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The Masthead

Pity the poor satirist with his head on the block screaming “I was only joking” beneath the executioner’s falling axe. Yet in the moment of his death, painfully aware that nothing can save him now, his lips tighten into a rictus grin as he goes to the grave in the knowledge that his final gag is the one around his mouth preventing his last words from being heard. Only his own ears might hear them, but the irony erases the ignominy of losing his head for the very act of losing his head, so to speak, the night he was on a roll performing at the court of the king, when the laughter suddenly stopped and he realised he’d gone too far.

Me, I began laughing until it hurt when I read the title of a track on Ha-Hunkvot, the new CD by Shofar: “To Think More Positively About Germans”. Shofar are a Polish trio featuring guitarist Raphael Roginski, saxophonist and clarinet player Mikolaj Trzaska and drummer Macio Moretti. They formed in 2006 with the aim of disinterring the music of those lost Jewish songbooks destroyed during the holocaust or the pogroms that preceded and post-dated the Nazi occupation of Europe. If that ambition sounds somewhat solemn, Shofar’s recreations of Hassidic melodies from the Ukraine, Poland and Moldova are way too playful and exuberant to earn the trio a life sentence of being condemned to forever wander, playing worthy but dull roots festivals the world over.

Shofar are defiantly not one of the ‘village funerals, wedding parties, anything’ klezmer bands that became popular on the roots circuit after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe re-opened the songbooks of Jewish history closed first by the Nazis’ genocide policies and then largely kept shut due to the Soviet-ruled Warsaw Pact states’ hostile position towards Israel. That said, Roginski has stated that Shofar’s starting point was a compendium of Hassidic melodies from the Ukraine, Poland and Moldova compiled by an early 20th century Soviet musicologist, Moshe Beregovsky, who’d travelled around central Europe collecting songs from communities later annihilated by the Nazis. Much of Beregovksy’s anthology consists of fragments, rather than full songs, a few words scribbled down in an exercise book or three or four notes hastily sketched into a tune. The strength of Shofar’s music resides in the fact that they’ve got so little source material to work from, they have no choice but to completely re-imagine it rather than painstakingly re-enact scenes from the past in the rosy glow of nostalgia.

On Ha-Hunkvot, their second album following a self-titled 2007 debut, they forensically construct whole new bodies of music around the few surviving bones and sinews they recovered from the songbooks, and then shock them into movement with a contrary spirit compounded from the Shofar members’ different temperaments. Free improvisor Trzaska’s sax and clarinet parts might refer the music back to its klezmatic roots, but guitarist Roginski combines his personal love of psychedelia with a deep musicological knowledge that allows him to make great play of finding a commonality in klezmatic melody and Sufi trance. The resulting music on Ha-Hunkvot is sunburnt and lean, by turns weary and mesmerising, immediately familiar yet difficult to place. Like 17 Pygmies’ cover version of the Lawrence Of Arabia theme (see Nick Southgate’s review in Boomerang), it is at once epic in scope while all the time revealing the minimal resources from which it has been parsimoniously pulled together. And though the music itself rarely breaks into laughter, track titles like “I Will Eat You Tomorrow” and “You + Cookie = Happiness” give testimony to the group humour rippling beneath its austere surface. And what about “To Think More Positively About Germans”? It sounds like sand falling on a coffin, topped with the rattle of wind rustling a wisp of cloth hanging on a strand of barbed wire. Not a song of forgiving or forgetting then. The title raises a smile but the music says can your laughter for a little while longer: it’s still time to remember. Chris Bohn


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