Submissions are now open for this year’s Bubbe Awards, which come closest to the Grammys for New Yiddish and Jewish Music. You have until July 31st to submit your original Yiddish song or the Yiddish translation of an existing song. True, I didn’t win for my own Yiddish cover last year, a song I thought was pretty fabulous. Anyway, I’ll be back this year. If you didn’t like Jimmy Buffett in Yiddish, you definitely won’t like Atomic Rooster getting the same treatment. (Details will follow shortly.)
In 2021, the Audience Award for Best Original Yiddish Song went to “Kranhayt(illness) by 35-year-old Polish singer-songwriter Maria Ka. For many people in the Yiddish world, this was the start of her work, although she has been making music professionally since her teens. I recently spoke to Ka at her home in Gdansk, Poland, on the Baltic Sea. She told me that she only started writing original Yiddish songs in 2019, so winning a big prize right away seems like a pretty promising start.
“Kranhayt“ Fitted in well with the zeitgeist last year, as you can imagine. Here the virus is both very real and metaphorical.
Zay tempered, zay shtark
Upper and lower, dos zelbike lid
In the Televizye, gantse tsayt zay
Vi a shteyn, zay fraysickness, sickness
Stay healthy, stay strong
Here and there constantly the same song that I know
Always on TV
Stay like a stone, be free
“Kranhayt‘ appeared on Ka’s 2020 album Di arumike Velt. While this song had something of a Tori Amos, girl-with-her-instrument vibe, the album as a whole is more eclectic in its sound. The song called “ShaWoman” is a pun on the word shaman and the sound moves towards coldwave, a subgenre of electronic music. Ka cites Bauhaus and Siouxsie Sioux among her musical influences, and you can hear it here, as well as her other influences, like Jefferson Airplane’s Bjork and Grace Slick.
Ka’s feminism is woven through all of her creative work, whether it’s her songs or even her social media. In her Mother’s Day Instagram post, she posted about her mother, a metallurgist in a male-dominated industry, with the hashtag #MetallurgyMom. While staying with her parents during lockdown, she stumbled across a patent in her mother’s name for a metallurgical invention. Ka also mentioned this in our conversation. Being raised by a mother who broke stereotypes was key to her development as an artist.
She told me ShaWoman was born out of her desire to make women more visible, primarily through language, be it Polish or Yiddish. This is not a trivial matter. After decades of full legalization, abortion in Poland became increasingly restrictively regulated by law from the 1990s. In 2021, Poland made all abortions illegal except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of a crime, and Ka was involved in the mass protests against the new abortion law.
I can land
Other vi days
You balerst mikh un bafelst raised faynt
You give me tsufil, tsu dark thoughts
Ikh am shoyn ongestekt
Khotsh s’iz nit mayn krankenhayt
I have my country different than yours
You preach and teach me, command everything hating
You give me too many, too dark thoughts
I’m already infected
But it’s not my illness.
Ka formed her first band when she was on the waiting list for a place at the drama school in Kraków. Although she never made it to drama school, she stayed in Kraków for the next 10 years. During this time, she earned two master’s degrees from Jagiellonian University in psychology and Jewish studies, while learning Yiddish on the side. But the drama remained an important part of her work. Her master’s thesis dealt with the women of the golden age of Jewish cinema in Poland. In 2018 she published The music to the lost Yiddish filma music album for the lost 1924 silent film Tkie’s cafewith Esther Rokhl and Ida Kaminska.
In June 2022, Ka released “Enigma”, the first single from her latest album. You Sheikhsn (The links). You Sheikhsn is a four song EP, but each song is released separately, one per week. “I try to create layered works and I want people to digest them,” she told me. In a world with far too much content, I value more than ever the ability to let ideas breathe on their own. I also appreciate their commitment to dramatic flair.
The first single from this album was “Bingo”. The word never appears in the song and I wondered if bingo had an unfamiliar (to me) meaning in Polish. When I asked Ka, she began to describe a game that many people play in which numbers are called out and written on a card. I had to laugh and assure her that I was indeed familiar with the game.
The connection to bingo (the game) becomes clearer when you see the video in which it appears. The lyrics take the form of a counting song and Ka appears as multiple singing heads floating above dreamy synthesizer loops. As the text counts down, more heads will appear, as if filling in an invisible bingo card. The result is both super serious and seriously playful.
You Sheikhsn contains Ka’s songwriting in Polish, Yiddish and English. In words and images she plays with the idea of the multifaceted nature of the self. While Ka doesn’t wear makeup on a day-to-day basis, “the visual side of the music is important to my approach because I use intense makeup on stage,” she said. “The stage makeup is like a mask and I can develop that idea on stage,” she emphasizes the fact that her “musical material is inspired by the multiple identities in all of us”. The three languages are also separate but intertwined facets of their identity.
These links are my hidden shrines
her perfect lines
are like riddles, riddles
all built on the tides of the blue ocean
with the language of the heart
and riddles, riddles
Two more songs will be released by You Sheikhsn until July 14th.
Aside from moving to the Faculty of Jewish Studies at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities near her home in Gdansk this fall, Ka already has another album set to be released in the coming months. The Hemshekh (The Continuation) features Ka on vocals, keyboards and electronics, along with the unusual combination of oboe and drums. The Hemshekh is “dedicated to and inspired by invisible women’s biographies…” Five of the songs are newly composed and five are traditional, adapted “to a female perspective”. The five new compositions consciously build on “selected threads of pre-war Jewish writings”.
Ka told me that when it comes to Yiddish influences on her music, “It was Yiddish cinema and theater that really interested me and still interests me”. In fact, there isn’t a hint of klezmer to be found in their already impressive discography.
It’s no secret that I’m an avid follower of klez. But I also believe that it is important for artists to find their own musical path with the available Yiddish materials, which Maria Ka demonstrates with a very modern panache.
You can meet Maria Ka in person at the upcoming Jewish Culture Festival – Singer’s Warsaw, August 22-30. Her new music videos are released on her YouTube channel and all her music can be purchased on her Bandcamp page. Visit their website for more information.
ALSO: Brooklyn’s Barbes will host a dynamic Klezmer double bill on Sunday 10 July. At 7pm, violinist Alicia Svigals with Pete Rushefsky (tsimbl) and Michael Winograd (clarinet). At 9:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Michael Winograd plays music from his sizzling new album with the Honorable Mentshn, Early Bird Special. In person at the Barbes and live streaming… The Yiddish Summer Weimar festival week runs from August 9th to 13th Weimar, Germany. Details here…Brooklyn Conservatory of Music Summer klezmer intense takes place from August 15th to 19th. The intensive course is led by Ira Temple and Zoe Aqua von Tsibele. Ages 16 and up, no prior knowledge of klezmer is required… You can stream the Folksbiene production by Kadya Molodowsky now Ale window tsu the zun (All the Windows Face the Sun) as part of their Yiddish playwrights Series.