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YID! is a wild Melbourne-based ensemble whose daring fusion of traditional Yiddish tunes with elements of electronic dance music, Weimar Republic cabaret, free jazz, indie pop and big band flourishes – plus a dash of late – 70s funk – demands to be seen, heard and danced to! The 23 – piece YID! mixes tribal beats, improvised riffs and angelic vocals, channeling the sweet tunes of traditional Eastern European folkloric songs. Ahead of YID!’s WOMADelaide appearance, Mark Moray chats to the ensemble’s organiser and bass player Simon Starr.

Mark Moray – The name YID! where did the origin of the name come from, and does it relate to the style of music that the band plays?

Simon Starr – Well yes. I mean the obvious connection is that we play music that is in Yiddish but in terms of the YID with the apostrophe! is that it came about after I lived in Israel for six and half years. I returned to Australia at the end of 2015-2016 and as I’ve been through the times of having grown up in Australia being Jewish and experienced antisemitism quite a bit, although in Australia it’s not terrible but it’s very subtle and it’s there all the time, so it was just wonderful being a country like Israel where you know that day to day there was no anti-Semitism at all, and I just felt really comfortable, happy and proud being who I was. When I came back, I was just trying to bring a bit of that spirit and start again as I am Jewish and therefore the name of the band became known as YID!.

After YID! performed in Canada, we were going to play in New York and the promoter met with us and he said he really loved the band and he really loved everything about it, but he wanted us to change name because we couldn’t have a name that’s going to draw a lot of anti-Semitism in America. Probably most people would have just changed the band name, but I just couldn’t do it, so instead of having a big and successful tour in America, we didn’t go. I just didn’t want to change the name because I did not want to pretend that I am not Jewish or that we are not Jewish anymore.

MM – It was very brave of you to do that (not tour America) especially in an industry where musicians are trying to make a name for themselves and where touring is an important part of that. To have such a strong belief, is that where the passion of Yiddish came from?

SS – That was more accidental than anything else. When I moved back from Israel I wanted to survive spiritually and psychologically, and in order to do I had to bring some of that energy of Israel with me. The music scene there is just absolutely unbelievably great, so I was looking for something to do that was nice. When I met with Willy (Zygier) he suggested tongue in cheek that I start a Yiddish big band, and just because I’m the sort of person who would say “yeah maybe I’ll do it” it was going to be like death before dishonour. So, I felt like I had to do it (create YID!). I didn’t speak Yiddish before that other than some swear words so once it was done that was it. Friends of mine were excited by the idea, or curious about the idea or had nothing better to do, so they came along for the ride.

MM – So, you have created a band which has a 20 piece ensemble (actually it’s a 22-piece band with two techs), that’s what I call a big band. I mean you have amazing musicians Willy Zygier (Deborah Conway) Husky Guwenda, (Husky) and Alex Burkoy (Tinpan Orange) just to name a few, how difficult was it to choose which musicians gets to play in the band?

SS – Originally there were more people in the band but then one person couldn’t make a gig and then another one couldn’t make a gig, and I just felt I couldn’t be bothered calling them back anymore, but in terms of who to choose was extremely adhoc. When I came back from Israel I wasn’t working at all. I came back to nothing and then ran into a friend of mine who I played with for years but not seen for years and then I thought how am I going to hang out with these people. I didn’t have a party announcing I’m back, so I started YID! and just kept asking everyone I ran into to see if they wanted to play and join this band expecting most people to say no, but everyone said yes.

MM – How amazing. Now that you have your Big Band, how many different instruments are used in YID!

SS – Well, there is an 8-piece horn section, the trombone and trumpet musicians only play trombone and trumpet where the saxophonists also play clarinet and flute. Then there’s two guitars, two keyboards, there’s a guy on beats, samples, and loops a sort of DJ, drums, percussion, violin, three female singers (the Zygier sisters – Alma, Hettie and Syd), and then there is Husky who sings and plays guitar, so that’s another guitar and finally there’s a spoken word person in Tomi Kalinski.

MM – There aren’t too many big bands now a days as it was in the 30’s & 40’s such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway, so do you think the current culture of music is missing out?

SS – I think the current culture is missing a lot of things, but it also has got a lot of positives but the experience of feeling the power of 20 plus people playing what would be considered as a high art thing such as orchestras for which most kids are typically disengage from that. You don’t get that power from just someone in front of a laptop or the power of the volume but there’s something very visceral about seeing 22 people doing their thing at the same time. It’s like watching the footy on television or being at the actual game. At the game when you are at the fence you can actually feel the hits and see how hard and far they kick the ball, how high they take a mark which is very different to watching something on television where you are so disembodied in and disengaged in. Even more so these days with headphones and often streaming so the answer is yes.

MM – Let’s go back to 2018. You released your debut album “YID”. One of the songs ‘Der Boxer’ which is a Yiddish translation of the song ‘The Boxer’ by Simon & Garfunkel. What drew you to this song that made you record it on to this album, and what challenges did you come across when you were arranging the music? (Arranged by Simon Starr)

SS – So, we had what we considered were Yiddish standards that were going to play. Not exactly Waltzing Matilda but I felt like we needed something from the later years, and I wanted it to be a story type of song and by a Jewish composer. We looked at a few different ones. We looked at Bob Dylan “Tangled up in Blue” and “Hurricane” and the longer “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. There were other longer form of songs from artists like Leonard Cohen, but “The Boxer” seemed appealing because (a) it has this easy sing along chorus and (b) once it was translated into Yiddish, it translated so well to the idea of all the Jewish refugees that came from Eastern Europe and moved to New York. It felt like it became this sort of quintessential New York Jewish experience overall and as part of that story.  In terms of arranging it musically, well that wasn’t hard as we just changed a few chords and built it up and had a solo, but in terms of actually getting the song recorded, I applied to Paul Simon’s record company and they said no, but by this stage we actually recorded the album. Suddenly I was in the position of the fact that we had already printed the CDs, so we were questioning if we were going to scrap all of that, or get the permission somehow. So it turned out that the philosopher Peter Singer’s wife Renata is very involved in the Yiddish cultural scene, and at the time she was the boss of Kadima, which is huge cultural organisation in Melbourne. Peter Singer happens to be a good friend of Paul Simon as he spends half his year in America on the East Coast anyway, so he asked Paul Simon personally and then his brother who manages him (Paul Simon) gave us back message that Paul had heard our version and really likes it and he gives us his approval. We later found out that as a blanket rule, Paul has never given approval to translations of his work. So that was that was a real stroke of luck, like an 11th hour reprieve, but it is also a bit of a tiny little pat on the back where we felt pretty good.

MM – Kol Hakavod (well done) to you because that is amazing. It really is and that I’ve listened to that song quite a few times. There’s something emotional about listening to that song when it’s sung in Yiddish. Last year YID ran a campaign to raise money for a new album called ‘Zets’. How did the recording go and how different is it from the first album? 

SS – Well actually I finished the mastering last night, so it’s a timely question. I listened to it all the way through for the first time this morning, so the recording itself and the material was different, to what we had in the original music using Yiddish text. We have original text in there as well. We have rap over one of the songs which the challenge was not to make it tokenistic, and not to pretend to be gangsters like we were brought up in East LA. We just wanted to be ourselves and still enjoy having a little tour around the world. We had new things to say, so we had to write out our own music and we did some of the spoken word stuff differently. That was the initial thing, and then before the recording, I got really inspired by a Beastie Boys album called “Paul’s Boutique” which is considered the “Sgt. Peppers” of samples. That particular album was the first time that an entire album had been constructed by only using samples. There’s not a single live instrument that was played, but it sounds like a band with an orchestra at times, and with all these different samples they just constructed the record with two seconds of this record mixed with one second of a totally different record mixed with three seconds of this record sped up a bit so it was in the same key, and a friend of mine sent me a YouTube video that goes for 20 minutes and explains every song, where every sample comes from, and it became some kind of mind blowing lightbulb moment for me. So Husky, Josh Abrahams, Gid and I from the band, with Marty Lubran a friend of ours, we found about 100 of Yiddish records from the sacred to the profane, from comedians, choirs and some religious music recordings. Amongst some of those records, we found some field recordings of religious music from early 20th century which sounded really crappy. There were also recordings from around the Arab world by Jews from Iraq all saying the same thing. We got all these different sounds and we chopped up bits that we liked into tiny little pieces, and then we had the band record on top of that, underneath it and inside it.  We added all these bits of Yiddish culture that we found of radio ads from New York from the 1930’s. We found poets from the 1920s reading the their poems and saying all this stuff, and so instead of it just being like a little bit of salt you add to a meal, it became an absolute integral ingredient with you know with lots of flavour. The other thing was that Josh and I spent probably the month of January for roughly four or five days a week, every week (including last week) in his studio mixing it, because we hadn’t been able to do it together beforehand due to lock down and restrictions. We recorded most of the album in April 2021 where we spent the time getting the band sounding good and then we thought how we are going to integrate these samples. So, we just spent the month putting the samples in while trying to tell another story in the song, and what the Yiddish samples were saying by using different words, chopping them up, using them ironically, and using them literally. Josh Abrahams has this one of a kind of synthesiser collection that is so diverse, so I wanted to include every single one of them on the album. I wanted it to have a bit of a story. A story about where YID! came from and where it’s going to, or where it could go in order of keeping true to the YID! charter of having one foot in the past and one foot sprinting towards the future. As a result, the album is very different to the first one. Maybe we would be tiptoeing towards the future with the last album, but this time it’s a giant step.

MM – When will “Zet’s” be ready for purchasing?

SS – Well because of the direction of some members in the band, we decided we would also make a movie. It’s going to be a visual album that accompanies the recorded album. It’s going to be a fiction in black and white all in Yiddish, based on a true story from Odessa in the Ukraine about a real guy who was the Jewish Robin Hood in the pre and current communist era, who is like a bit of a cowboy. Hopefully this movie should be completed by August 2022. In the meantime, the CD’s are going to be printed and ready by the time of the performance at WOMADelaide, but we are not going to release it digitally until the movie is ready, and then we’re going to launch the album and the movie together and perform it as a live soundtrack.

MM – Speaking of WOMADelaide, will this be the first time YID! will be playing there, and if so, do you and the band have any expectations?

SS – No, we actually played there in 2018.  (YID! played their first gig in March of 2017). By virtue of just the sheer size of the band, audiences were impressed by how many musicians could get on to the stage and play Yiddish. It was sort of like a bit of a freak show circus, and so Annette who was the artistic director at WOMADelaide at the time got a wind of it from a few different sources. So, we started talking about it and so that was when the first album was recorded because I thought we needed to have an album for WOMAD. We quickly recorded and mixed the album, and as the actual print didn’t come back from the CD printers in time, we had to have someone to go pick them up and bring them to Adelaide as we already had left. I didn’t know if they were going to arrive in time, but they did. Annette really took a chance on us because the last gig we did before WOMAD was our third gig ever, and there were moments during that third gig while we were playing watching people dancing and going crazy, and I said to Willy, I can’t tell if this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard, and he just sort of raised his eyebrows like yeah me neither. I thought we are a disgraceful rabble you know and there’s no there’s no shape or form in this at all. It was so embarrassingly bad, but the audience thought otherwise, but I was not convinced.

Anyway, the WOMAD gig really got us focused on trying to put together a show which I think we partly succeeded in. I mean, it wasn’t helped by the fact that it was recorded as being 50 degrees on stage that day. All the guitarists were re-tuning after every song and you go a semitone out because it was so hot. As a result of that gig, someone offered for us to go perform in Toronto. By the time we got to Toronto we sort of felt like an accomplished band. We had a show. We sort of knew what we were now doing between songs, and everything since then had settled into a much more impactful unit than when we first played WOMAD even though that first WOMADelaide gig was a real-life highlight.

MM – Since WOMADelaide 2018, are there any new expectations that you may have this time around considering that YID! is now a more complete band?

SS – Yeah well, we’ve recorded a second album now. We’ve got material that is more organised, and we have played some more shows including playing overseas. Having said that, we haven’t performed since March last year because of Covid19, so the WOMADelaide show will be our first show in a year, and we’ve only got two rehearsals until then, but I trust the musicians because they’re all great, and they are all going to bring their A game, and it’s going to absolutely explode with passion.

MM – Well the band is certainly full of great musicians including Willy and his three daughters (Alma, Hettie and Syd).

SS – It’s fantastic. I mean this is sort of the last hurrah for them because Alma and Hettie are both relocating overseas. So, it’s going to be kind of a historic changing of the guard. Well, the guard wouldn’t have changed yet, it but it’s going to be the last sort of thing Hettie and Alma do with YID!.

MM – After WOMADelaide, what is next on the agenda for YID?

SS – Well, we are going to make this film, which is in development at the moment. The treatment is being done and there is a production team. There is location scouting. Someone is doing the storyboard and the drawings, where we are at the point of going to investors and getting together. This is all going to be done properly and hopefully by July this year and then August, September, we will launch the album together with the film. So that’s a significant project. I’ve never made a film longer than 4 minutes, so I’ve got no idea how much involvement it takes. I’m sure it’s a lot, and then from there we’re going to try and market the idea of the live soundtrack with the film to Arts festivals around the world.

MM – That is a big project that you are taking on, so I wish you well. Certainly it’ll be wonderful to see YID! perform it live once it’s all completed, and I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys and at WOMADelaide in a few weeks’ time.

SS – We’re pumped and thanks for thanks for being interested and interesting which is by no means taken for granted when giving interviews so thank you very much.

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