Chava Albertstein
& the Klezmatics,
The Well
(1996; Rounder, 2001)

The Well is a collection of 20th-century Yiddish poems set to music written by Chava Alberstein, with arrangements masterfully created by the Klezmatics. It contains a well-rounded selection of modern and classicly-styled poetry, with a variety of themes ranging from heart-breaking and lonely to light-hearted and joyful.

It seems to me the main risk involved in a project where one person takes sixteen poems and puts them to music in a very short period of time is that all resulting pieces will end up sounding the same. That is not the case with this endeavor. Each poem is magically transformed into its own song, with its own personality, and in several cases, the Klezmatics have added not only their wonderful talents to the melody, but have added inspired instrumentals that enhance the character of each selection. Given the brevity of some of the poems, there is a certain level of difficulty in creating a song that is more than 30 seconds long, and the interludes provide not only a way to lengthen the selection, but provide both coherence and variation.

Such an example is "Di Goldene Pave (The Golden Peacock)," a poem that Alberstein turns into a kind of lullaby. Alicia Svigals has added "Svigals Inventions" and Frank London has created "Pave Interlude" that play off the melody and turn the song into a lively waltz. While the words lament lost fortune, and induce the listener to "go to sleep," there is still a sense that the subjects of the story still have each other, and that is underscored by the hopefulness of the music.

Other ways that Alberstein converts the poems to songs is to repeat verses where applicable, and adding nigguns (little melodies) as transitions from one verse to another. In one case, she also combined two poems, "Ergets Shtil (Softly Somewhere)" and "Baym Taykh (At the River)." Both poems look back on a lost childhood, one from the perspective of an adult wishing she were a child again, and the other as a third person looking at a young girl hoping for the best, and yet watching as fortune floats away like petals in a stream. And, in spite of the significant difference in meter of the two poems, the combination works as single song.

Perhaps the most poignant song is "Mayn Shvester Khaye (My Sister Khaye)." This is a most touching tribute to the writer's older sister, murdered in the concentration camps. It was written by the sole surviving family member, who lived through the experience of the camps and moved to Israel. The tune provided by Alberstein is moving and mournful, almost wistful, without being morbid. The author lovingly remembers how Khaye stayed with the younger children, fed them when they were hungry, and sang them pretty songs when they were tired. There's no sense that that they thought their lives were hard as they grew up, thanks to the love Khaye showered on them. Alberstein's melody and the Klezmatics arrangement provide the vehicle that now immortalizes the young green-eyed, black-haired girl whose life was sadly cut short.

While this isn't typical Klezmer dance music, there are several lively tunes reminiscent of Klezmer dance tunes. "Ver es Hot (One Has Got)," "Velkhes Meydl S'nemt a Bokher (Any Girl Who Takes a Boyfriend)," "Ovnt Lid (Crepuscule)" and the title song "Di Krenitse (The Wall)" are all animated, energetic tunes that round out this collection of old words/new songs. The tunes are catchy, and the words are typically repeated often enough, so that before the CD is finished, several of the tunes have stuck, and the listener finds she is singing the songs to herself. For those uninitiated in the joys of Yiddish, the liner notes present all of the songs in the original Yiddish, with both transliteration and translation, making these songs easily available to everyone.

[ by Alanna Berger ]
Rambles: 9 March 2002

Buy it from