“Tumbalalaika” is one of the most famous Yiddish folk songs of all time — perhaps because, as Peter Seeger said in this beautiful video, in which he sang the song with Jewish folklorist Ruth Rubin, it’s chorus is so easy to sing along to.
“Tumbalalaika” is a love song — a set of riddles asked by a boy to a girl, maybe his future bride. The answers the woman provides to these riddles have a sort of sassy flair, as if their answer is obvious. The chorus of the song is about the sound of the balalaika, a traditional Russian string instrument.
I grew up hearing “Tumbalalaika” at most Jewish events, and it always gives me warm, nostalgic feelings. Rogers Park Band, who call themselves the only Hasidic folk band, recently recorded a new version of the song which they have been “singing since we could carry a tune.” In the new rendition, they mix the original Yiddish lyrics with some English translation.
The Jewish duo, originally from Chicago, have embarked on a project to revive Yiddish songs called #BringYiddishBack. They’ve also released a dramatic video which goes along with the new song, directed by Atara Wolf. It was recorded in New Jersey’s Menzel Violins shop. Instead of focusing on the Russian string instrument the song is named after, this dramatic video and new cover of the song features a beautiful violin solo.
It’s not the first time the song’s lyrics were reinterpreted in another language — there’s a Hebrew translation of the song, and many, many covers of it, including a metal one from the Israeli band Gevolt (yes, that’s a mix of the Yiddish gevalt and revolt).
I don’t think this new cover beats The Barry Sisters’ version. While I do understand that Rogers Park is a Hasidic band, and therefore can’t feature women’s voices, I do ultimately prefer versions of this song that feature women vocalists. It’s all about a woman outsmarting a man, after all — or at the very least, putting him in his place.
Still, Rogers Park has produced a very inspired and beautifully made cover from a band that reverently transmutes Jewish and Yiddish tradition into song, like their excellent “Chelm,” which is about the legendary European town of Jewish fools that’s the basis for a future TV series helmed by Sasha Baron Cohen.