, would later establish himself in the novelty market with Yiddish takeoffs on popular songs.  The one I remember best was “The Ballad of Duvid Crockett,” which begins, “Born in the wilds of Delancy Street,/ Home of gefilte fish and kosher meat.”)  One of the Brandwein tracks, “Oy Tate S’iz Gut” (Oh, Daddy, That’s Good!) seems to be pretty popular with the new klezmer movement;  but I have not yet done enough research to determine whether the thematic lapse into “Caravan” is traditional or Meshuge’s particular brand of mishegoss.

Nevertheless, it seemed appropriate to write about this CD with Hanukkah just around the corner, since the one Katz selection is “Grandma’s Draidel.”  (The misspelling of “dreidel” on the track listing may be an artifact of how Italians have chosen to spell this particular Yiddish word.)  As mishegoss goes I find the full album relatively mild.  However, in the age of the 99-cent download, the Katz track may be suitable for opening presents on the first night of Hanukkah.


Anonymous said...

the band seems to have some YouTube presence:

Stephen Smoliar said...

Yes, I came across that URL during my Google search for information about the group itself. However, I did not watch it before writing the post. My initial impression is that their later work does not quite live up to their outrageous name!