Transmigrations - The Real Yiddishe Blues
Take a sensitive musician steeped in blues, R&B and rock as well as in Yiddish culture, and traditional Yiddish songs, and what do you get? Not necessarily anything much. But when the musician is the extraordinary Wolf Krakowski, you get an utterly compelling,
emotionally highly charged and eclectic, unique blend that is perhaps best described as Yiddishe Blues. Krakowski, a fine example of what is often the finest kind of musician, that is, the self-taught musician, has a very wide-ranging background in blues, where his credentials are impeccable having played with the late Delta blues legend Big Joe Williams, R&B, and rock. He takes this wealth of experience and applies it to traditional Yiddish songs, leaving the lyrics and original melodies intact and reshaping the arrangements into a modern blues/R&B idiom in an original and highly personal, individualistic style that is both striking and wonderfully accessible, while always acknowledging its roots in both Old and New World.
Wolf Krakowski's album Transmigrations - Gilgul, first released in 1996 on Kame'a Media and re-issued on John Zorn's Tzadik label in 2001, is something of a revelation if you haven't heard this outstanding singer before. It is like meeting, quite by chance and completely unexpectedly, a close old friend that you lost contact with more than half a lifetime ago, and discovering that you still relate after all those years.
The title, Transmigrations, derives from the Yiddish and Hebrew term, "Gilgul", a being (human or animal) into which the soul of a dead person may pass to continue life and atone for sins committed in the previous incarnation. Krakowski and his Yiddish songs in the garb of modern blues, R&B, folk-rock, country-rock, and reggae provide, as it were, a vessel for all the stilled voices of the murdered Eastern European Yiddish civilization to "transmigrate" to and be heard once more in a contemporary setting. Given modern trends in popular and world music, and moreover given the pre-existing strong natural affinity between Yiddish and Afro-American musical idioms, it is easy to imagine that had Eastern European Yiddish culture continued to flourish through the 20th century (C.E.), Yiddish popular song might have sounded something like Wolf Krakowski's interpretations at the turn of the 20th century.
The opener on Wolf Krakowski's Transmigrations is the traditional Tsen Brider in a soulful, powerful, guitar-driven country-rock version. Varshe tells of the destruction of Jewish Warsaw and vows its restoration in a bluesey, gospel-rock like fashion that's utterly gripping. The reflective, philosophical yet humorous Regndl provides a lighter yet soulful touch. The classic Ghetto Tango Friling is given a Latin touch and somehow has its deeply touching poignancy enhanced still in its highly unconventional, sensitive new setting. Another traditional Yiddish song, Shabes, Shabes gets the Krakowski treatment in the form of a subtle but immensely powerful reggae version, his vocals impassioned yet restrained, powerfully underscored by the superb backing vocals. This is the kind of reggae that Bob Marley doubtlessly would have appreciated musically as well as spiritually and politically. Alts Geyt Avek Mitn Roykh - Everything Goes Up In Smoke -, another fine Benzion Witler song, contemplates the futility of philosophy and indeed the futility of everything, in a soulful blues. The waltz-with-blues-licks Yeder Ruft Mikh Zhamele laments the loss of family through murder, with the music and Krakowski's sensitive singing matching the delicacy of the poetry and the stark horror of persecution and genocide and the desolation of loss that it tells, all the way. Yiddish singer Fraidy Katz, well known through her more traditional work with Klezical Tradition, as well as providing backing vocals elsewhere here joins Wolf Krakowski in a wonderfully effective duet on Her Nor, Du Sheyn Meydele, a lighter love song given a superb R&B touch. Yidishe Maykholim recalls happier times and delicacies of Eastern European Jewish cuisine with a Latin beat and a raunchy tenor. Mordekhay Gebirtig's Blayb Gezunt Mir, Kroke was set to music by German composer and performer Manfred Lemm, a dedicated performer of Gebirtig songs, and is given a soulful R&B treatment. Ven Du Lakhst is another contemplative bluesey R&B interpretation, with a beautifully mournful alto. The closer, Zol Shoyn Komen Di Geule, offers hope of redemption and of the coming of the Messiah, and returns to a form of reggae beat most effectively, reminiscent of ska.
Deeply touching and moving, Wolf Krakowski's inventive and original, even adventurous, interpretations of these Yiddish songs never lose any of their essential Yiddishe neshome, or Yiddish soul. While using modern idioms, Transmigrations remains essentially Yiddish music.
The excellent liner provides full lyrics for all songs in English translation, romanized Yiddish and original Yiddish on the original Kame'a release and in English translation only on the Tzadik re-issue, as well as brief notes on all the songwriters represented on Transmigrations. A brief glossary of some of the Yiddish terms in the songs is also provided. Yiddish and transliterated Yiddish lyrics can also be found on the Kame'a web site. The original Kame'a release of Transmigrations is already something of a collector's item and can be found to change hands on Ebay for around US $70, so if you manage to get hold of one at a lower price consider yourself fortunate. (Of course, the Tzadik re-issue is freely available.)
Wolf Krakowski has given us the real Yiddishe Blues in Transmigrations and this album must be essential in any comprehensive Yiddish song collection. It will be equally at home in any good blues and R&B collection.
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