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Old Jewish Melodies of Russia & Ukraine

Reb Shaya Demo – Old Jewish Songs of Russia & Ukraine by Reb Shaya
This is a reissue of a CD I released a few years ago as “A Taste of the Old Country.” The video demo has received to date over 500,000 views and many positive comments. I polished it up and, although retaining much of the raw, rustic feel of the original, it’s technically a little more up to date.

For hundreds of years, Russia was home to millions of chassidic Jews who enjoyed a dynamic and vibrant culture. A combination of anti-semitic decrees and pogroms, the Haskalah, the Communist Revolution, World War I, the Nazi invasion and Stalinist persecutions forced these Jews to flee, be slaughtered, or assimilate. Today, those chassidic dynasties that survived have developed centers in Israel and America. But many treasures of that period remain buried, yet to be discovered and revived.

The Jews of Russia and Ukraine created a rich musical tradition spanning centuries. Many of these melodies are still sung today, but many more have been lost to posterity. Most of the niggunim in this collection were transcribed by a Russian Jewish  musicologist who traveled to the shtetlach and recorded the villagers on Edison wax cylinders. These songs are presented here in instrumental arrangements featuring Chassidic fiddle, that help capture the energy and spirit of the times and environment that produced them.

Here are some notes about the nigunim on this disk:
1) Sher, or wedding dance, from Russian collection, date unknown
2) This waltz is a “gass niggun”, a melody played by the band as they accompanied the family home after the wedding or sheva brochos.
3) A slow chassidic dance, attributed to the Tolner chazzan Reb Yossele.
4) A voloch from the Sefer Nigunim of Lubavitch – an anonymous slow, meditative, passionate nigun, called a “Song of Longing,” reminiscent of a shepherd’s song. Also known as the “Kremenchuker Berelach.”
5) Two “fraylachs,” fast dance niggunim. The first was transcribed from a clarinettist in Belaia Tserkov. The second is also attributed to Reb Yossele Tolner.
6) The first is called a “tish nigun”, from Makarov in 1900, itself the home of one of the Tchernobler dynasties. The second is a “khosidl,” a slow dance in chassidic style.
7) This old-style hora was transcribed in Kovele in 1913.
8) This expansive “tish nigun” was transcribed from a chazzan in Olek, Volensk in 1913.
9)  A lively nigun from before 1913.
10) A Lubavitcher waltz from the Sefer Niggunim, called simply “Niggun for Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Here are some of the comments from our sampler video published on youtube (to date received over 500,000 views):

“This is wonderful. Thank you for posting it.”  friedie1jeff

“I LOVE the music and pictures, and how you put it all together. Some of the pieces were the melodies of familiar Jewish prayers. I don’t know how ANYBODY could be critical of this. I would appreciate more in the future..”  .memaseven

“I’m fairly young, but this music is just magic, i don’t have words just feelings.. u know”  kirillzapple

“I love all this songs. So amazing, never heard anything like this before. Ancient memories..”

“Congratulations! Very beautiful melodies. I don´t know how to say, but I will try: Mazel Tov!” ricardofolive

“I like this a lot better than klezmer!  Shalom, Gabriel”

“As a klezmer (and as a Jew), I was really moved by the originality of your themes and the nice, rough sound of your band, that evoked more -to my ears- old hasidic atmosphere than many klezmer revivalist currently do.”  -Michel Borzykowski, Switzerland

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During the early years of the Communist regime, when life in the shtetl was still considered a valuable “folk tradition” worth preserving, the government sent “expeditions” to the Ukraine to study and record the lifestyle. One of the things they did was make “Edison cylinders”, the live tape recorder of the period, to record the music sung and played by the villagers themselves. This activity spanned an era from 1912-1945, but the melodies themselves are much older. Several of the nigunim on this CD are from those collections, and are barely known today, if at all.

In this album, I’ve tried to reveal the timeless beauty of these creations, in a way that’s free of condescension and kitsch. I’m more interested in the feel of the melody than “historical accuracy,” but the style is hardly “modern.” I’ve tried to avoid the cliches of the “klezmer” style.  It’s dynamic and uplifting, bringing out the vitality, power and joy of this amazing tradition. Those whose roots lie here, have much to be proud of.

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