Frank London: Ghetto Songs

The Sound of Walls

Listening Post 311. It’s not news that great music emerges from dire circumstances, but bravissimo to Frank London, composer, trumpeter and co-founder of the Klezmatics (among myriad exploits) for his new album, a breathtaking journey through the ghettos of history. In 2016, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Venice Ghetto, Beit Venezia, an institution dedicated to the lagoon city’s Jewish culture, invited London as an artist-in-residence to study, compose and elaborate on the Jewish musical heritage. The sojourn resulted in the first-ever production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice inside the historic ghetto; a landmark 2019 concert embracing ghetto experiences through time; and the 12-track album released in April 2021. Ghetto Songs is defined not by one artist or period but by timeless walls of intolerance (trailer video 1). The genres and voices of London’s 10-master ensemble (including three Grammy winners) shape a musical cornucopia of Renaissance, traditional liturgy, folk, opera and rock; historic songs, new compositions and pairings of new melodies with older texts, performed in five languages. Venice is the project hub but stops include the Marrakesh mellah, World War II ghettos in Poland, African-American enclaves and South Africa’s apartheid-era townships. Oppression and—in the case of the Nazi-era—genocide are never far from the surface, but London concentrates on the less-explored aspect of cobblestones and asphalt as fertile cultural ground for expressions of defiance and hope, lament and faith, love and life’s parade. Every track is a unique facet. Highlights include the Italian O dolcezz’amarissime (Bittersweet Love, video 2) and the Yiddish Minutn fun bitokhn (Moments of Hope, video 3) by a composer killed in the Krakow Ghetto. Ma’oz Tsur (My Rock and Redeemer, video 4) is a traditional Hanukkah hymn of thanksgiving and salvation with a Venetian melody; while Tahì Tahà is a jaunty portrayal, in Judeo-Venetian, of ghetto common folk and celebrities (video 5). Like Maya Angelou’s caged bird singing, “in the struggle lies the joy.” (Felmay)

Frank London: Ghetto Songs (Venice and Beyond)
Frank London: Music director, trumpet
Karim Sulayman: Vocals
Cantor Svetlana “Sveta” Kundish: Vocals
Cantor Yaakov “Yanky” Lemmer: Vocals
Brandon Ross: Guitar, vocals
Marika Hughes: Cello
Ilya Shneyveys: Accordion, piano, organ
Gregg August: Bass
Kenny Wollesen: Drums
Rachid Halihal: Oud, violin

Note. The 2016 impetus for Ghetto Songs was the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Venice Ghetto. The album was released on April 19, 2021, the 78th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


Ghetto Songs trailer
The Ghetto Songs trailer is from Frank London and ensemble’s March 2019 concert at Venice’s Teatro Goldoni. Included in the video are four tracks from the album: O dolcezz’amarissime (full song below); La Barcheta (The Little Boat, lyrics by Pietro Buratti, music by Reynaldo Hahn) a c.1900 love song to Venice; Nirdi Natan Rekḥo (The Air Carries My Fragrance, by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Musa), a seventeenth century poem incorporated into the morning Jewish prayer in Marrakesh; and The World Is a Ghetto (music and lyrics by War), the 1973 rock-soul anthem. Also included are other pieces from the Ghetto Songs repertoire that are not on the album.


O dolcezz’amarissime  / Bittersweet Love
Text: Luzzasco Luzzaschi / Music: Solomone Rossi

Seventeenth-century love song by by Salomone de Rossi, the leading leading Jewish composer of the late Italian Renaissance and court musician of the Gonzaga rulers of Mantua. Rossi was also active in Venice, where he published his collections of music and where he interacted with the famed Rabbi Leone de Modena and possibly with Sara Copio Sullam, protagonists of the ghetto’s cultural life.

(From the Italian lyrics)
O very bitter sweetness of love/This is my heart
This is my fate that I languish more/When it brings me suffering if I do not rejoice
Flee love, lovers! Love, the friend/O what an iron enemy
When it pierces you, then it laughs

Send your laments on that breeze which sweetly aids you
Do not believe in appearances
What appears soft is sharp and cruel
And is least disarmed when it is most naked


Minutn fun bitokhn / Moments of Hope / מינוטן פֿון בּטחון
Lyrics & Music: Mordechai Gebirtig

Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942), author of hundreds of folk songs in Poland between the two world wars, is now regarded as the most important composer of folk-style Yiddish songs. He was killed in the Krakow ghetto by the Nazis on the infamous “Bloody Thursday” of June 4, 1942.

(From the Yiddish lyrics)
Jews, let us be cheerful!/It won’t be long, I hope —
The war will soon be over/And soon their end will come.

Be cheerful and don’t worry!/Don’t carry on in grief
Have patience and have confidence/Take hard times in your stride

Remember: patience, confidence/Don’t let slip away
Those ancient weapons that unite/Our people to this day!

Revel, dance, you hangmen!/It won’t be long, I hope
Once there was a Haman/His fate awaits you, too
Revel, dance, you hangmen/Jews know what suffering means
The most demanding labor/Won’t tire us in the least

“Sweep!” you tell us? So we’ll sweep!/But as long as you remain
There is no point to sweeping/This place will not come clean!
“Wash!” you tell us? So we’ll wash!/But Cain’s red mark,
And the blood from Abel’s heart/Cannot be washed away

Drive us from our homes!/Cut away our beards!
Jews, let us be cheerful?We’ll see them go to hell!


Ma’oz Tsur / Rock of Ages / מָעוֹז צוּר
Lyrics: Traditional liturgy / Music: Benedetto Marcello

A traditional poem, probably written in the thirteenth century, sung after lighting candles during the eight days of Hanukkah. Benedetto Marcello wrote this melody in the seventeenth century. Born in Venice, Marcello, who was not Jewish, was a composer and musicologist who transcribed traditional Italian Jewish melodies, for which he frequently visited the ghetto.

(From the Hebrew lyrics)
My Refuge, my Rock of Salvation!
It is pleasant to sing Your praises
Let our house of prayer be restored,
And there we will offer You our thanks.
When You will have slaughtered the barking foe
Then we will celebrate with song and psalm the altar’s dedication.


Tahì Tahà
Lyrics: Momolo Mandolin / Music: Frank London

Venetian Jews from the past observe the parade of personalities walking through the ghetto, ordinary people as well as celebrities such as the writer and poet Sara Copio Sullam and Rabbi Leone de Modena. The viewers’ comments are in the Judeo-Venetian parlance that developed in the ghetto over the centuries. Momolo Mandolin is the name chosen by a group of modern Venetian Jews who collected old family sayings and personal memories to compose a new song celebrating this rich local linguistic tradition.

(From the Judeo-Venetian lyrics)
Look at that fellow, walking/He seems totally clueless
Building castles in the air/He roams around the Ghetto
“Stay here, the world out there Is full of evil”
“But if I stay in the Ghetto it’s nothing but misery”
Tahì tahà/We’re all one family

Look at Rabbi Yehuda (Leon de Modena) with all his books
He wrote them with good will/But he gambled away all the money
Look at the young Sara (Sarra Copio Sullam)/The clever and wise woman
She used to write poetry for the Christians/
She was buggered by the thieves
Tahì tahà/We’re all one family


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