Klezmer Klub: Whitechapel mayn Vaytshepl (CD)

Reviewer: Abigail Wood, Jewish Renaissance Magazine. Vol 9 issue 2, January 2010

Even from the outside, it’s clear that Whitechapel mayn Vaytshepl, the latest release from London band Klezmer Klub, is going to be something different. Initially, the sepia-tinged picture of Old World street life that adorns the CD cover conjures up the Yiddish nostalgia with which we are so familiar. Look closer, though, and this is not Belz or Kasrilevke, but rather London’s East End, a fat middle-aged lady standing with her hands on her hips among boxes of bagels.

Notwithstanding the recent surge in popularity of Yiddish song and klezmer music, until now London’s own Yiddish history has often been overlooked by contemporary klezmer musicians, who have tended to focus either on recreating the Yiddish music of the European shtetls, or on rediscovering the rhythms of the ‘New World’, where Yiddish music was fused with music hall and jazz in New York and elsewhere in America. Whitechapel mayn Vaytshepl, however, brings us back to London. The CD is built around a set of Yiddish songs from the East End, framed by a set of instrumental pieces and other songs with London connections. Like the CD cover, Klezmer Klub’s inroad into Yiddish London breaks any stereotypical sentimental nostalgia and instead confronts the listener with the variegated reality of immigrant life, sometimes harsh and sometimes funny, from six-a-penny bagels and gefilte fish to red-faced Betty in Victoria Park and a nameless girl forced by poverty into prostitution in Leicester Square.

Nevertheless, Klezmer Klub don’t just look back. This is not a still-frame snapshot of how things were, but rather a wonderful glimpse into London Yiddish life still in motion. The band themselves are Londoners who have been playing klezmer together since the late 1980s, their work is embedded in London life, and each track here has London connections – tunes learned in London, written by Londoners, dedicated to London friends... The band write: “We in Klezmer Klub want to ensure that performing old songs in Yiddish not only expresses an important part of social history, but an important part of our present. So, we have changed and added some words and swapped and adapted tunes and rhythms. Instead of the rather melancholy looking back with nostalgia in Vaytshepl mayn Vaytshepl, we have upped the tempo and have shown our excitement at finding these old places. In this way we have tried to make this Whitechapel our Whitechapel.”

The CD kicks off with a freylekhs, a lively and toe-tapping dance, which leads into Chaim Tauber’s song Vaytshelpl mayn Vaytshepl (Whitechapel my Whitechapel). Klezmer Klub’s souped-up rendition couples exactly the right sprinkling of kitsch with Tauber’s words, which weave fond memories into a parody of Yiddish nostalgia: “Whitechapel my Whitechapel, a tear falls from my eye. Nothing, no small corner remains… There was the synagogue, and next to it – what a comparison – a jellied eels stall. I loved and knew every inch … Now I live in Golders Green but I am drawn back here. But it will never be what it was.” Tauber’s memories segue effortlessly into a contemporary picture added by the band: in today’s Whitechapel, the synagogue now is a mosque, and businessmen and artists are eating sweets and vindaloo. And to this Whitechapel, it indeed seems only natural that a klezmer band should add a soundtrack of klezmer peppered with bhangra rhythms. 

After the song, we break for dancing. The following two tracks (G minor Ser – Der Skyliner Khosid) are beautifully poised full-band renditions of elegant instrumental klezmer tunes. Again, the band eschews any schmaltzy, sentimental sound, rather reminding us of the elegance of the slower Jewish wedding dances that too often became overlooked in favour of more showy, Americanized numbers. We are soon back on the streets of the East End, though, and the CD only gets better, with a pair of street songs (My home in Morgan Street/Old Solomon Levy), which for me are one of the highlights of the album. The melodies are quintessentially London, and Klezmer Klub add just the right Yiddish twist and group vocals to fly us to the streets of the 1920s East End where London Jewish folklorist Derek Reid’s mother Sylvie learned these songs.

These light songs contrast with later numbers which add real weight, both poetic and musical, to this collection, including Morris Winchevsky’s Dray Shvester (The three sisters of Leicester Square). Winchevsky was a Polish-Jewish poet and socialist who founded one of the first Yiddish newspapers in London before moving to New York.  His songs reflect the harsh lives of the working class; here we are reminded of the measures to which immigrants had to resort to eke out a living. By contrast, Itzik Manger’s Mit Farmakhte Oygn (With Closed Eyes) transports us into the realm of high art: rich Yiddish poetry whose fantastic metaphors of the mythical Golden Peacock are juxtaposed with tears: this song was written during the Second World War, when the poet was living in London. Vocalist Vivi Lachs’s haunting, simple rendition coupled with a vocal and bass accompaniment brings out the raw emotion and beauty of this song.

Aside from the musical quality, wonderful energy and spot-on arrangements of this recording, which makes it a pleasure to listen to, Vivi and her band have made an important contribution in the years of research and work with local friends and informants to put together this CD. It is a privilege to encounter songs that have made their way back to London via as unlikely a combination as Buenos Aires and Bertolt Brecht, or by simpler processes of family memories. Now that the band has invited us to join them in their rediscovered Whitechapel, I highly recommend that you take up the invitation.