The Semer Ensemble project was created by Alan Bern for the Berlin Jewish Museum and premiered there to a standing ovation on July 12, 2012.
Featuring Grammy-winning vocalist Lorin Sklamberg, Dan Kahn and other international stars of Yiddish music, the project is a masterful and moving contemporary re-interpretation of music recorded between 1933 and 1938 on the almost forgotten, Berlin-based Semer label.
The Semer label, founded by Hirsh Lewin, existed in Berlin from 1932-38, producing a treasure trove of recordings of Jewish music at the very time that the Nazis were preparing to destroy Jewish life. For many of us, it is impossible to listen to the recordings on the Semer label without an underlying sense of tragedy. What happened to the voices, the hands and fingers, the souls that made these sounds? But when we listen more closely, inviting the disembodied voices to travel through time and pop out of speakers or headphones into our rooms and stand in front of us, we meet people in the middle of life, not death. They sing about love, jealousy, war, justice, the Torah, settling Palestine, socialism, Zionism, dancing girls, affairs, player pianos. They sing in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Polish, Russian. They sing popular songs, folk songs, art songs, cantorial music. They fight, laugh, boast, seduce, cry, threaten, provoke, scorn, inspire.
The Semer label found a place for all of this. Unlike the narrow dogmatism that often tragically infects contemporary Jewish cultural politics, the Semer label was unafraid to display the contradictions of Jewish cultural identity even in the perilous climate of Berlin of the 1930s, including especially a major role for Yiddish music in German Jewish life.
Directed by Alan Bern, the band chose from the many dozens of possibilities those pieces that touched them the most in some way. In some cases, they aimed to recapture the original spirit and sound of the chosen recordings as closely as possible. In others, the original recording was just a starting point for the band's own musical creations. This non-purist approach is inspired by the Semer label itself. The program is therefore an homage to the label and its artists, not only to preserve their memory but also to celebrate and continue what they stood for in life.
Alan Bern - piano, accordion, music director
Lorin Sklamberg - voice, accordion
Daniel Kahn - voice, accordion
Sasha Lurje - voice
Fabian Schnedler - voice, electric guitar
Mark Kovnatskiy - violin
Paul Brody - trumpet
Martin Lillich – basello