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forshpil:tsvey: forshpil’s Alternate Universe of Yiddish Rock

Sarah Larsson

On a fall evening in 2020, my partner asked me to turn on some music. We were quarantined in an apartment in anticipation of visiting his parents in São Paulo, Brazil. “Something fun that will make us rock out,” he suggested.

So I put on forshpil:tsvey, by genre- and border-crossing Yiddish rock band forshpil.

I had been thinking a lot about alternate universes while living in a pandemic-sheltered world, shrunk down just to the edges of my little duplex apartment. In the best literary science fiction and fantasy, what gets my imagination going is the way writers cast straight out into possible other worlds, skipping over all the organizing, the hours of labor, and policymaking drudgery usually necessary to transform our existence into the worlds we want to see. With an electric guitar, distortion, and hundred-year-old Yiddish lyrics, the band forshpil feeds the imagination with the same kind of liberatory world-building.

forshpil (Ilya Shneyveys, Sasha Lurje, Mitia Khramtsov, Roman Shinder, and Zheka Lizin) describe their music as “dark Yiddish love songs from a parallel world – a world where secular Yiddish-speaking musicians play their grandparents’ folk music in their garage bands.”

I’m Jewish, from a mixed background and a childhood home where we lit candles on Chanukah but didn’t do anything for Shabbat. The first time I felt affinity for Jewishness as a culture beyond myself was in high school, when I started borrowing (and copying) all the klezmer music CDs from the public library. Since anything Yiddish is already an alternate universe for me, I’m game for any fantasy world forshpil can cook up.

Ilya Shneyveys, the multi-instrumentalist and musical director of the band, told me in an interview that “psychedelic” only partially describes forshpil’s sound. The Atlantic-spanning group — based in Riga, Berlin, New York, and St. Petersburg — started recording the songs that make up Tsvey more than 5 years ago. “We identify more as a Yiddish band than a rock band,” said Shneyveys. “But maybe we’re also too rock for Yiddish.”

I’m less interested in strict genre designations than in the experience of listening, which for this album is decidedly so much fun. After a rolling stadium-rock prologue, a.k.a. forshpil (ha, get it?), played by Ilya Shneyveys on a bass guitar growling with low-end distortion, the album drops into “Forn Avek,” a love song archived by Ruth Rubin about a beloved lost to conscription into the Czar’s imperial army. This version of “Forn Avek,” though, is no scratchy a cappella field recording. The rhythm section of Shinder’s guitar and Zheka Lizin on drums drive forward like the rumble of a subway train, while Sasha Lurje’s vocals drift over the top with a seasoned, knowing sass that makes clear that this band’s members experienced the end of the Cold War on the other side of the Atlantic.

This album definitely rocks, but again, not entirely in a Hendrix or Stones kind of way. A better comparison for these ten buoyant, trippy, guitar- and drum-driven tracks is Anatolian rock, a world of music that came out of Turkey in the late 1950s through ‘80s. (For some contemporary artists, try Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek and Altın Gün.) The circling riff in “Oy vey mame” feels like the band has been listening to a fair amount of Malian/Saharan desert blues, too.

The more Shneyveys talked about his work to me, the faster the gap between Yiddish and rock music collapsed. All the best Yiddish folk songs, after all, are songs about love, loss, and longing; rock music comes directly out of the blues.

Here are the lyrics of the song “Bay a taykhele,” as translated in the album’s liner notes:

​​By a stream a tree grows, branches grow on it.
You talk to everyone, you’re friendly with all,
but me – you ask to be silent.
By a stream a tree grows, flowers grow on it.
I ask you my beloved – when will you come already?
When will you finally come?

But the band also pointedly notes the presence of “teenage rebellion” as a sub-genre of folksongs, as captured in “Fishelekh in vaser”:

– Oh, dear daughter, it shouldn‘t be this way. The clock has already struck twelve,
it’s time to come home.
...
Oh, dear mother, don‘t suck my blood,
let me talk to him, just a few more minutes.

Rolling the words over in my head, I get stuck on the fantasy of what could have been: What if we had footage from the 1960s of teenage girls screaming at a rock concert in which the band sang in Yiddish?

for­sh­pil’s music video for Oy dortn dortn,” a track on forshpil:tsvey.

In their public self-depictions and in their aesthetic, forshpil pushes against any urges to recreate a single “correct” sound for Yiddish music. Shneyveys picked up the accordion at age 21, at first shying away when a friend suggested he play klezmer. “Maybe it’s a bias; we’re all told that Yiddish music is corny,” Shneyveys admitted. But the accordion is only a placeholder for Yiddish culture. “If people in 1880 had had electric guitars, they would have played electric guitars,” he says.

That supposition is tantalizing. What if people with plugged-in instruments had picked up Yiddish ballad songs in the 1940s, the way a whole generation of youth culture recreated and redesigned sounds originally created by Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Then again, maybe they did. What are Barbra Streisand and Idina Menzel if not culture-workers, following in the steps of ballad-singers and wedding bands, making music for their own era? Shneyveys pushes a distinction between what he calls Yiddish folk music and Yiddish theater music. But theater artists also made choices based on commercial influences and audience demands of the time.

This is not to say forshpil is the first, or the only, band to take on the adventure of modernizing Yiddish music. forshpil rocks in the good company of Yiddish Princess, the Sway Machinery, The Book of J, Khramtsov’s Dobranotch, and many others. There’s Sveta Kundish, Adah Hetko, and Anthony Mordechai Tsvi Russell singing gorgeous new and old folk songs. There’s Gevolt, who claim to be the first Yiddish metal band and who were also founded by Russian-speaking Jews. Maria Ka makes Björk-esque Yiddish synth-pop out of Poland. And on and on.

Shneyveys pointed out to me a particular challenge that accompanies innovating in Yiddish music. In other cultural contexts, musicians grow up swimming in the sonic world of a musical style. In Serbia, for example — a place where I’ve conducted some of my musical training — “folk” music usually refers to a genre of electronic club beat music based on Balkan folk melodies and fleshed out with European techno club influence.

Contemporary Yiddish musicians emerge from different conditions, Shneyveys told me. We don’t have the same kind of pervasive pop-culture connections to tie our Yiddish soundmaking to. Ilya pointed to the example of Russian folk music: In 2021, this week, you can find older people in rural communities in Russia singing folk songs that they’ve learned through an oral tradition. A particular set of Slavic folk cultures (significantly, only some cultures, contrasted with the direct suppression of others) have also benefited from state sponsorship to elevate their art form and performers’ craft. Within Turkish/Anatolian rock, similarly, musicians have accessed and grown up surrounded by a continuity with regional folk tradition that leads directly into their contemporary music.

For Yids seeking to sing and play in a lineage of our own popular folk music, we simply don’t have that kind of continuity. “By the end of the 19th century it was already dying out,” Shneyveys said. “Those key folklorists,” he explained, “ the St. Petersburg school, Beregovsky – they went out on their ethnographic expeditions to capture music that they believed to be disappearing.” Although folk music has stayed alive and well in pockets throughout the 20th century — such as Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman’s famous Bronx living room, or Theodore Bikel’s foundational records — those bubbles haven’t constituted the same kind of ubiquitous soundscape that informs rock and pop drawing from other traditions. That’s why I found myself furtively searching through the world music CDs at my library as a teenager: every sound I could access was precious.

Grappling with death shouldn’t be new for anyone who has spent even a small amount of time immersing in Jewish narrative.

But thinking of forshpil’s sound as evocations of an already-been-dying tradition, called forth through some arcane spell, made me start to hear the distorted violin and the pedal drones on Tsvey as instruments of sorcery. When I think about the people I’ve played Yiddish and other traditional music with, I imagine they’d be pleased to think of that image. Aren’t most of us weirdos who have found ourselves trying, without success, to describe our affinity for a music that is bigger than ourselves? Aren’t we trying to make sense of why certain chords need to be held out, left to resonate almost to the breaking point?

Lots of moments in Tsvey made me do a double-take, struck by giddy surprise at a delicious moment, made juicier by its opposition of sound and my expectations around a particular song. The violin entrance on “Fishlekh fun vaser” creeps in like a reminder that we are somewhere between St Petersburg and outer space. “Forn Avek” is simply a jam. I loved bobbing my head to “Oy vey mame” as it grew into a power ballad.

After spending the last year witnessing the creativity of artists in the Yiddish music community, projecting their work out over Vimeo and Zoom to all of us, I can more easily picture forshpil’s alter-universe, where a critical mass of garage bands are experimenting their way into better and better takes on Yiddish rock.

An Amazigh friend from Morocco recently forwarded me a video of the desert blues star Bombino performing at a huge rock festival in the middle of the desert in Niger. The concert had everything you’d expect from a stadium show in the US—amazing lighting, booming bass, an incredible lineup of stars—alongside the musicians’ camels and people who set up their nomadic homes along the periphery of the stage.

All of us who seek out the bubbles of secular Yiddishkayt around the world long for that kind of immersive experience. We’d love to be able to stumble upon our neighbors’ Yiddish rock band rehearsing in the garage as we walk down the street wishing everyone and being wished a Gut morgn, Gut yor. forshpil projects that scene forward with a sound that makes it more than speculative.

If you have a different opinion about Yiddish love ballads played as headbangers, feel free to listen to whatever you like best. As for me, I love being part of forshpil’s imagined future. More than anything, they’re just having so much fun. After expulsions and migrations, navigating empire and surviving the stigmatization of Yiddish, the descendants of those Yiddish blues-singers really need some healing. By making playful, righteous noise, using the same words of longing sung for generations, forshpil makes joyful resistance out of decades of separation.

forshpil:tsvey is available (along with a full, beautiful pdf of liner notes) on Bandcamp, with plans for future release as a physical CD and on other streaming platforms.

MLA STYLE
Larsson, Sarah. “forshpil:tsvey: forshpil's Alternate Universe of Yiddish Rock.” In geveb, November 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/forshpil-tsvey.
CHICAGO STYLE
Larsson, Sarah. “forshpil:tsvey: forshpil's Alternate Universe of Yiddish Rock.” In geveb (November 2021): Accessed Nov 29, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Larsson

Sarah Larsson hosts the podcast Folk Will Save Us, and performs as a vocalist and percussionist with The Nightingale Trio and Jeleche (Minneapolis, MN).