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Meeting Up with Myself

After sending out a call for new songs, Shmueli listened to hundreds of demos in his quest for the 12 perfect tracks

Meeting up with Myself

Unless you spent Purim under a rock, chances are you’re already singing SHMUELI UNGAR’s newest songs from his just-released SHULEM ALEICHEM album. There’s the catchy “Eish Tomid” (“Eish tomid tukad al hamizbeiach lo sichbeh… A fier brent in hartz fin a Yid”), which has been blaring from speakers on every corner, the timely, “A Zechiah” (“Shrei os bekol rom, bochar banu mikol am, a zechiah tzu zayn a Yid”), and the intriguingly different, “Shokadti Ve’ehyeh Ketzippor.”

After a run of five albums with Naftali Schnitzler, Shmueli and Naftali agreed that he should try to bring to life his own taste, acting as his own producer, and admits that “I learned a lot of things along the way.”

“When you have a producer,” Shmueli says, “it’s true that you relinquish control, but you have the assurance that he is overseeing everything and making the tough decisions — which arrangers to use, what key to sing in, how to order the songs…. Doing it myself was hard work, but also satisfying.”

After sending out a call for new songs, Shmueli listened to hundreds of demos in his quest for the 12 perfect tracks. “Two of the tracks, ‘Habitah’ and ‘A Zechiah’ came from unknown composers via that call — Chaim Altman and Mendy Mandel — but the truth is that people send me new songs regularly. I can’t listen to all of them, but when I have a few minutes I try to sift through them. If something sounds appealing, I play it until the end. ‘Habitah’ moved me the first time I heard it, and ‘A Zechiah’ struck me as uplifting and fun. Although the demo I received was a little ‘bochurish,’ I could feel it was high energy — and the feedback from yeshivah bochurim has been great.”

Of course, other tracks come from professionals, including the prolific Hershy Weinberger and Pinky Weber. Shmueli says “Shokadti” felt like a risk, because it’s out of the box. But he was ready to take the leap, and the arrangement by new talent Bentzion Portugal adds a fresh twist. Track three, “Mah Ani,” features the unmistakable baritone of its composer, Pinky Weber, while for the first time, Shmueli invites a child soloist to add color and charm on “Shulem Aleichem.”

Shmueli says the hardest part was the pivotal moment when it was time to close the album and say, “Enough is enough, we are not adding any more material.” Shmueli felt he didn’t have enough confidence to close and needed another opinion. He turned to his manager Shalom Wagshal and showed him the material in order to get clarity, and together they pulled the collection into its final shape. He then used other producers to perfect individual tracks.

Although Shmueli had planned to sing at concerts in Eretz Yisrael after last Succos, when war broke out, he found himself on a flight out to London earlier than planned. He didn’t waste time, though — in addition to appearing at a wedding there as scheduled, he also used the opportunity to record Track 9, the moving “Chadeish,” with its composer and arranger, Londoners Shimshy Neiman and Hershy Ginsberg.

Both Track 4 — “Hashem Hoshia,” and Track 12 — “A Zechiah,” were almost struck off the album, Shmueli says, because of the challenges he had recording them. “I tried singing ‘Hashem Hoshia’ faster, slower, half a key up, half a key down, and with a different havarah. It just didn’t sound right. Then I realized that because we had been sitting together when he composed the song, Hershy had never sent me a demo of the composition, and therefore I only knew it ‘in rough.’ Once he sent me a demo, cleaned up and with the edges sharpened, we nailed it.”

Although Shalom Wagshal wasn’t too sure about it, Shmueli knew he loved the song “A Zechiah.” He commissioned a musical arrangement, but then found himself struggling with it. For months, he couldn’t produce vocals, until he realized that the sticking point was the music, which didn’t interpret the song in the same way he did.

“It was hard to start again from the beginning, spending all that money again,” he relates, “but I learned the hard way that if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I found another arranger who created a different piece, with the same chord progression but a changed mood and flavor, and by the next day, the vocals were done, making it the last track to be ready for the album.”

He’s finally enjoying the relief and excitement in seeing the album out there, and it’s very accessible offline, too, with specially produced USB and USBCs on sale. “The more you put into it,” he says, “the more of a simchah it is.”


Nothing Like Mamma Loshen
What’s your favorite Yiddish song?

I have daughters at home, and we enjoy singing in Yiddish, since that’s our spoken language. I usually go back to Yom Tov Ehrlich’s material. Around the Shabbos table we might sing Reb Yom Tov’s “Kabbalas Shabbos in Feld,” which is one of our favorites, or “The Train from Frunze,” where he describes the emotional reunions in the train stations after the war. It’s fun — and challenging — to sing all the names of the villages that the many trains arrived from, and then there’s the first verse describing a young girl, a survivor all alone, peering at the passengers. She sees someone who looks familiar, and asks his name, and suddenly, she’s found her father. The second verse is the reunion of a husband and wife, separated for years by the war. In the third stanza, a Yid waiting hopefully on the platform sees another Yid descend from the train, and approaches him. He asks his name, and then envelops him in a hug, exclaiming “My brother!”

“I never had a brother,” is the reply.

But in his disappointment, the Yid forges a new relationship: “All Yidden are brothers.”

Those post-war moments recorded by the survivors are a powerful national memory.



Mic Drop
Find the Key to Your Heart

The magic of a great song, an inspiring performance, or a moving motivational speaker is not simply in transmitting information, say Bentzi and Shmuli Marcus of 8th Day.

“The singer, the novelist, and the speaker are not educators teaching you a new song, story, or idea,” they say. “Instead, they’re opening your heart to let you hear and feel what you already know. Our knowledge doesn’t automatically change our behavior. What we know and what we do are not necessarily in step with each other. Sometimes, the door between the offices of the mind and the heart is locked, and we frantically search for the key. The job of a good song, performer, or speaker is to give the audience that key, opening people’s hearts so they can feel what they already know.

“In Chabad, we call this a farbrengen. It’s not a class, but rather a gathering of friends, along with food, drinks, and songs. The farbrengen is the time and space where you allow information you already know to change your behavior. We have over 100 songs published, and it’s not about the information. It’s about dialing as many numbers as possible until your heart answers the phone. The songs might even have confusing lyrics or no words at all, but if it works, it works.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1006)

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