Bittersweet Music

Despite its air of celebration, Passover is a bittersweet remembrance, one in which the joy of liberation is marked by the pain of recollection of what we were liberated from and what we lost on the way from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael. Our seder liturgy reflects that ambivalence, although it may require hearing some unfamiliar music to remind us.

Two recently released CDs offer an excellent opportunity to reflect on the delicate balance of this festival. One is largely a reminder of the jubilation we feel at the seder table, yet, because it is specifically a tribute to Yiddish Passovers past and present, it inevitably has a certain appropriate somberness underlying its up-tempo party feel. The other is a collection of songs written about the liberation of Mauthausen; not surprisingly, its joys and sorrows are also mingled.

“Songs My Bubbe Should Have Taught Me, Volume 1: Passover” marks the debut on CD of singer Lori Cahan-Simon. Cahan-Simon has put together a sprightly collection of Yiddish Passover songs, the vast majority of which I haven’t heard before. Those who grew up in the secular socialist Yiddish world — Workmen’s Circle, the Farband and the like — will undoubtedly recognize many of them with great pleasure. She has also assembled a terrific group of musicians, most of them fellow Midwesterners, including fiddle player Steven Greenman, percussionist Alexander Fedoriouk and singer Michael Alpert.

Cahan-Simon has one of those delightful rough-and-ready soprano voices, expressive even when it’s not conventionally pretty and very flexible. She makes a wonderful pair with Alpert’s reedy tenor and my favorite cuts on this charming record are their seven duets. The musicianship is very high caliber, with some beautiful fiddling by Greenman. Best of all, these songs haven’t been recorded to death, so if you are looking to add some unfamiliar spices to your seder table’s musical mix, this is a great place to start.

There’s even a version of the Four Questions I’d never heard before, and a “Dayenu” that veers between big-band swing and Beethoven-on-the-rocks.

The fine Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis was himself a captive in German prisons during WWII. His close friend Iacovos Kambanellis, a poet, was interned in Mauthausen. In 1965, Theodorakis set four of Kambanellis’ poems about that hellish experience to music. The resulting piece has gone through many evolutionary stages. Its most recent incarnation is “Mauthausen Trilogy” (Piano). In this CD, the Greek versions of the poems are sung by the great Maria Farantouri, a frequent collaborator with Theodorakis, the English versions by Nadia Weinberg, the Hebrew by Elinoar Moav Veniadis. The recording closes with a 1995 speech by Simon Wiesenthal delivered at Mauthausen.

There is a family resemblance to be found among the songs of the Mediterranean, and many of Theodorakis’ warmest melodies could just as easily have been written by and for Jewish musicians. Farantouri’s plangent, hoarse contralto is particularly well suited to his laments, finding the perfect balance between the agonized and the triumphant.

Perhaps this is not a CD to play for the children at the seder; they’ll have much more fun with the Cahan-Simon (although they will probably miss some of its musical nuances). But “Mauthausen Trilogy” is powerful stuff and would make my short list of great music about the Shoah.

On the other hand, if you are looking for unfamiliar Pessah music suitable to your own seder table, two recent albums of North African music, imported from France, offer some interesting alternatives: Alain Scetbon’s “Haggada de Pessah — Tunisian Passover” (Ness) and Elie Zerbib’s “Haggada de Pessah — Algerian Passover” (Ness). These two CDs include French narration by the artists putting the musical selections in the larger context of the seder, but you probably won’t need the help (assuming you understand French in the first place). The Scetbon and Zerbib sets have the intimate and slightly rough feel of an evening at a friend’s home. The music on both is quite interesting, very reminiscent of Arabic music from the Maghreb, and will be unfamiliar to most readers. How much does professional slickness matter to you? I would opt for the two French sets for authenticity and kavanah (sincerity); at their best they have a tremendous power.

The above CDs range in price from $16.98 to $19.98.
Exclusive distribution in the United States by Hatikvah Music,  or (323) 655-7083.