60 Years Later, A Wild, Baffling Recording Finds A Modern Spark In 1954, Folkways Records released an album that sold so poorly, the royalties to date total less than a thousand dollars. Today, five of the top names in klezmer have gathered to recreate it.
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60 Years Later, A Wild, Baffling Recording Finds A Modern Spark

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60 Years Later, A Wild, Baffling Recording Finds A Modern Spark

60 Years Later, A Wild, Baffling Recording Finds A Modern Spark

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Yiddish music - you're sitting forward now? You usually don't find it on Billboard's Top 40. Folkways Records released an album of Yiddish music that sold so poorly royalties over more than half a century amounted to less than a $1,000. That recording, though, inspired several generations of musicians and writers. And now an ensemble of klezmer musicians from 3 continents has recreated the album that was originally recorded by a man known as Prince Nazaroff. Jon Kalish has more.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Playing Yiddish music in public was once so common among Jewish immigrants who lived near the beaches in New York and Los Angeles that it came to be known as boardwalk music.

And that's where I found The Brothers Nazaroff on the boardwalk at Coney Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BROTHERS NAZAROFF SONG)

KALISH: The Brothers Nazaroff are being filmed by a Hungarian director making a documentary about them and their namesake, though the band's accordion player Daniel Kahn isn't sure there'll be much of an audience.

DANIEL KAHN, BYLINE: Not everybody loves this, you know. And I don't expect everybody to love it. This is for people who are willing to have a good time, people who understand that it's subversive to be joyous in public.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BROTHERS NAZAROFF SONG)

THE BROTHERS NAZAROFF: (Singing in Yiddish).

KALISH: The Brothers Nazaroff are a bit more polished than their inspiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE NAZAROFF SONG)

PRINCE NAZAROFF: (Singing in Yiddish).

MICHAEL WEX: When I first heard the record, which was many years ago, my initial reaction to it was, like - how the hell did this get recorded?

KALISH: Michael Wex is the author of the best-selling book "Born To Kvetch."

WEX: It sounds like the Yiddish speaking janitor and a bunch of his friends at Folkways broke in one night and just sort of seized the equipment and started playing songs.

NAZAROFF: (Singing in Yiddish).

KALISH: Wex points out that Folkways Records head Moe Asch was the son Sholem Asch, the most important Yiddish writer in America in the early 20th century. So his son was certainly plugged in to the Yiddish art scene. But Wex thinks there may be another reason Asch put out the Nazaroff 10-inch.

WEX: The Nazaroff stuff was recorded right after Asch had released Harry Smith's "Anthology Of American Folk Music." It's almost as if Asch wanted to do a kind of Yiddish pendant to Harry Smith's anthology.

BOB COHEN: It was a fluke that he was recorded.

KALISH: Bob Cohen is the Budapest-based mandolinist of The Brothers Nazaroff.

COHEN: That was not what people recorded. People recorded what would elevate the culture. They didn't record what Jewish drunks did in the back room of a bar, you know. But why were we in the back room of a bar (laughter)?

KALISH: Because that's where this music was often played - in Yiddish bars.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE NAZAROFF SONG)

KALISH: Daniel Kahn says his bandmates think of Prince Nazaroff as the wild grandfather they never met.

KAHN: His mandolin - it's out of tune. The accordion's out of tune, but nobody cares. They're just playing as hard and as wild as possible. It's - the way he spits out his Yiddish lyrics has a kind of raw energy. And frankly, it's the same raw energy that I hear in early punk rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ICH A MAZELDICKER YID")

NAZAROFF: (Singing) Oy bin ich a mazeldicker, mazeldicker yid. Oy bin ich a mazeldicker, mazeldicker yid. Vie ich gei, vie ich shtay, heb ich nur un ein geshrei. Oy bin ich a mazeldicker, mazeldicker yid.

KALISH: Prince Nazaroff's sole album of Yiddish music led some of the biggest names in klezmer music today back into a studio. In addition to Cohen and Kahn, The Brothers Nazaroff includes the fiddler Jake Shulman-Ment; vocalist and guitarist Michael Alpert, who was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow last year; and Russian singer Psoy Korolenko.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ICH A MAZELDICKER YID")

THE BROTHERS NAZAROFF: (Singing) Papa buy some shoes for me. Pop, I want a penny. Shmildick wants a bicycle. A blouse I need, cried Fanny. Quietly my wife does weep, and her tears she's drying for she doesn't like to hear the children always crying.

Oy bin ich a mazeldicker, mazeldicker yid.

KALISH: As exuberant as the music is, many of the details of Prince Nazaroff's life remain less clear. We do know that he was born in Russia in 1892 and that a man named Nicholas Nazaroff is listed in U.S. Census records as having two children. But Daniel Kahn says members of The Brothers Nazaroff haven't been able to track them down.

KAHN: We have yet to hear from any of his relatives, not have the people at Smithsonian. He was buried in countless bargain record crates at the back room of many used record stores. That's the only grave of his that we know of.

KALISH: But Kahn and the rest of The Brothers Nazaroff have managed a kind of closure. Their new CD is out on the same label as their namesake's vinyl record more than 60 years ago.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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