Review: Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis Returns Us to a Lost Era (March 9, Vancouver Fan Club)

(Thanks to winning a ChutziPack from, I saw this show, among several others.)

The Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis musical ensemble has a fascinating backstory. Dudu Tassa’s grandfather and his brothers were musicians in 1930s Baghdad. This was a cosmopolitan and liberal era; think of the Baghdad of Agatha Christie’s Orient Express. The Al-Kuwaiti Brothers, as they were known, became famous to the extent that they were King Faisal’s favorite entertainers. Times changed, and the Jews of the region left en masse in ensuing decades, many to Israel, where Dudu Tassa was born. The family history is described on the group website:  (A YouTube perusal revealed that Dudu Tassa also has Yemenite heritage, another culture with an amazing musical tradition.)

As always when I attend a performance where I don’t understand the language of the singers, I have more space to feel the emotions underlying the music, both vocal and instrumental. The Arabic influence is always present, but the group has incorporated many contemporary elements into their work too, including rave-like bits. For one performance, they wore what looked like pink and blue headlamps.There’s no mistaking the rich and multi-layered Middle Eastern sound 

Egyptian woman singer Umm-Kultum, a superstar in Egypt during her career from the 1930s to her death in 1975, specifically asked the Al-Kuwaiti brothers to compose a song for her. I had vaguely heard of her, and YouTube came through again, so you can see her wonderful performance (even allowing for antiquated recording technology). Sadly, I don’t know if it’s the Al-Kuwaiti’s song or not.

Review: Ljova and the Kontraband (March 9, Chutzpah Festival, Norman Rothstein Theatre)

(Thanks to for the ticket!)

Lev (Ljova) Zhurbin (yes, the son of the famous Russian composer), a violist, and his wife, Inna Barmash, a folk vocalist in multiple languages, joined forces with several other musicians to form Ljova and the Kontraband. With a viola and an accordion (played by Patrick Farrell), two of my favorite instruments, plus a double bass (played by a woman, Jordan Morton) and a percussionist (Mathias Kunzli) with numerous rhythm and noise-making instruments that he deftly switches between, I was hooked before they sang a note. 

Georgia Straight has some more background on this group.

(I want to love, I want to suffer)

Ljova has done work for film, and the group played some of those works. Barmash got her start as a Yiddish singer, and she did a couple songs in Yiddish (with heart-wrenching themes like the sight of a lover on the river’s far bank, with eyes full of tears, and an angry rant to a man who has destroyed a young girl’s engagement to her beloved would-be groom), a poem from the Middle Ages in Old German, translated into Russian (and Inna read it to us in English also), another poem in English set to a score Zhurbin wrote, and finally a Russian Gypsy tune (“I want to love, I want to suffer”). The medieval poem was so very contemporary in its themes, referring to lies and corruption and deceit prevalent in the world. 

Although klezmer and Yiddish music are clearly significant influences, you can hear jazz, swing, tango, and other sounds in the mix as well. Zhurbin clearly feels no requirement to be bound by genre or nationality when he composes music. This often produced the effect of, “I’m sure I’ve heard this song before”, but I suspect that I had heard some of the influencers before. 

Although many people shy away from the front row, I found it a great spot for close observation of the musicians. Watching Kunzli switch from one instrument to another was enjoyable, and Morton’s footwork in her hightop lace-up Doc Martens (or that’s what they looked like) while playing was fun to see also. 

Inna Barmash referred several times to a collection of Yiddish music from western Ukraine that was collected in the 1930s. I think she means this collection, but I’m not sure. 

The Chutzpah Festival always brings many great musicians to town, and they have kept up this tradition this year!

Review: Hirsch (at the Firehall) – Take 2

Following the informative and insightful review by my colleague, not to mention several others that have appeared in the last day, is there anything more to say about Hirsch, currently playing at the Firehall for the next few nights?

I couldn’t resist. This is one of those plays that has an incredible intensity such that it stays with you for days afterwards, and I had to talk about it too. John Hirsch, as a director, continually went inside the minds of the characters. Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertold Brecht, tells the incredible suffering caused by war to civilians. Hirsch, in a very moving scene, explains to his actors how they must feel the crushing weight of all the suffering that wars have caused, not to soldiers, but to civilians. But behind that, of course, one cannot help but feel Hirsch’s own civilian suffering as a barely-teenage Holocaust survivor, who suffered the loss (the murders) of his parents, his brother, his grandparents, but somehow himself escaped and subsequently spent the war and the period thereafter with gangs of boys who stole and ran and fled to survive.  

Director Paul Thompson and actor Alon Nashman discuss the legendary John Hirsch.” Continue reading

The 2014 Chutzpah! Festival presents Hirsch (February 26, 2014)

John Hirsch is a monolith in Canadian theatre. A co-founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, he started an establishment that would be a standard-bearer for many regional theatres across North America. Additionally, he was a reputed director, notably serving as the head of television drama with CBC and also as the artistic director for the Stratford festival. However, for all his accomplishments, much like everything cultural that stays in Canada, not many people, including Canadians, have actually heard of him before.

Until recently. Hirsch, which debuted at the 2012 Stratford Festival, is a one-man biographical show which helps to shed light on the character that helped to shape Canadian drama. Performed by Alon Nashman, Hirsch is a collection of vignettes of the life of the title subject. Dramatic, witty, and always active, Nashman brings you into his universe, where he acts both as storyteller and dramatic actor, spinning a tale which recaptures the greatness and humanity of a man who was at turns honored, feared and reviled in acting circles.

(Hirsch, promo video)

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