Allow me to introduce Wolf Krakowski, a guitarist and blues-singer from Toronto, Canada, now residing in Northampton, Massachusetts, who is firmly anchored in Yiddish.
What Krakowski has done with his debut-CD, "Transmigrations" (Kame'a Media KAM 7001), is simply to unite those two traditions: eastern Jewish culture and the music of blues-rock-reggae. It may sound risky and would have been so in the hands of a less conscious and sensitive artist. That this works out well for Krakowski is of course a consequence of the fact that he is permeated by these two strains. Yiddish is his mother-tongue, his "mame-loshn", as is the tender Yiddish term for it, and modern blues-based rock is his natural musical way of expression.
In an interview I have made with him via e-mail, he relates how he once at the beginning of the Klezmer-revival experienced how a musician executed a "Yiddish blues" as a pure parody. "I couldn't understand why all the wonderful music of these both forms should be misrepresented in such a way." The thought that he himself should show what one could do with this grew organically. "First and foremost, the blues is my music. What have all these mazurkas and bulgars and quadrilles that klezmer is based on to do with my daily life?"
That may sound disrespectful in the ears of a "klezmer-purist", but the fact is that Krakowski handles his material on "Transmigrations" with a deep respect. Here we encounter some Ashkenazi popular, folk, and theatre songs from the Holocaust era presented in delicious arrangements which stress, but never dominate the inner qualities of the texts and melodies. By the way, the text of Ashkenazi songs almost always are deeply meaningful; they may seem simple, but they are more often than not about essential and existential things, just like good blues is. Read out the following text loud (it's rather easy if you know some German), and contemplate it for yourself. It's from "Alts geyt avek mitn roykh" ("Everything Goes Up in Smoke", written after World War II by the popular songwriter and artist Benzion Witler:
"Alts geyt avek mitn roykh / Umzist denk ikh dreystu dayn moykh / Far vos is dayn loyen / Vos bekamstu derfar? / (…) Az alts geyt avek mitn roykh?"
("Everything goes up in smoke / I think you rack your brains for nothing. / What is it worth? / What do you get out of it? / (...) When everything goes up in smoke?)
There are more pearls of the Ashkenazi song-treasure on "Transmigrations": Witler's invocation of the lost Warsaw ("Varshe"), "Friling" ("Springtime"), an almost unendurably beautiful song from the ghetto of Vilna, "Ven du lakhst" ("When you laugh") with its eternal wisdom, the traditional "Shabes,"Shabes", executed here as a rocking reggae, "Her nor, du sheyn meydele" ("Listen Pretty Girl"), which features a thrilling duet between Krakowski and sweet-singing Fraidy Katz, and the mystical, exhilarating "Zol shoyn kumen di geule" ("Let the redemption come"), with its biting last line: "Please see that the Messiah doesn't come a little bit too late".
You don't have to hear many seconds of the of the opening number of this CD, the traditional ballad "Tsen Brider" ("Ten brothers") to grasp that Wolf Krakowski has created something unique. American reviewers have compared his voice to that of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, but I think it's all his own. It's strong and tempered, warm and restrained at the same time; filled with deep sentiments, but never sentimental. And he has had the good taste to bring some excellent musicians along, the group "The Lonesome Brothers" (who recently had a new CD out on Tar Hut Records), where especially the multi-instrumentalist Jim Armenti excels (he plays guitar, mandolin, violin, saxophone and bouzouki on "Transmigrations"). The interplay between him and Krakowski makes Lester Young and Billie Holiday come into mind. This may sound exaggerated, but I wish to communicate an impression of extraordinary congeniality.
Such a singular and odd musical creation as "Transmigrations" has of course attracted attention in the Jewish musical world of the US. Praise has been legion, but Krakowski has found no luck with the big record-distributors. You can read more about him, and listen to samples of his music on his website at http://www.kamea.com. There is a Scandinavian distributor too which can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Speaking of our distant part of
the world, Krakowski also
has a connection to Sweden. He is the son of Polish Jews (thus Yiddish
is his first language) and was born in an Austrian Displaced Persons' Camp
called Saalfelden Farmach in 1947. Shortly afterwards his family migrated
to Sweden and settled down in the outskirts of the Swedish town Eskilstuna
("My first baby-sitter was a one-eyed former seaman, called Arvid. I remember
big rats and that my Mom plucked chickens and made pillows from the feathers
by the glow of a wood stove"). Here the Krakowskis (including Wolf's big
brother Marek and his younger sister Ruth) stayed until 1954, when they
via Gothenburg and m/s "Stockholm" went to "de goldene Medina" (Yiddish
for America). Later on, he was raised in a working-class district of Toronto,
known as "the Junction", went on the road as a musician and a "luftmentsch"
(person without a definite occupation), played with Big Joe Williams and
other blues-legends, dug deep into his own, partly disappeared Yiddish
culture, and then - when it all in due time came together - produced this
profoundly original and universal testimony "Transmigrations"
- a slap in the face to revisionists of all kinds.
Program of "Transmigrations":
Wolf Krakowski - Vocals, rhythm guitar
THE LONESOME BROTHERS:
Jim Armenti - Guitars, mandolin, violin, bouzouki, saxophone
Ray Mason - Bass guitar
Bob Grant - Drums
Daniel Lombardo - Percussion
Jaye Simms - Backup vocals
Pamela Smith - Backup vocals
Fraidy Katz - Vocal on "Her Nor, Du Sheyhn Meydele" and backup vocals