Klezmer rises from the dead in Russia

Holding a music box up to the microphone, Daniel Kahn asks his audience to stand at attention and spins the crank to play a tinny rendition of “The Internationale,” a socialist workers’ hymn laden with meaning in this post-Soviet capital.

With a heave at the bellows of his marble-red accordion and a stomp of his boot, he then sounds the whistle for the night shift of the International Klezmer Union’s chapter in Moscow.

A two-hour peal of Jewish musical folklore follows, the lyrics from the stage delivered in four languages: English, German, Yiddish and Russian.

“When I’m with the Russians, it’s always a party,” Kahn says.

This was the final sprint of the fourth annual Moscow Yiddish Fest, a recent weeklong festival of music of the Jewish diaspora that brought together a global cast of performers to capitalize on a resurgent interest in Jewish music here. They played to packed houses: concert halls during the day, clubs at night.

The festival was founded by Anatoly Pinsky, an educational scholar and adviser to the Russian Ministry of Education. Originally called Dona-Fest, after the Yiddish band Pinsky created, the festival has grown every year. It also has gained the support of the Federation of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish umbrella organization, and the Moscow city government.

When Pinsky died in December 2006, his daughters and community members kept the festival going.

With its growing stature, the festival enables musicians from around the world to experience the distinctive Muscovite brand of Yiddish music.

“Many of our musicians were going outside the country to play at other festivals,” said one of Pinsky’s daughters, Zoya Pinskaya. “We wanted to bring them here to see what we have. Now it’s a tradition.”

The festival included three gala concerts, two in concert halls and one at a Jewish community center. Seminars and academic discussions on Yiddish music also were featured throughout the week. Kahn played two shows in posh Moscow nightclubs with a rotating lineup of festival participants.

At the final concert hall performance, more than 50 musicians packed the stage for a farewell performance conducted by Frank London, a trumpet player from the New York-based Klezmatics who played last month at the Bay Area’s Jewish Music Festival.

“When I started showing up here years ago, they would stand up there with a tape recorder and sing in broken Yiddish,” London said. “Now it’s more ingrained into their consciousness.”

As with other facets of Jewish culture, klezmer music suffered under communism. London said it took 10 years from the fall of the Soviet Union for an organized klezmer scene to emerge in Moscow. It has been getting closer to its pre-Soviet roots ever since.

Kahn, 29, raised in Detroit and now living in Berlin, is a central player in Germany’s klezmer scene. When he was 18 years old, he bought an accordion from a pawn shop in Ann Arbor, Mich., took it home and learned to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Since then he has led a nomadic life. After graduating from the University of Michigan, where he studied theater, Kahn lived in New Orleans and New York before moving to Berlin. Along the way he has performed in Jewish theater, organized folk festivals and played in lounge acts.

Kahn also found a gateway back to Jewish culture through klezmer, literature and language, he said, gradually exploring his own Jewish identity.

In Berlin, he and his band recorded an album of what he calls “alienation klezmer music” — a combination of radical Yiddish tunes, American gothic music and punk cabaret that draws on his travel experiences. Kahn said that translating lyrics from Yiddish and German to English has become a major interest and source of inspiration for his listless music.

“Home is a tricky thing; home is people for me,” he said. Yiddish “has a sense of alienation. The language is loaded with prejudices and misconceptions. It’s very rich.”

The music scenes in Berlin and Russia are strongly intertwined. Berlin has a vibrant underground music scene built on the foundations of Russian groups, Jewish and secular, that frequently make the trip between Moscow, St. Petersburg and Berlin.

Among them is Naekhovichi, a Jewish group with a shuffling lineup that provided the rhythm section for several performances at the festival. At home with blues riffs and dance beats, the group is made up of mostly secular players, but they honor their grandparents’ Jewish roots in Odessa with their music.

Fyodor Mashendzhinov, the drummer for Naekhovichi, said his 4-year-old band plays two types of gigs: synagogues in Russia and club shows in the underground klezmer scene.

Lately, he said, the two worlds have started to merge as Jewish music has become a more stable part of the community.

“It’s very funny to me to see Chassidim and older people in the clubs listening to us,” Mashendzhinov said. “Usually you can only see these people in synagogues, but we are playing this music and it is their cultural background.”