Sometimes the hardest thing in the world can be capturing the magic of a live band in a studio recording. There’s a delightful flow to live music that can make an album and a performance sound like distant cousins.
Which makes Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch’s new CD, Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus, so much more remarkable. His music is propulsive, dynamic, and often surprising—the essence of live performance. Slepovitch is probably the foremost keeper of Litvish Jewish culture in North America. He’s definitely the only one combining academic ethnographic work with a distinctive artistic vision. Raysn encompasses East and West, Jewish and non-, and builds a bridge between historic and modern performance. Though rooted in a somewhat obscure tradition, the result is enormously entertaining.
Even the name of his band, Litvakus, is both freighted signifier and playful connector. In Yiddish, ‘Litvakus’ denotes that which is related to Litvaks, the Jews of Lithuania. But for Slepovitch it’s also a play on the words “Litvak U.S.” (he recently became an American citizen). Or, as he told me recently, a kind of subliminal command: Litvak us/Litvak you/ Litvak me. If you thought Litvaks were the humorless counterparts to fun loving Galitzianers, you might be surprised.
But before we go any further, some terminology should be established. Lite (Lithuania) is a historical term denoting much more than what falls within the borders of the modern Lithuanian state. Jewish Lite is more or less contiguous with the historical Grand Duchy of Lithuania and encompassed parts of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, and, of course, Lithuania. In Yiddish, Belarus is known as Vaysrusland or (the more obscure) Raysn. The culture of the Belarussian portion of Lite, the multilingual, multicultural Raysn, is where Slepovitch, a native of Minsk, plants his flag.
Slepovitch is a Litvak, but a fun Litvak, leaning more in the direction of Mickey Katz than the Vilne Gaon, more Moyshe Kulbak than Chaim Grade. True to his Litvak roots (and his doctorate in ethnomusicology) the CD booklet contains a wealth of information, pinning each piece, old and new, within a specific locale. The text provides amply for those who care to know time signatures, instrumentation, and notes on phrasing. For the average user, the most important information is all there: song lyrics in YIVO standard transliteration next to English translation, with context for each song’s provenance.
The booklet may speak to the detail-oriented ethnomusicologist, but the music is pure aural pleasure. This is undoubtedly party music: dance tunes are at the center of Raysn. Traditional kolomeykes and shers sit next to original compositions like the very Brooklyn ‘Q Train Volekh.’ Slepovitch has assembled an incredibly talented group of musicians on Raysn. Craig Judelman’s fiery fiddle-work hints at a path from the swamps of Raysn to the hills of Appalachia. Sam Weisenberg’s percussion keeps the party moving with a light but driving energy. The most unusual sound comes from the generous application of drone, something not found often in modern-era klezmer recordings. Taylor Bergren-Chrisman on bass and Joshua Camp on accordion not only make this klezmer drone work, they make it sing.
Slepovitch notes that use of drone accompaniment was typical of the multicultural, Jewish Belarussian style. Extensive use of heterophony and microtone scales create an unusual dissonance, all of which make Raysn sound both distinctively contemporary yet rooted in place and time. Slepovitch’s virtuosic clarinet playing, compositional skills, infectious singing, and multilingual mastery propel Raysn to the forefront of contemporary Jewish music.
The Raysn album release event takes place tonight at 7pm at the Center for Jewish History in New York.