Litvakus | Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus

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Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus

by Litvakus

Litvakus' first full-length album following years of Zisl Slepovitch's research and creative work, capturing the beauty of the lost and rediscovered Belarusian Litvak Jewish (Yiddish) music and featuring Zisl's originals written in the spirit of it.
Genre: World: Klezmer
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. Freylekhs and Kolomeyke
5:37 $0.99
2. Khosidl - Es Vet Zayn Sheyn Un Fayn
6:06 $0.99
3. Chashnik
2:31 $0.99
4. Shuster / Mikita / Retales in Freygish
3:50 $1.29
5. Yosele Kokhantshik
3:34 $0.99
6. Zisl's Sher & Karahod
4:08 $0.99
7. Q Train Volekh
3:36 $0.99
8. Hey Antoshe!
3:13 $1.29
9. Retale Suite
3:59 $0.99
10. Propoisk Suite
5:47 $0.99
11. Batska Batska
1:34 $0.99
12. Chajka-Žydoŭka - Žydoŭskaha
2:57 $1.29
13. Zayt Gezunt
3:11 $0.99
14. Blaybt Unz Gezunt
3:24 $1.29
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
“All ethnic groups [of Belarus] bear the impress of the Belarusian soil.”
Nasza Niwa (1912).

This album was created to revitalize a body of incredibly beautiful yet long forgotten sounds - the unique musical voices of the Jews of Belarus and their ethnic Belarusian neighbors. Luckily for us, the efforts of pioneering ethnographers over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries have rescued portions of this canon for posterity. The album also introduces new original songs and instrumentals composed by Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, inspired by the peoples and land of Belarus.

The Litvak Jews, with historic cultural ties to the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Belarusians, also called "Litvins," have shared a common East European homeland for over 700 years. This land is currently known as Belarus, its name rendered in Yiddish as "Vaysrusland" (literally "White Russia") or "Raysn" [rye-sn], a word derivative of the old Russian “Rus.” Swamps and lakes cover much of the Belarusian geography, and the unique ecology has impacted the traditions resident here across cultures: features such as drone accompaniment, echo-oriented projection and harmonized singing.

Belarus lies on the crossroads of numerous important trade and military routes, and throughout history this land has been coveted by conquerors and colonists from both the West and the East. To evade reprisals from tyrannical overlords, Slavic Belarusians, Belarusian Jews and Muslim Tatars, have oft resorted to downplaying their geographic identities, identifying themselves as “tuteyshyia” (Belarusian— “the locals”). Despite conditions that have rarely been conducive for cultural
innovation, diverse ethnic and faith groups in Belarus have produced distinctive artistic heritages.
Through war, political and economic tumult would render many of these seriously endangered by the end of the 1930’s.

Despite fundamental differences in doctrine, Belarusian and Jewish cultures have developed a number of common cultural denominators exhibited through languages, food, costume, folk art, and music. In his 1918 pamphlet “The Jews in Belarus” the prominent Belarusian-Jewish writer Zmitrok Biadulia (Samuil Plavnik) noted, “Over the time of the Belarusians’ and the Jews’ coexistence… these two ethnic groups have adopted a lot from each other. In language, customs, legends, architecture, and everyday life their expressions got so intermingled that, especially with the Jews, they have acquired a new characteristic tinge.”

The tight bonds Belarusians and Litvak Jews hold with the land’s ecology and common history have played a crucial role in their cultural convergence - evident in each other's songs, fairytales, music repertoire and cuisine. The Litvak Jews have created a unique soundscape that borrows a number of elements from their coterritorialists, including certain Belarusian instrumental genres, regional musical instruments, the use of drone accompaniment and a distinctive performing style characterized by emotional restraint. Through these borrowings, many Litvak Yiddish folksongs continue to carry the flavor of the land where they were created and sung. Additionally, as in other regions of Central and Eastern Europe, Litvak Jewish musicians often participated in multi-ethnic bands performing at weddings and various community events.

The assimilationist policies implemented by Russian and Polish authorities over different epochs has resulted in scarce documentation of both Belarusian and Litvak Jewish cultural traditions. Sadly, the political environment hindered documentation of folklore even during the 20th century when recording technology became available and significant traditional practices and beliefs survived the pre-industrial era. In the early 1910’s the members of the St. Petersburg based Society for Jewish Folk Music and Jewish Ethnographic Society, among them Zinoviy Kiselgof, Joel Engel, and S.An-ski made the first field recordings of Belarusian and Ukrainian Jews in Vitebsk, Podolye, and Kiev gubernia. However, the only two long-term ethnographic studies focused on the musical traditions of Belarusian and Ukrainian Jews were not carried out until the 1920’s and 30’s. The two prominent names associated with these collections are Moisey (Moyshe) Beregovsky and Sophia Magid. Magid's archive contains the largest cache of materials that are useful in partially recreating the sonic world of Litvak Jewry. In addition, there are a handful of other collections that documented the post-traditional period, including that by the present author and Nina Stepanskaya. Other relevant important sources are the collections of the Belarusian and Polish traditional music, particularly those by Inna Nazina and Andrzej Bieńkowski. Both researchers provide documentation of popular Jewish repertoire played by Jews and non-Jews alike, and shed light on the image of Jews held by Belarusians and Poles as expressed through their music.

This album is for listening but it may just as well lead to dancing. It is for fun and for learning, for personal reflection and sharing. But most of all— it is here to give the uniquely beautiful Litvak Jewish music a voice in the modern world.

Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, Ph.D.



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