Feted Israeli Singer Puts the Fun in Funeral Blues

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Just as it is with rental contracts and children's snacks, so it is with album covers: It always pays to read the fine print. Whoever listens to Chava Alberstein's newalbum, "Ve'eich Etzlecha" ("And How About You?") without reading the fine print won't know, for example, that the musicians featured on the CD, among others, include the mandolin orchestra of the Emek Ihud funeral home. Evidently there is such agroup, and it is thoroughly suited to Alberstein's new album ­ - and not because the singer, like the Jezreel Valley, for example, symbolizes a type of beautiful and lost Israeliness.

The orchestra of the Emek Ihud funeral home fits Alberstein's new album because the theme of death hovers over it. Indeed, "And How About You?" is the first album of Alberstein's whose music was written, at least in part, after the death of her husband, Nadav Levitan (the album "Welcome" ­ came out in 2010 just weeksafter he died, and Alberstein's last CD, "Yaldat Teva" ­ "Child of Nature" ­ featured children's songs).

In one of the new tracks ­ "Funeral Blues," a poem by W. H. Auden which Alberstein translated and superbly set to music, ­ we find ourselves smack in the midst of the sadevent itself: "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone / Prevent the dog frombarking with a juicy bone / Silence the pianos and with muffled drum / Bring out thecoffin, let the mourners come / Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead / Scribbling inthe sky the message He is Dead."

This particular funeral is not static but rather dynamic, marching, moving to the rhythm of a clumsy waltz, in a musical atmosphere that invokes klezmer but also New Orleans jazz. There is a slightly surreal feeling to it as well, which creates the necessarydistance between the artistic and the biographical, and deepens the complex and unresolved elements of the song. Those attending the funeral ­, and the listener isnaturally among them, do not march in a despondent or mortified way. They march becausethey have to, and it's not exactly clear what they are feeling. The only thing that isclear is that there is action. The deceased has died and the living march.

Throughout the album, it's not entirely clear either to the listener or perhaps to Alberstein herself what sort of feeling and what new reality have beendistilled from the loss. It is a complex emotion, difficult to decipher and s a complexreality, difficult to describe. For her part, Alberstein permits herself not to unravel the knot.

In nearly all of the songs on the new album, each in its own way, there is a fascinating tapestry of weakness and strength, tears and smiles, faith and despair. Only the lastlines of the final track which are not particularly representative of the overall spirit of the CD speak in words that are unequivocal, and drop a silent and bitter bomb: "In other words / I don't leave the room / There is no future, no life, noreason."

In its sound, rhythm and color, the album is graced with a delicate vitality, a minor-key momentum, and at times it even evokes the sense of some sort of intimatecommotion ­ even if that seems to be a contradiction in terms.

The person responsible for this wonderful musical tone is the album's producer, Tamir Muskat, of Balkan Beat Box fame. When Alberstein "cast" him, she bet on the right horse :Muskat is the most interesting producer of Israeli music in recent years and he suitsAlberstein in particular because of his super-creative way of handling material thatdraws on folk music. Muskat is adept at working with such material and blending it with current sounds so ultimately the impression is one in which the old is reallybrand new.

There are no folk songs per se on Alberstein's new album, but the five melodies she composed derive their simplicity and self-containment from that genre (there arealso four lovely melodies by Eran Weitz in that same vein, as well as one written byKorin Alal for the song "Ahava" ­– "Love" – ­ that seems simple at first, but is revealed as a convoluted gem upon further listening).

Muskat's task was to wrap the minimalist simplicity of thesongs in sounds that befit those sorts of dimensions, but also to expand the musicalhorizons and gently inject other shades of color into the music. He did that with surpassing excellence through, among other methods, especially creative handling in thepercussion department. Muskat waived the standard drumbeats and opted instead foran array of merrily rustling and babbling instruments. He thereby prevented the album from sinking into overly heavy places and reflected the mood of the lyrics, which depictsorrow with no small measure of gaiety and humor.

In "Ma At Ro'ah" ("What Do You See"), Alberstein adopts the perspective of an older woman who sits in a garden, observing younger women and feeling invisible. Alberstein is abeloved and perennially intriguing public figure, and she certainly does not feelinvisible. But it is possible she feels that her current songs, as opposed to her oldhits, do not resonate enough. It's true that they are not heard regularly on the radio, and that's a shame. "And How About You" is a great album: vital, fresh, moving and thought-provoking.

Chava Alberstein.Credit: David Bachar
Tamir Muskat, who produced Chava Alberstein's new album. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Chava Alberstein at the funeral of her husband, Nadav Levitan, in 2010.Credit: Alon Ron

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