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by Helen Winkler

At first blush it is an odd combination. Here I am, a person interested in old Jewish dances and music, and here is Wolf Krakowski, a blues/country/rock/reggae singer who sings in Yiddish. His music has little to do with klezmer and nothing to do with traditional Eastern European Jewish dances, and yet his music touches me. Why?

I’ll explain it this way. When I was in university, I had to take Basic Design. I don’t remember much about basic design, but one thing has stuck with me. The professor always said “Respect the integrity of your materials.” Wolf and his music are for me an embodiment of this principle.

Wolf was born in a displaced persons camp in Austria in 1947 and is a native Yiddish speaker. The family lived in Sweden for a time and later in Toronto. His musical life has been coloured by well known figures in the blues world, as well as by time spent traveling the carnival circuit, working as a carpenter, a guitar builder and many and sundry occupations. Says Wolf, “My core and sensibilities are Yiddish, but my experience as a North American in the late 20th century is blues-rock-reggae, etc.”

As a person who’s always gravitated towards Balkan and other similar ethnic folk music,
I don’t have much knowledge of the blues. Wolf explained the blues to me like this:“The genius of the Black man and woman is to be found in the blues.
When you examine the historical conditions, here you have a people,
brutally uprooted from their soil.  Torn from their families.
Denied their culture.  And made into beasts of burden.
Yet, through it all, their intrinsic humanity is not extinguished and,
with  cast-off and homemade instruments to accompany their voices,
the whole spectrum of human emotion and feeling is expressed in the blues...

In a system that would reduce human lives into mere commodities to feed
a heartless, exploitative economic system, the Black man and woman, through the blues-which 
begat jazz, which begat rhythm 'n blues (and white r 'n b, more commonly known as rock and roll)- kept alive the things which keep us human.

Our hearts are broken when we hear the haunted, lonesome blues of Robert Johnson or 
the loveworn junkie laments of Billie Holiday and, in the act of being broken, our hearts  are kept soft.  We maintain our human-ness in a world  that grows  colder  and more cruel with each passing day.

For a brief moment, the singer finds solace in unburdening him/herself,
perhaps sharing it with a listener, who suffers with him and in so doing, shares the pain, lightens the burden...

This, to me, is the genius inherent in the blues.”

This description seems a perfect fit when superimposed upon the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe.   It is the skillful melding of these entities, that gives Wolf’s music its resonance.

So, what does Wolf sing? His cd, Transmigrations opens with a song of loss, called Tsen Brider, of 10 brothers 9 of whom die, leaving one alone to struggle in this world. A soulful refrain is woven through the song: 
Yidl with your fiddle
Gedalye with your bass
Play a little tune for me
In the middle of the street.

Wolf explains it this way: "It’s the singer’s way of saying “I want to get lost in my rock ‘n roll and drift away …. let’s forget about [the loss and the pain] for now and get lost in the music.” Getting lost in the music is a sentiment I think all dancers can identify with.  

Several other tracks on the cd, written by a variety of both known and anonymous songwriters, continue the themes of loss: loss of a once vital life and culture, loss of a loved one, loss of trust. Others are more light hearted and celebratory (especially the one about everybody’s favourite, Jewish Food). All are honest expressions of emotion sung from the heart.  In Wolf’s words:“My music as on Transmigrations is not so much “thought about” as “felt.” It percolated within me for a lifetime and had to be let out.”

And now that this music is out, we too have the opportunity to experience it.

For further information about Wolf and Transmigrations visit www.kamea.com.