Fiddler shares Yiddish music’s cultural inspiration

By Hailey Ruderman
Correspondent

History and culture have always influenced music, and the Jewish tradition is only one example.

Through her violin, award-winning musician Alicia Svigals tells the musical tale of the Yiddish language’s impact on Jewish culture during the latest Brown Bag in Mayo Concert Hall on Nov. 17. Students and staff had the opportunity to watch Svigals perform with her violin alongside student musicians.

Svigals uses her music to illustrate the connection between music and Yiddish, a hybrid language mainly made up of German, Aramaic and Hebrew, that was spoken by European Jews.

Svigals has been featured on MTV along with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and performs regularly at festivals around the country.

Svigals performs alongside students. (Emily Lo / Staff Photographer)

Svigals was well versed in the history of Yiddish folk music, as it had a direct impact on her culture growing up. Most of Svigals’ sounds on her violin mimicked the vocal range and tone of a cantor in prayer, which was a common aspect of religious customs practiced by many Yiddish speakers.

While some pieces harked back to the music’s somber religious roots, other pieces had hints of more celebratory songs common in Jewish culture. She shared one of her favorite songs, which she believed sounds a lot like the “Horah,” a song played at Jewish events. It had a very upbeat and folksy sound.

Early instruments used in songs like the “Horah” had a strong influence on her music.

“Drums and brass were extremely popular in the early centuries,” Svigals said. “They are very traditional when you listen to the old-world sounds.”

Richard Chachowski, a freshman journalism major, enjoyed both the lecture and the performance.

“It was definitely something I have never really attended before,” Chachowski said. “I thought it was an interesting way to demonstrate her talents and get people excited to talk about that kind of music.”

Svigals later put on a more Americanized version of Yiddish folk music. She incorporated various elements of jazz music, which differentiated it from traditional folk songs often played in minor keys, according to Svigals.

The songs in minor are often derived from tribulations that Jews faced throughout history — both as a religious group and on a personal level. In the Jewish tradition, musicians used to play somber music on the day of a bride’s wedding so that she could express her sadness before walking down the aisle. Marriages in this culture were often arranged and the music served as a cathartic acknowledgement as she started a new chapter in her life as a married woman.

Asianna Hall, a freshman chemistry major, was fascinated to learn about different customs in religions and how it influenced music at the time.

“It was interesting to hear different music from another culture,” Hall said. “It was also interesting to hear the music coming from someone of the new culture.”

Svigals played more songs for the audience, comparing them to songs she had already played.

After Svigals was done with her presentation, she opened the floor for questions, where she was asked about what first intrigued her about playing the violin.

“My parents made me play the instrument,” Svigals said.

As a child, her parents sent her to a Yiddish school, even though she didn’t feel that religious.

“You’re playing this,” her parents told her as they handed her a fiddle.

Svigals soon grew connected to the genre of music, and the heritage it has represented for generations.

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