Yiddish Lullabies and Love Songs: In Conversation with Inna Barmash

By Emma Friedlander

This Sunday, June 21, chanteuse Inna Barmash will be presenting “Yiddish Lullabies and Love Songs,” a concert at the Museum at Eldridge Street. I recently spoke with Inna regarding the inspiration behind this repertoire, the community’s reaction to klezmer music, and the universality of these songs.

Your latest project explores Yiddish lullabies and love songs. How did you decide to focus on this aspect of Yiddish musical tradition?

One thing that draws me to Yiddish songs is the universality of themes in these songs. In thinking about how the themes are universal, and the ways that people connect to these songs, I was thinking of love songs and lullabies as that very basic thread that you find in folk music of all nations, of all countries. So that’s why I settled on love songs and lullabies as a connecting thread that attracts people to music.

Your sources for these songs are these old, Soviet-era anthologies. What  was your process for uncovering these rare songs, and deciding which ones to sing?

Even in the anthologies that have been published, it’s amazing how few of these songs have actually been recorded. The specific anthology that I pulled several of the selections from is the Beregovsky collection. Beregovsky and his colleagues embarked on this expedition in the early 1930s, at the same time that the New Deal administration in the United States was dispatching ethnomusicologists and researchers to collect Appalachian music and other American folk music. It’s difficult to find many things that were common for the US and the  Soviet Union at that time, but that thought of people obsessed with folk music traveling with what must have been very heavy and  bulky equipment and capturing the music of a population that was really about to be exterminated … I find that parallel story very interesting.

That’s really fascinating. Although you are performing traditional songs, klezmer music is a contemporary scene in New York that you are very much a part of. To what extent is it also incorporating new or innovative elements, and to what extent is it more of a reconstruction of traditional folk music?

In thinking about arrangements for recordings on the album, I didn’t want to self-consciously try to come up with some novel, edgy interpretation of the songs. I think the songs stand on their own. These are songs that were sung a capella. They were sung by women in their homes, or in communal gatherings, or to their children. So I felt like trying to force an interpretation would in some ways be a disservice to the song. I went for musicians I felt could play it from a deep, soulful place that connected with the song and the words, as opposed to making a conscious statement about modernity.

I feel like both the diverse audiences and diverse instrumentalists that you’re working with are very inherent to performing in New York City. What’s your favorite part about performing in the city, and about the diversity here?

I’ve been struck by the reaction of the non-Jewish audience to this music. I very recently performed in Flushing, in the heart of the Chinatown and Koreatown area there. Most of the audience was not Jewish, and there must have been thirty different languages spoken in the audience. That concert was also for other kinds of music, but it was just amazing to see the emotional connection that we were making with this music. There’s something in the language, and I think the way we play this music, that strikes a very deep, emotional chord in people, that doesn’t seem to be dependent on their knowledge of this music. In New York City, we really do have an unparalleled ability to present this music to a very diverse audience. Of course, that’s one great thing about performing at Eldridge. It’s also in the middle of what is now Chinatown, and you feel like you are injecting something into the space and the community underneath.

The Yiddish Lullabies & Love Songs with Inna Barmash will be presented Sunday, June 21 at 3 pm at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Tickets for this Father’s Day concert are $18 and half price for dads.  Reserve your tickets by clicking here.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Categories: History, Jewish History, Yiddish

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