CD Review: Kinderjorn-Aufwachsen im Ghetto
Ensemble Draj Web Site: www.draj.de
total time: 49:40
review date: January 2006
Kinderjorn-Aufwachsen im Ghetto
Ralf Kaupenjohann: Accordion
Ludger Schmidt: Cello
Review by: Robert Stead
As the title "Kinderjorn-Growing up in the Ghetto" suggests, this album is thematically unified. Within the poverty and confines of the ghetto, life rich in emotions, passions, hopes, and dreams exist. The paucity of instruments mirrors the objective poverty of the ghetto. Or, stated another way, the constriction of instrumentation reflects the constraints of the ghetto. But just as the ghetto cannot contain the human spirit, these three instruments, voice, accordion, and cello, combine to display the rich texture of life in the midst of poverty. I intentionally refer to the voice of Manuela Weichenrieder as an instrument due to the way she uses it to blend and complement the accordion and cello. Using only their respective instruments without any overdubbing or looping and with either no or very limited reverberation, the Ensemble Draj brings these Yiddish songs to life.
The songs presented here are a combination of traditional Yiddish pieces and songs composed in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Ensemble Draj mixes jazz, new music, blues, and classical forms in order to draw out the emotions latent in each piece. Vocalist Manuela Weichenrieder states: "These songs are an unbelievable emotional challenge." Using the full power of their respective instruments, this group more than meets the challenge.
The first piece, a jingele, a mejdele (a boy and a girl), presents Manuela in an unaccompanied solo. As mentioned earlier, her voice is an instrument in its own right. The absence of any reverb puts her voice directly in your presence. And what a presence! Her alto voice is amazing clear and very powerful. Our entrance to this ghetto world is not the pain of isolation and rejection, but rather the joy of life through the joining of a boy and a girl. As the program notes explain, this song is "a fairly straightforward song: a boy and a girl, they've found each other, so let's all dance, parents and children, old and young!"
Un a jingele wet sej firn (and a boy will be leader) begins with the wail of Ludger Schmidt's cello with Ralf Kaupenjohann moments later adding full chords double forte. You immediately realize that this collection of traditional songs will not be constrained by any traditional settings. The passion of the introduction gives way to a subdued cello plucking a counterpoint to the lyrics sung by Manuela. The accordion then re-enters playing pianissimo tonal clusters using the piccolo reeds. These clusters work their way down the keyboard and then blend with the alto voice and the cello. The passion of the introduction is restated and then we return to the subdued lyric section. The return, however, brings the accordion back playing new thematic material--a motif that is light and childlike. This song is based on Prophet Isaiah's claim that "there will come a time when the wolf and the lamb, the leopard an the kid, the cow and the bear will live together in peace" (from the program notes).
Wer der erschter wet lachn (who will laugh first) tells the story of two boys: Awremel and Schlojmele. Awremel bets that he can make Schlojmele laugh. Schlojmele has no reason to laugh. He is hungry, his father is unemployed, the rabbi is a harsh teacher. Awremel persists and wins. The piece begins as a duet between voice and cello with cello providing counterpoint. The accordion then joins providing a rhythmic background to the continued interplay of voice and cello. The trio is followed by a jazz duet played by the accordion and cello. The cello provided a "walking bass" with the accordion improvising on the melody. Manuela then re-enters with the lyrics with support from a playful cello and and rhythmic pulse of the accordion. Another jazz duet appears--this time we have the bowed cello improvising while the accordion provides the rhythmic and harmonic background. The trio then returns to end this delightfully playful piece--a piece that provides a wonderful interplay of jazz and folk.
Oifn pripetschik (by the fireplace): the warmth of the fireplace; the teaching of the rabbi. The rabbi teaches the children those lessons that will give them strength to meet the harsh future ahead of them. The accordion opens this selection joined by voice and cello. An un metered section gives way to a light and playful 2/4 section that quickly turns into a 3/4 waltz effect. This then gives way to an accordion-cello duet that takes the piece into a bizarre world. The duet begins with a "Satie-esque" theme and then morphs into a rather macabre waltz theme which ends with a glissando in the cello. The meter dissolves as Manuela returns us to the lesson and a reprise of the opening section. Light and dark, lightness and heaviness are effective combined.
Awremele un josele (i.e little Abraham and little Joseph) gives us a story about skipping school. Josele wants to skip, but Awremele is pious and does not want to miss any instruction. The two debate the issue and then part their ways: Awremele to school and Josele to the fields. This piece has a swing feel to it. Manuela is supported by a walking "bass" on the cello with the accordion once again providing the harmony and rhythm. Manuela's beautifully clear voice is in the foreground. This piece mixes meters. It opens in a rather free meter and then settles into 5/4 with the cello providing a solid foundation for the 5/4. In fact, what Ludger does with the cello reminds me of Dave Brubeck's piano in Take 5. The meter then changes to 6/4 as Manuela begins a playful scat in rhythmic union with the cello and accordion. We return to 5/4 with the cello repeating its previous motif and the accordion in the background while Manuela continues her scat. The accordion then picks up the cello's motif while Ludger presents a wonderful improvisation on bowed cello. They then return to the 6/4 unified voice, cello, and accordion and finally leave meter behind returning to a short reprise of the initial theme. In a word, this piece is brilliant!
Kinderjorn (childhood years). An old man looks back on his life. The carefree days of youth are gone. Sadness and melancholy have taken their place. The accordion begins this piece with a simple and recurring motif in a very measured 4/4 that sets the stage for the old man's monochromatic life. Manuela then tells the sad story. An accordion solo interlude follows using a very simple bass line (no chords) and a simple and forlorn melody based on a variation of the main melody. The piece ends with a lone whistler who fades into the distance. The cello remains silent throughout the piece.
Schmidt handling his cello like a guitar sets the stage for a flamingo-esque flavor in Unter di grinike bojmelech (beneath the green trees)--a song of children playing in innocence. With the cello providing the rhythmic pulse, accordion and voice trade flights of fantasy. This fanciful piece gives way to Jisrolek--a tale of a tradesman in the ghetto who struggles to eke out a living while hungry, lonely, and sad. All that remains is his pride. We are introduced to this tale by a plaintive call from the cello in a klezmer style. Manuela follows reciting a portion of the story and then breaks into the song. Ensemble Draj uses several different styles in this one piece not the least is a very impressive jazz duet between the cello and accordion. As in earlier pieces, several different meters are used in order to bring this "drama" to life.
Papir is doch wajss (but paper is white) takes us back to the Renaissance. Papir is a story of young love ("just as paper is white and ink is black, my heart is yours alone"). The voice, cello, and accordion work in independent lines creating delightful polyphony reminiscent of music from the Renaissance. Schlof, majn feijgele (sleep, my little bird) begins as a slow and melancholy duet between cello and accordion and then breaks into a rather raucous dance with the entry of Manuela. Before a reprise of a jingele, a mejdele (this time with Ludger and Ralf joining Manuela), Ensemble Draj gives us ballade funm hajsl (the ballad of a cottage)--a sad story of lose. A father lives with his daughter in the deep woods near a lake. The daughter sees her reflection in the water, reaches for it, and drowns. Alternating between solo voice, duets, and trio we enter the drama of the drowned daughter. The piece ends with an eerie feel as the accordion plays clusters using the upper treble piccolo reeds and Manuela intones the last phrases of the story. As with earlier pieces, Ensemble Draj make effective use of meter to present the story.
In should be noted that in the last piece, a jingele, a mejdele, Ludger and Ralf break into a very impressive jazz improvisation which temporary breaks completely with the melody and then abruptly and effortlessly returns to the main theme. Thus the album ends very playfully -- one could say ecstatically!
I find this CD captivating. The level of musicianship is outstanding. Ensemble Draj have very creatively and effectively blended several different styles to tell stories that reflect the struggle and joy of life that is forced to live within predetermined boundaries. Kaupenjohann and Schmidt have done some excellent work arranging these pieces. The effective way that Ensemble Draj combines styles reminds me of The Tin Hat Trio--another small ensemble that includes accordion and that experiments with multiple styles. The only criticism that I have does not regard the music, but rather the marketing. The CD that I received did not have an English translation for the program notes and lyrics. While there is a short English synopsis for each piece, I would have preferred to read a translation of the lyrics. I found the program notes for the album on the Internet through a Google search and I had Google do its quite literal translation. Although the Google translation gave me the overall sense of the notes, I would prefer to have a good English translation provided.