Skip to comments.Jewish music in Belarus: preserving a dying tradition
Posted on 07/15/2005 12:06:56 AM PDT by nickcarraway
MINSK -- Dmitry Slepovich spends weeks at a time traveling the Belarusian countryside, recording for posterity a Jewish musical tradition that genocide, emigration and old age have nearly extinguished.
"The memory of Yiddish song is being swallowed up," bemoaned Slepovich, 27, who makes recordings of melodies sung in Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern Europe's Jews.
Slepovich, who plays the clarinet in a Jewish folk band and studies at the music academy in the Belarusian capital Minsk, has already taped dozens of hours of singing by more than 100 elderly singers since he began in 2001.
His band, Minsker Kapelye ("Minsk Orchestra" in Yiddish), which has played in Russia, Germany and Poland, uses some of the songs in its repertoire.
But he says that recording the genre on tape is a race against the clock, since the songs were never written down in musical scores.
Out of a population of around 1 million in the early twentieth century, Belarus' Jews now number around 30,000 due to Nazi and Stalinist persecution, followed in the 1990s by mass emigration to Israel.
Slepovich's musical inspiration came from his great-grandfather, a clarinetist who traveled from village to village playing Jewish folk, or klezmer, music at community events.
"He had to sell his clarinet in the early 1920s for a scrap of bread. He died soon after that. I just realized it was time to revive this tradition."
Slepovich, who learned Yiddish from his grandparents, has got help for his project from the Yad Hanadiv Foundation and Joint, an American Jewish organization, as well as from the benefactors of the Jewish center in Minsk.
Eventually he plans to publish an anthology of the music.
"In June, we went to Pinsk and Brest. We met people who were between 80 and 95 years old who sang some amazing songs, especially some Zionist songs in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish," the musician said.
In Vitebsk, the birthplace of Belarusian Jewish painter Marc Chagall, Slepovich met three elderly sisters who opened an ancient exercise book and sang old Yiddish ballads for three hours into his microphone.
Among his more esoteric recordings are communist songs in Yiddish that appeared in eastern Belarus in the 1930s.
With a click of his mouse Slepovich brings up on his computer a song by Mikhail Akerman that evokes the history of Jewish folk, or klezmer, orchestras.
"There is a Jewish village not far from the town of Bobruisk. It has many musicians. And everyone will tell you that the best one is Mandel the barber and his band," sings Akerman, whom Slepovich met in the library of Minsk's Jewish center.
On another recording, an old woman sings a famous lullaby by the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, first in Russian, then in Yiddish.
Slepovich's band has come up with a musical accompaniment to the lullaby that will feature in their new album, Ortike ("From Here" in Yiddish).
The album, he says, is a melancholic one about the end of the era that he is trying to record.
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