Adrienne Cooper
& Zalman Mlotek,
Ghetto Tango:
Wartime Yiddish Theater

(Traditional Crossroads, 2000)

Adrienne Cooper and Zalmen Mlotek recreate a remarkable piece of musical history with Ghetto Tango: Wartime Yiddish Theater.

The Jews torn from their homes and crammed into the ghettoes of Lithuania and Poland included young and old, laborers and college students, teachers, doctors, lawyers -- and musicians. In the Warsaw ghetto, in Lodz, Vilna and the rest of the unofficial cabarets sprang up. Orchestras and choruses pieced themselves together as well. Musicians, both professional and amateur, began writing and performing as well as adapting popular music of the time. Much of their music reflected or satirized their bleak circumstances and bolstered the spirits of the audiences. Incredibly, not only were these ghetto night clubs visited by Nazi authorities and German soldiers, but they were photographed by Nazi propaganda units.

Cooper and Mlotek run the gamut of moods in Ghetto Tango, with Cooper providing powerhouse vocals on most of the tracks accompanied by Mlotek on piano. Mlotek sings some of the songs either alone or with Cooper, and his voice is a warm-timbred tenor. The first track, "Moyshe halt zikh (Moyshe Hold On)," is from a musical review produced in Vilna ghetto and kicks off with a rippling run up the keyboard and a lively melody. Cooper's voice is deep and rich, attacking the lyrics with energy and verve. She demonstrates the versatility of her voice in "Coolies" which parallels the plight of Chinese rickshaw runners with the Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto where "after the trams were taken out of use ... improvised rickshaw transportation became the only way of getting around the teeming ghetto." The vocals are high, light and precise here, in keeping with the faux-oriental accompaniment.

Cooper and Mlotek get down to business in "Mues (Money)," a jazzy, brazen, brassy song about the way the ghetto life corrupts because "money is the only thing." The mood shifts again with "Mazl/Oh a heym (Luck/Homeless)," a delicate and poignant music-box waltz melody which shifts into a melancholy tune. "Makh tsu di eygelekh (Close Your Eyes)" combines a lullaby of hopelessness with a tango, lending urgency to the song.

Other highlights include, but are not limited to, "The Peat Bog Soldiers," the first song to be composed in a concentration camp that became a kind of anthem, "Vayl ikh bin a yidele (Because I am a Jew)," a driving, frenetic, angry song about the conditions of the war, and "Nit keyn rozhinkes (No More Raisins and Almonds)," a poignant song which begins with the lovely minor melody of the lullaby "Raisins and Almonds" then turns the gentle imagery on its ear with a haunting melody and lyrics that spell out cruel reality.

Some Jews were able to escape to America, among them Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, who collaborated on "Song of the Nazi Soldier's Wife," a chilling song about the gifts a soldier's wife receives from her husband -- presumably items stolen from the Jewish citizens as they are rounded up -- until just desserts are delivered. Weill broadcast the song via shortwave radio "to demoralize Nazi soldiers and to give heart to the comrades he was forced to leave behind." Cooper's delivery is smooth as silk and deliciously arch.

All 18 tracks are flawlessly arranged, conveying a powerful and authentic range of emotions even though most of the songs are in Yiddish. (Translations are provided in the thorough liner notes.) Much more than living history, Ghetto Tango is a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and it is impossible to imagine any listener remaining unmoved.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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