Golem reinvigorates the Great Eastern European songbook
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 15, 2002) – You didn’t have to understand Yiddish – or Serbian, Rom, Ukrainian, Russian, or any of the other languages that vocalists Annette Ezekiel and Aaron Diskin sang in – to get the message of Golem’s performance at Club Helsinki on Thursday night.
Nor did Ezekiel or Diskin – nor the terrific quartet of musicians that comprise the instrumental portion of the group – have to toy much with the material to deliver an earthy, sensual performance of Yiddish, Balkan and Eastern European folk songs that recaptured a lost world while drawing strong, clear connections between that world and the one in which we live.
“Libershmertzn,” or “Love Hurts,” is the title of Golem’s brand-new CD on which most of the songs the group played are found, and the ambivalent pain of love – with a huge wink of an eye -- served as the unifying theme of the evening. And it was apparently a universally recognizable one too, as the packed crowd at Helsinki enthusiastically received Golem’s ministrations, refusing to let the New York-based band leave until it had played every last song in its repertoire.
Golem has stumbled upon a rich vein of traditional music in these passionate songs of the Old World. And with only a slight modicum of non-traditional elements added to the arrangements – a little jazz here, a pop quotation there, some rock ‘n’ roll bounce in the drums here, a surprisingly sympathetic bit of Latin or swing there – Golem has unearthed a treasure trove. Think of it as another world of standards – the eastern, darker, but no less sophisticated inverse face of the so-called Great American Songbook.
It’s a wonder that more groups haven’t availed themselves of these songs with so much built-in drama -- songs like “Mekhaye,” about a daughter gone off to Palestine where she slept in a hay wagon with two pioneers, or “Papirosn,” the sad tale of an orphan reduced to selling cigarettes in the pouring rain, or “The Dead Cossack,” literally about love and death.
But it’s equally wonderful that this group of singers and musicians have stumbled upon this repertoire. Ezekiel and Diskin were dramatic, attractive entertainers -- the former with her subtle, pelvic gyrations and busy, relentlessly shaking left leg a veritable Elvis Presley of Eastern European folk, the latter with his creepy, demented persona a veritable Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to her Elvis.
In their witty musical punctuations and commentaries, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and violist Karen Waltuch were the instrumental alter egos of the singers. And contrabassist Taylor Bergren-Chrisman and drummer Laura Cromwell were a versatile rhythm section, jumping from Gypsy mariachi to tango to the irregular, jerky meters of Balkan dance tunes.
When they are performed these days, songs like “Rumenye, Rumenye” and “Rivkele” are often rendered with schmaltz and nostalgia or treated as breakable artifacts to be handled with delicacy and care.
In the hands of the young musicians of Golem, these songs are reinvigorated as living, breathing channels of emotion, to be approached no differently than hits from the rock era. That they are able to do so without wholesale reinvention of the melodies and arrangements suggests as much about their origins – that these songs were rocking the shtetl long before Elvis got the blues – as it does about the genius of this ensemble – that they astutely recognize the riches in this overlooked body of work, and are transforming themselves and their audiences in the process of reviving it.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 16, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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