Although the diaspora of Jews from Israel began as early as 8th century BCE, it was the destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem in CE 70 by the Roman Empire that finally succeeded in scattering their population throughout the known world. Over the next century or so communities of Jews were established from India to Great Britain, and a period of mourning was declared which included a Rabbinical edict banning secular music.
The ban lasted to the middle ages, and the music that developed after was much like the language, Yiddish, that was used in daily life, a hybrid of the various cultures and people they found themselves living among. So you can hear Slavic and German influences in both the music they played and the language the lyrics they sung. Therefore it's not difficult to see Jewish music easily adapting itself to work with most other cultures. However, the idea of mixing Irish and Jewish music together still seems at first blush as maybe pushing that envelope a little too far. Can Gaelic and Yiddish have enough in common for such an effort to be possible? Yet that's exactly what Susan McKown and Lorin Sklamberg have done on Saints & Tzadiks, a new release on the World Village Music label.
This is nothing new for this duo, they won a Grammy award three years ago for their first collaboration, Wonder Wheel, so there are plenty of expectations for them to live up to with this recording. Well I haven't heard the previous work, but all I can say is if anybody finds Saints & Tzadiks a disappointment they need to consider having their ears checked for hearing loss. Each of the twelve tracks on this disc are a wonder and a joy that tap into the wide range of emotions both traditions are famous for. What's really wonderful is that for two cultures with plenty of reasons for music to be replete with sadness, the collection on this disc does more than just break your heart as they have uncovered treasures to lift the heart and well as making it ache.
While the majority of the tracks are sang either in Yiddish, Old Irish, (Gaelic) or English, some are actually a mix of all three. "Prayer For The Dead" starts off by blending together the old anti-war song, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya", with the Yiddish song "kh'bin Osygeforn felder,velder, oy'vey!" (I've travelled across fields and forests, Oh woe), sung in alternating verses by McKown and Sklamberg respectively, and then concludes with the singing in Gaelic and Latin of "Deus Meus Adiuva Me" (My God come to my aid). While McKown sings the part of the young woman not recognizing her beloved come home from the war for all the body parts he's missing in "Johnny", Sklamberg sings of finding the corpse of a soldier in a field and wondering who will do the funeral rites for him. Finally they conclude with the haunting prayer, written in the 11th century, asking God to fill the soul with love and sunlight.
The effect of the three songs blended together in this manner changes what are nominally anti-war songs, and songs about misfortune, into a prayer for something better. For, after hearing the litany of sufferings brought about by war, the beseeching a God to be filled with light and love is made much more powerful and turns the song into something more than the sum of its parts. The two principle tunes blend sufficiently well together they don't sound out of place being alternating verses of the same song, while the contrast between the two, ensures they become more than just one culture's lament by emphasizing the universality of suffering.
Like I said earlier this is more than just a disc about how horrible it is to be either Irish or Jewish as the two also have some fun. " My Little Belly" is an old Yiddish children's rhyming song that lists off various ailments by running through the various body parts with the two vocalists alternating verses. Sklamberg in particular has fun with making himself sound as plaintive and suffering as possible. "The Hag With The Money" is another combination of three songs, this time three Irish tunes; "I'm In Arrears", "The Hag With The Money", and the instrumental "I Buried My Wife And Danced On Her Grave". This time the two alternate singing the Gaelic verses of the first song, and then McKeown sings her verses of "The Hag" in Gaelic and Sklamberg sings it in English and Gaelic. The story that's told by stringing the three together is a warning to all women of means - don't be marrying a guy in debt or you just might find him dancing a jig on your grave.
While the material is equally wonderful throughout the disc, listening to how McKeown's and Sklamberg's voice mix and contrast is the real marvel. Sklamberg has a beautiful tenor with which he communicates a wide range of emotions in all of his singing, while McKewon is a husky voiced alto with a rich sound. While it initially sounds like her voice will overpower his as they're not competing with each other that's not a problem, and the way in which their voices compliment each other is a marvel. If you can imagine two voices dancing and alternating who is leading as the music behind them shifts, you'll have a good idea of how well they work in tandem. Each of them serve as a perfect conduit for the meaning of their songs, so even though much of the material isn't sung in English listeners, should have no problem drawing a general idea of each song's emotional tenor.
Even if you need to acclimatize yourself to the idea of Yiddish and Gaelic material being sung together, you can't help but be moved and impressed - even awed - by what Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg create on Saints & Tzadiks. The combination of their voices and the material being sung is as powerful as any music I've listened to in the past. It's not often that secular music is able to obtain the heights of beauty one would normally associate with religious music, but this recording iss as full of passion and wonder as any oratorio to a god.
(Originally posted August 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.