Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Brothers Nazaroff – The Happy Prince

The Happy Prince
Smithsonian Folkways

(A version of this review was published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)

Not much is known about Nathan “Prince” Nazaroff, a Russian-Jewish musician and singer who immigrated to the United States in 1914. Apparently, he worked as an accompanist to the Russian Ballet Theater in New York and recorded a couple of songs for a 78-rpm record in 1928.

Nazaroff, who sang and played accordion and octofone (a variation of the mandolin), recorded 11 more songs, nine of which were released by Folkways Records on a 10-inch LP called Jewish Freilach Songs in 1954. This obscure album of Yiddish folksongs, including the familiar “Tumbalalaika,” showcased an exuberant performer whose energy and enthusiasm for the songs would influence performers like poet and singer Tuli Kupferberg, who co-founded the Fugs in the mid-1960s, and had a tremendous impact on the klezmer revivalists who discovered it in the 1970s and later.

About six decades after the release of Jewish Freilach Songs, some of today’s most accomplished klezmer musicians – including Michael Alpert, Daniel Kahn, Bob Cohen (not to be confused with Bob Cohen, the Canadian guitarist), Psoy Korolenko, Jake Shulman-Ment and Hampus Melin – gathered as The Brothers Nazaroff to record The Happy Prince, a joyous tribute album to Nazaroff.

The album begins with the nine songs from Jewish Freilach Songs, played in the same order as on the 1954 LP, followed by two more songs Nazaroff recorded at the time, but which didn’t make it onto the album, and finishes up with the two songs Nazaroff recorded in 1928.

From the opening bars of “Vander Ich Mir Lustig (While I’m Happily Walking),” it’s quickly obvious that this CD will be fun to listen to. Though the song is a list of the troubles that have befallen the protagonist – cold, rain, no mill, no cow, no wife – he’s in a happy mood celebrating life.

Other highlights include “Arum Dem Feier (Around the Fire),” a song popular in Jewish socialist circles, and “Fishalach (Little Fish),” usually known as “Fisherlid,” a moody piece written by the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt who was the mother-in-law of legendary American folksinger Woody Guthrie and grandmother of Arlo Guthrie.

Perhaps the most curious song is “Krasnoarmeyskaya Pesn (Red Army Song).” One of the songs recorded by Nazaroff in 1928, and sung in Russian, it’s a tribute to the Bolsheviks who overthrew the cruel Russian czar in 1917.

The Happy Prince is my favourite album of Jewish music for 2015.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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