Reading about the legendary London Yiddish Ukulele Group (LYUG) at the Open Mic in the Jewish Museum in London reminded me to write about the way I learned to sing in Yiddish. I learned those Yiddish songs by listening and singing to an audio recording, in the days leading up to the live performance.
Usually, I’d look for the sheet music and sight read it on the piano. As I could not find the sheet music for these Yiddish songs, the next best thing was to listen to it. There were many different youtube versions and I could not choose. Having missed the previous monthly rehearsals, I was not sure about the tempo and style.
I asked Steve, the leader and founder of LYUG if he could record himself and upload it somehow so I could follow.
Ukulele song sheets usually contain only text: lyrics and chord names. If you know the song already, it’s easy. If you can play the chords on ukulele, guitar, or other harmonic instruments, then you can accompany yourself while you sing.
My biggest challenge was pronouncing the words correctly. In the monthly rehearsals, Steve would recite the Yiddish lyrics and explain what they mean. Being part of the Yiddish ukulele group was not only a social experience in music making but also a learning one — songs, Yiddish language, culture, and history.
The open mic was held in the auditorium of the Jewish Museum, conveniently located a short walking distance from Camden Town tube station. Nicely air conditioned, the room filled quickly with people who knew how to speak Yiddish. I say this now because the presenters spoke Yiddish while members of the audience nodded knowingly.
On 16th September 2018, I quickly left my front row seat and tried to hide in a back row. I texted my friend Ahti frantically because I got hit with a culture shock. I panicked. The only person I knew in that room was Steve from my west London ukulele group. He had told me that he started the club last September because nothing of the sort existed in the world. There was Yiddish music. There was ukulele. But there was not a ukulele club devoted to Yiddish songs. I wanted to support him this endeavor and went to a meet-up (rehearsal) in central London.
Yet on this Sunday afternoon, it dawned on me that I did not know a single word of Yiddish. I was not remotely connected or knowledgeable about Yiddish culture and history. I simply wanted to play the ukulele and sing with a group of people. At that moment of awakening, I realised how ill prepared I was for this special event. At that time, I did not even know the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish. The latter sounded German. I could partially understand it, for German has a 50% overlap with Dutch in vocabulary.
The event reminded me of the annual overseas Chinese culture banquets I had attended as a child on Okinawa. We all spoke Mandarin Chinese and participated in activities for the occasion. Anyone who did not speak our language would probably have felt strange or even left out.
But maybe not. Maybe there are cultural junkies who like to plant themselves in such authentic cultural gatherings. Last year I stumbled upon a Diwali Festival in London.
Just before the intermission, we seven ukulele players walked to the front, right corner of the room. I did not sing as loudly as normal because I wasn’t confident of my Yiddish pronunciation. Steve had reassured me earlier not to worry. “Every one knows these songs. They will sing along.”
He was right. We provided the harmony and direction on our ukuleles. Although mainly in a minor key, each song was uplifting and fun to share.
It occurred to me that I would like to introduce songs from my culture(s) to others. I many songs in Chinese and Japanese that are suitable for ukulele accompaniment and group sing along. Every song has a story behind it. I’d like to tell that story of where I came from.