Odessa, Yiddish Pearl of the Sea exploring the city’s Jewish musical heritage

Odessa, Yiddish Pearl of the Sea

exploring the city’s Jewish musical heritage


I finally visited Odessa this summer after nearly three years in Ukraine.  Due to the bulwark of Communist nostalgia known as the “Transnistrian Moldavian Republic” through which trains have been denied passage since 1990, the journey from Chernivtsi to Odessa requires making a huge 16-hour circle north to Lviv then east to Ternopil and south through Vinnitsia into the Odessa region. Ultimately, Odessa was worth the trip.

A typical Odessa street, with bicycle, Lada and Ferrari
A typical Odessa street, with bicycle, Lada and Ferrari

The city has a laid back, jocund flair that Kyiv lacks– perhaps it’s the sea, or the obvious wealth that the (sometimes legal) shipping trade has brought to the region.  Odessa is also unique in Ukraine for its multiculturalism; while Kyiv and Lviv were also once home to large Jewish, Armenian and Greek communities, Odessa’s ethnic diversity seems to have weathered the past eighty years better than Ukraine’s other cultural capitals. Thus it is not uncommon to see Turks, Tatars, Roma, or Hassidic Jews in the centre, and a delightful variety of restaurants and cafes specialize in non-Ukrainian cuisine that is actually good.

The embodiment of "golden oldies" dances to a freylakhs on Deribasovskaya
The embodiment of “golden oldies” dances to a freylakhs on Deribasovskaya

During my first visit to Odessa’s city park on Deribasovskaya St., I happened upon a local brass band playing old “Odessa songs” including many well-known Jewish tunes like “Limonchiki” and “7:40” to the delight of the mob of elderly dancers that surrounded the bandstand.  The scene was unlike anything I had seen in Ukraine before– sure, Lviv has its Sunday folk song choir on Shevchenko Square, but it is usually solemn and nationalistic – Odessa’s got yidishkayt!

Two weeks later, I was back in Odessa for the 4th annual International Klezmer Festival, where my friends Forspil (an excellent Riga based klezmer-rock band) as well as Ukrainian brass band Konsonans Retro were playing.  For me, the other highlight of the festival was Kyiv’s own Pushkin Klezmer Band whose sound I would describe more as Balkan-Jewish, owing more to Serbian-Romani singer Šaban Bajramović than to their Russian literary namesake.

Below: the Pushkin Klezmer Band performs in Kyiv, January 2011.

Odessa’s Jewish cultural heritage is perhaps most evident in the multitude of Russo-Yiddish folk and popular songs that remain popular today.  Songs extolling the city’s virtues and beauty–as well as those playfully hinting at its darker side–have been popular since Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the 1920s, an era often deemed the Soviet “jazz age”.  I decided to examine some of these songs’ lyrics and the colorful history behind them.

Leonid Utyosov

It is impossible to discuss the genre of Odessa songs or music of the NEP without acknowledging the tremendous contributions of Leonid Utyosov (Леониид Утёсов).  Born in Odessa in 1895 to Jewish parents (his real name was Leyzer Vaysbeyn), Utyosov dropped out of accounting school to become an acrobat in the circus, later working as a stand-up comedian and finally, a singer.  He eventually created a style of jazz based on American and French big-band music that included theatrical, comedic and Yiddish elements.

Although he lived much of his life in Moscow, Utyosov’s songs often focused on his home town.  In his autobiography, he responds to the Yiddish saying “Ades iz kleyn-Pariz” (Odessa is a little Paris) with “Париж должен у Одессы ботинки чистить” (Paris should shine Odessa’s shoes).  Many of his songs utilize the distinctive “gangster” dialect of Odessa’s seedy “Moldavanka” district–one of the city’s most impoverished, predominately Jewish neighborhoods, and also the setting of Isaak Babel’s 1923 “Odessa Tales”.  One of Utyosov’s best known songs about Odessa, “С Одесского кичмана” (From the Odessa Jail, 1932), a gangster-themed remake of an old Proletarian war song, tells the tale of two escaped convicts, one of whom is mortally wounded:

From the Odessa Jail

С Одесского кичмана
Бежали два уркана,
Бежали два уркана тай на волю.
В Вапняровской малине
Они остановились.
Они остановились отдыхнуть.

Товарищ, товарищ,
Болят мои раны.
Болят мои раны в глыбоке.
Одна же заживает,
Другая нарывает,
А третия застряла у в боке.

Товарищ, товарищ,
Скажи моей ты маме,
Что сын её погибнул на посте.
И с шашкою в рукою,
С винтовкою в другою
И с песнею весёлой на губе.

Товарищ малохольный,
Зароют моё тело,
Зароют моё тело в глыбоке.
И с шашкою в рукою,
С винтовкою в другою
И с песнею весёлой на губе.

За що же мы боролись?!
За що же мы страдали?!
За що ж мы проливали нашу кровь?!
Они же там пируют,
Они же там гуляют,
А мы же – подавай им сыновьёв!

 

From the Odessa Jail
Fled two criminals,
Two criminals ran free.
In a new hideout
They stopped.
They stopped to rest.

Comrade, comrade
My wounds hurt.
My wounds hurt deeply.
One is healing
The second is bleeding,
And the third bullet is caught in my side.

Comrade, comrade
Tell my mother
That her son perished at his post.
With his sword in his hand,
With a rifle in the other
And a cheerful song on his lips.

Pale Comrade,
Bury my body,
Bury my body deep in the ground.
With a sword in my hand,
With a rifle in the other
And a cheerful song on my lips.

For what have we fought?
For what have we suffered?
For what have we shed our blood?
They’re out there feasting
They’re out there carousing,
And we’re giving them our sons!

…Oy Mama, my mama!

The first verse was added to the original by Utyosov, resulting in a pastiche of war ballad and “блатной” (criminal) song that is not entirely successful.  The final lines are rendered incoherent- “we’re giving them our sons!” is clearly a proletarian reference to the injustice of a war that benefits the rich, and has nothing to do with escaping from jail or being a gangster.  While the lyrical content tells a rather bleak, if not romantic tale, Utyosov’s performance of the song subverts this mood with playful stuttering and the occasional yelp, making it into a kind of jazzy lighthearted version of a criminal’s ballad.

When life gives you lemons…

Utyosov’s most popular song among contemporary Klezmer bands is certainly “Limonchiki”, a simple but catchy tune about good times and.. lemons?

Limonchiki

Вот джаз загремел, заиграли трубачи,
Весёлой дробью загремели барабаны!
И стаи звуков завертелись, как бураны,
И захотелось сразу танцевать!
И всюду пары начали сновать.

Как много пар –
И млад и стар.
Все поднялись
И завертелись вместе разом.
Увлечены весёлой музыкой и джазом,
Всем захотелось сразу танцевать!

Ой, лимончики,
Вы мои лимончики!
Ей растёте на моём балкончике.
Ой, лимончики,
Вы мои лимончики!
Вы растёте у Сони на балкончике!

Jazz thundered, trumpets sounded,
A merry roll rattled the drums!
And the swarm of sounds whirled like a storm,
And everyone wanted to dance!
And everywhere couples began to swing.

So many couples –
Young and old.
All rose
And whirled along together.
Carried away by joyful music and jazz,
Everyone wanted to dance right away!

Oy, limonchiki,
You’re my little lemons!
Growing on my balcony.
Oy, limonchiki,
You’re my little lemons!
You grow on Sonia’s balcony!

In Odessa’s gangster slang, “limonchiki” was actually code for “milionchiki”, as in millions of Rubles.  While Utyosov’s recording of the song omits blatant references to this, many additional verses exist on other recordings, including lines such as:

Ой, лимончики,
Мои червончики,
Где вы растёте,
В каком саду?

Лёва яйца продавал,
Нажил миллионы,
А потом в кичман попал
Через те лимоны.

Oy, Limonchiki,
My chervonchiki*,
Where do you grow,
In what garden?

Lev sold eggs,
Made millions,
and ended up in jail
because of those lemons.

*A reference to the red color of Soviet Rubles.

The tune has been performed by Konsonans Retro, Dobranotch, and De Amsterdam Klezmer Band, to name a few.  Almost every ensemble at the Odessa Klezmer festival included a rendition of “Limonchiki” in its performance, and the crowd didn’t seem to mind the repetition.

The Odessa Klezmer Festival concludes with a gala concert in the swanky top floor of a shopping mall for oligarchs
The Odessa Klezmer Festival concludes with a gala concert in the swanky top floor of a shopping mall for oligarchs

Akh, Odessa!

Possibly today’s most popular song about Odessa, “Akh, Odessa, Pearl of the Sea” (Ах, Одесса, жемчужина у моря) oddly has no known author.  Legend has it that 23-year old Odessite Modest Tabachnikov (Модест Табачников) wrote the words on a restaurant napkin in 1936, but others claim the tune was actually written by popular Jewish Oddessite songwriter Arkadiy Zvezdin (a.k.a. Arkasha Severny).

Akh, Odessa

The song is a relatively trite, wistful homage to Odessa and its alluring beaches, parks and nightlife.  Here is a sampling of lyrics:

Ах, Одесса, жемчужина у моря
Ах, Одесса, ты знала много горя
Ах, Одесса, любимый южный край
Цвети моя Одесса,
Цвети и расцветай!

В Одессе есть такой маяк,
Он светит всем всегда
Он говорит: “Постой моряк,
Зайди ко мне сюда.
Здесь двери всем открыты,
Бокалы всем налиты.
И женщины танцуют до утра.”

Ah, Odessa, the pearl of the sea
Ah, Odessa, you’ve known a lot of grief
Ah, Odessa, beloved southern coast
Bloom, my Odessa,
Bloom and flourish!

In Odessa there’s a lighthouse,
He gives light to all
He says, “Wait sailor,
Come here to me.
Here all doors are open,
Glasses poured for all.
And women dance until morning.”

One of Odessa's many beaches
One of Odessa’s many beaches
Odessa's "lovers' bridge" covered in signed padlocks
Odessa’s “lovers’ bridge” covered in signed padlocks

7:40

While not explicitly an “Odessa song”, the immensely popular 7:40 (or “Sem Sorok/Sim Sorok“) is worthy of note for its sheer ubiquity in the former Soviet Union.  The piece is essentially a freylakhs with two sections, but is perhaps the only such Jewish dance melody to be recognized by a distinctive title everywhere it is performed.  From the taverns of Odessa to the Hutsul mountain villages of Transcarpathia, Sem Sorok is an essential component of Jewish and non-Jewish weddings alike.  At Gentile weddings, the tune usually accompanies a “handkerchief dance” in which participants dance in a circle while the man or woman in the center chooses a dancer of the opposite sex from the circle, places the handkerchief on the floor, then kneels on it to receive a kiss from their chosen dancer.  The kisser then chooses the next recipient, and process repeats as long as the band wants to keep it going.

Sem Sorok – basic melody as it is played at weddings in Ukraine

The origins of the tune are unknown–it does not appear in any of the early Yiddish field recordings of Moshe Beregovsky, nor in the American Klezmer repertoire of the early 20th century. However, several theories as to its provenance exist. One common story claims that the song originated in the late 19th Century and refers to the train that brought shtetl-dwelling Jewish merchants to and from Odessa every day, arriving at 7.40 and leaving at 19.40.  The fact that the tune has a name suggests that it may have had lyrics; however, while many contemporary lyrical versions of Sem Sorok exist, it is unknown which is the ‘original’ or why this particular freylachs melody was chosen.

The aforementioned Arkasha Severny recorded a version called “A hitz in paravoz” in 1975, (Yiddish:  אַ היץ אין פאַראָוואָז – which literally means ‘heat in the train’, and slangily means ‘a fidgety person’)

Sem Sorok – Arkasha Severniy version (1975)

In the former Soviet Union, Sem Sorok occupies the (overplayed) position that tunes like “Hava Nagila” or “Tants tants yidelakh!” enjoy among American and European Klezmer enthusiasts.  How and why the tune became so widespread and popular will likely remain a mystery.

* * *

*note: the rough translations included in this post are my own.
Sources:

Odessa slang dictionary:  http://www.ta-odessa.com/humor/dictionary/
Severniy History:  http://arkasha-severnij.narod.ru/kichman.html
Anarchist Song Archives:  http://a-pesni.golosa.info/
Sem Sorok History:  http://lurkmore.ru/7:40
“How It Was Sung in Odessa: At the Intersection of Russian and Yiddish Folk Culture”, Robert A. Rothstein, Slavic Review, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Winter, 2001).

Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "Odessa, Yiddish Pearl of the Sea"

Notify of
avatar
Phil B
Guest

Thanks for this! It’s great to have the translations- I’d love to have a book of these. Seems like the Jewish music from Odessa doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Tammela
Guest

Shaun, this is great. A really interesting gloss of Jewish music in Odessa — I didn’t know klezmer music was popular in Ukraine. Thanks!

wpDiscuz