Golem – Homesick Songs

Homesick Songs

Music is often described as “the international language,” though some people choose to ignore music not presented in their mother tongue. Fortunately, the members of Golem, a contemporary klezmer quintet, needn’t worry that linguistic xenophobia will limit their audience. Anyone with an ear for dynamic instrumentation, an itch to shake and go crazy on the dance floor, and an appreciation for theatrical, occasionally wild vocals will appreciate these New Yorkers’ second album, Homesick Songs.

Klezmer is an Eastern European Jewish musical style whose name derives from “klei zemer” – Hebrew for “musical instruments.” Performed in Yiddish – a language which evolved from the combination of German and Hebrew (Yiddish is spelled using Hebrew letters, but its vocabulary resembles German more than Hebrew), klezmer is most famous for its happy, lively tempos and celebratory rhythms. However, klezmer can also take on a more subdued appearance. The most important constant in klezmer is the significance of storytelling and emotion vis-à-vis song creation and performance.

In both regards, Golem succeeds with each of its dozen tracks on Homesick Songs. Granted, the band offers only one original track, the instantly catchy “Bialystok,” but the respect and care with which these musicians in their 20s and 30s handle classic klezmer tunes while innovating and rejuvenating is no small feat. The aforementioned “Bialystok” has an irresistible beat that easily welcomes Aaron Diskin’s repeated chorus of “Bialystok mayn heym / Bialystok mayn troym” (“Bialystok my home / Bialystok my dream”).

Annette Ezekiel and Curtis Hasselbring kick off Homesick Songs with “Odessa,” a rhythmic rocket that emphasizes Ezekiel’s Yiddish fluency and vocal range and Hasselbring’s instrumental dominance via trombone. Hasselbring’s brass playing is an inescapable, unspoken command to move. Perhaps not coincidentally, some elements of “Odessa” recall the chorus of “Rasputin” by 70s disco group Boney M. On the party favorite, “Chiribim,” Ezekiel and Diskin trade lead vocals and come together for the nonsensical chorus, “Chiribim, chiribom.” Diskin has an astounding ability to shift his vocal appearance from that of a 20-something to a man in his 70s singing old favorites.

With “Romanesh,” a Serbian gypsy song of homesickness, the band notably offers a few lines in translated English: “Thank you mother for giving birth to me / Thank you mother for fucking father.” The album’s slower songs tend to contain its more poignant moments. “Mito” and “Nikolayev” touch on yearning not for lost homes but lovers. “Nikolayev” is lyrically and melodically structured like a play, with rising action, climax, and resolution. Alicia Jo Rabins’ brilliant violin playing on “Nikolayev” simultaneously leads and buoys the band’s performance.

The vocal theatrics peak on “Rumenye,” with Diskin singing in colorful, speedy, inflected Yiddish and offering listeners some English-language insight: “As I gathered my wits / If you can call them that / About me / I noticed a curious change in the room’s proportions / This bedroom has become gigantic / But wait / The space is the same / I’ve gotten smaller / I’m a tiny little man / Insignificant / How have I shrunk down to the size of an ant?”

Rabins, Hasselbring, and contrabass specialist Taylor Bergren-Chrisman infuse the instrumentals, “Bukovinsky” and “Turkmenistaner,” with a classical sheen. “Turkmenistaner” comes off like a mournful waltz, and the musicians symbolize the tranquility and commotion of life with their alternately synchronized and conflicting playing. Homesick Songs closes with “Belz,” one of the most famous Jewish songs of all time. Ezekiel and Diskin duet on “Belz” with slightly more restrained vocals, perfectly complemented by Hasselbring’s trombone.

Homesick Songs has so many wonderful attributes – nostalgic and vibrant lyrics, instantly polychromatic settings, and thrilling, dynamic covers – that any listener, Jew or non-Jew, culturally curious or ethnically ignorant, will enjoy the album’s 12 tracks. Kol ha’kavod (all the respect and honor) to Golem for modernizing klezmer’s sound without abandoning its roots and soul.