A new radio drama titled “The Witches of Lublin” is being offered to public radio stations as a Passover special. Written by Ellen Kushner, Elizabeth Schwartz and Yale Strom, the hour-long production features original klezmer music by Strom and the handiwork of Long Island-based audio drama producer Sue Zizza. The cast includes the prolific audiobook narrator Barbara Rosenblat, author Neil Gaiman and Tovah Feldshuh as the protagonist Rivka, a 18th-century klezmer musician who is a single mom, a weaver of lace and a Talmudic scholar to boot.
“We definitely approached the story from a feminist point of view,” said Schwartz, who also sings in the radio drama. She has collaborated with her klezmer musician husband Strom on films, books and musical projects since the mid-1990s.
As the story unfolds, listeners learn that Rivka and her two daughters, Leah and Sorele, have a reputation as some of the best klezmer musicians in Poland. Enter the anti-Semitic Count, who commands the women to perform at a celebration in honor of his son. It’s an untenable choice because women performing in public would be scandalous in the world of 18th-century observant Jews. But declining to perform might trigger a pogrom against the entire Jewish community of Lublin.
As their name implies, Slavic Soul Party! updates traditional Eastern European sounds with a festive, contemporary feel. Their instrumental music conjures carnivals and circuses, pep bands and klezmer bands, James Brown and James Bond. Brooklyn music aficionados may know Slavic Soul Party! from their weekly Tuesday gigs at Barbès; uptowners may have caught them at Carnegie Hall. Like Johnny Cash and B.B. King, the band also plays prisons, with a show on November 19 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and October 5 at Rikers Island.
There are no vocals in Slavic Soul Party!, which sets them apart from their fellow Gypsy Punk travelers Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello. Instead, they are all about the music. On “Taketron,” their fifth and most recent album on the Barbès label, Slavic Soul Party! unleashes jazz jams over gypsy grooves and military marches. These 13 tunes feature horns, drums, and accordion that play with precision at a punk rock pace, and the volume that makes brass instruments an orchestra’s loudest bunch. If you have a migraine, this isn’t the record for you. But if you want to dance and sweat like you’re at a Baltic bash, then go ahead and press play.
Imagine a klezmer band where the vocalists rap in English, chant in Arabic, and sing in Spanish and Serbian. That band is Balkan Beat Box, a group led by two Israelis — Ori Kaplan (saxophone) and Tamir Muskat (drums) — who merge traditional Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eastern European sounds with hip-hop and electronica.
With the release of their third album, Balkan Beat Box continues to ride the wave of a Gypsy Revival that includes groups such as Slavic Soul Party, Raya Brass Band, and Gogol Bordello, with whom Kaplan has played. In August, Balkan Beat Box performed at Lollapalooza, one of the country’s premier music festivals. They are now wrapping up their North American tour dates with gigs on September 4 in Seattle and September 5 in Toronto, before heading to Israel for a show at the end of the month.