By: Paulanne Simmons
African-American and Yiddish folk and theater music are connected in many ways. Not only have composers drawn inspiration and musical techniques from each other for at least a century in the United States; both African-American and Jewish singers have often leaped over cultural divides to perform songs from one another’s repertoire.
Tony Perry, Magda Fishman, Lisa Fishman
Nowhere has this intersection been more clearly explained or more melodically illustrated than in The National Yiddish Theatre’s Soul to Soul, a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday presented in collaboration with the Museum of Jewish Heritage and The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization led by Rabbi Marc Schneier, president; and Russell Simmons, chairman.
The January 17 cabaret concert featured Israeli-born singer-songwriter, Lisa Fishman, cantor and trumpeter Magda Fishman, operatic powerhouse Elmore James (Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast and Big River) and actor, singer-songwriter Tony Perry, accompanied by a four-piece Klezmer–Jazz band, directed by NYTF artistic director Zalmen Mlotek. The evening was presented in English and Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles.
The vocalists sang many staples of Yiddish theater as well as African-American soul, gospel and protest songs, against a backdrop of photos illustrating African-American and Jewish history and culture, and the paintings of Marc Chagall and Jacob Lawrence. Although most often Yiddish songs were sung in Yiddish and African-American songs were sung in English, there were some delightful surprises.
When Fishman and Fishman sang the Gershwin’s “Summertime” in Yiddish, it became evident exactly how the black blues and the Yiddish sob are musically linked. “When the Saints Go Marching In” still swings in Yiddish.
Harburg and Gorney’s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” (Fishman, Fishman and James) could easily be an African-American work song. And it turns out Cab Calloway’s famous call and response song, “Hi De Ho Man,” is based on a Klezmer tune. Who knew?
African-Americans and Jews both have musical traditions that were born in oppression. For both people, music served as a way to express both suffering and hope. Dr. King’s birthday was a fittingly observed celebration of these two separate but not distinct traditions
Soul to Soul was presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place,