Sitting Down with Singer Miryem-Khaye Seigel
On Wednesday, January 28th at 7 pm, Miryem-Khaye Seigel will celebrate the release of her new CD, Toyznt Tamen = A Thousand Flavors with a concert at the Museum at Eldridge Street. She will be joined by some of the best klezmer musicians in town for what promises to be a great night of music in our landmark site. In advance of the event, we asked Miryem-Khaye a few questions about herself, her music, her deep interest in Yiddish language and culture, and the story behind the title of her new album. Interview by Nancy Johnson
Where are you from and what is your family history?
I was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. I am the great-grandchild of immigrants from Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland (they came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).
Where and what did you study at school?
I studied social science at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Later I attended the Uriel Weinreich Yiddish program at YIVO. I also completed a Master’s in Library and Information Science at Queens College, CUNY.
Have you always been involved with music?
I’ve always been involved in music in various ways from a young age, such as creating songs and parodies. I studied a few different instruments including piano, saxophone, and accordion, and later, voice. I’ve studied at intensive programs like Klez Kamp and Klez Kanada, and also privately, with various mentors and teachers.
How did you get interested in Yiddish language and culture?
I had a chance to take a Yiddish class at the Yiddish Book Center while attending Hampshire. I enjoyed the language and the chance to explore Jewish history and culture. I decided to continue my studies and ultimately it turned into my life’s work.
Is there a family connection?
I heard some Yiddish words at home, but learned to speak fluently as an adult.
What is it like to be a young person involved in a culture and language that is almost at risk of being lost? Are other young people interested in Yiddish, too?
It is challenging to maintain a balance between connecting with older, native Yiddish speakers and having a peer group of younger Yiddish speakers, not necessarily native speakers. There’s a generation gap. It’s essential to spend time with native speakers if you really want to learn to speak Yiddish and to speak it well. There are many more opportunities for young people to learn Yiddish today than there were ten or fifteen years ago, but I don’t see as much intergenerational interaction. I am fortunate to work with Yiddish on a daily basis and to have an international community of Yiddish speakers committed to preserving and promoting the language and culture.
About your new CD, how did it come about?
After performing and writing for many years, I wanted to document my work and be able to reach a wider audience.
Why did you name it as you did?
“Toyznt tamen ” (A thousand flavors) is a phrase in my song “Nyu-York, Nyu-York” used to describe New York City. It can mean roughly, both multi-faceted and delicious – a complex flavor. And I hope that that describes the variety of flavors, moods and songs on the album.
Tell us about the musicians featured on the album.
On the advice of the late Adrienne Cooper, a wonderful singer, teacher and a great influence on me, I hired Michael Winograd as music director. Together we assembled a group of really outstanding musicians – on the album is Michael (clarinet), Patrick Farrell (accordion), Benjy Fox-Rosen (bass, vocals), Carmen Staaf (piano) and Alicia Svigals (violin, vocals). I am very happy with their work and feel quite privileged to work with them.
How did you choose the songs?
There are seven original and five adapted songs. I chose them based on their individual strengths and also on their relative obscurity (that is, emphasizing my own work and other adapted work that had never, or seldom, been recorded) with a few other pieces that I really liked and felt created a variety.
Why do you want to have your CD launch party at Eldridge Street?
It’s a beautiful, historic and inspiring space, and the staff is super helpful and knowledgeable. I have known the excellent Hanna Griff-Sleven for years, when I was first invited to give a reading of one of my songs.
Does your family have a connection to the Lower East Side?
My family is not from New York, but my dad lived on Ridge St. (near the Williamsburg Bridge) as a graduate student at NYU, in a building that has since been torn down. Almost everyone in his building was Dominican, and they were very surprised to meet a young white man from Chicago who spoke fluent Dominican Spanish (he spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic). To me, that exemplifies the power of language and the dynamism of a city where so many cultures live together.
Do you have anything to tell folks about the concert on the 28th?
It’s going to be really fun and you’ll hear a lot of material you won’t hear elsewhere.