The Semer Ensemble features an all-star lineup of Yiddish music artists led by accordionist and pianist Alan Bern, of Brave Old World, and including renowned trumpet player Paul Brody; acclaimed singer, accordionist and mandolin player Daniel Kahn; violinist Mark “Stempenyuk” Kovnatskiy, who performs with many of the most prominent ensembles of the Yiddish cultural revival; world music polyglot and bassist Martin Lillich; Forshpil singer and leader Sasha Lurje; Fayvish singer and leader Fabian Schnedler; and Grammy-winning singer and accordionist Lorin Sklamberg, of the Klezmatics.
1920s Berlin, the Scheunenviertel (“Barn Quarter”), a densely populated Jewish immigrant center right next to Alexanderplatz. In this milieu we find Hirsch Lewin, formerly a forced laborer conscripted to Germany from his native Vilnius during World War I. After the war, Lewin decides to remain in Berlin, finds work in a bookstore, and eventually starts his own business: the Hebräische Buchhandlung (Hebrew Bookstore), Grenadierstrasse 28. The year is 1930.
Lewin sells books in Hebrew; history books, children’s books and more; prayer shawls, candles and other religious items. His speciality: gramophone records! In 1932, Lewin creates his own label, “Semer.” One year later, the Nazis come to power, forbidding Jewish musicians to perform in non-Jewish settings. Semer becomes a Noah’s Ark for Jewish musicians who have nowhere else to go. For five years, Lewin makes recordings at a feverish pace, creating a precious time capsule of a world facing annihilation. On November 9, 1938, SA hordes attack the Hebräische Buchhandlung, demolishing stock and store, including 4,500 recordings and 250 metal plates. The memory of the Semer label falls into oblivion for the next 60 years.
Fast forward. From 1992-2001, musicologist Dr. Rainer E. Lotz travels the world to track down the Semer recordings. Miraculously, he is able to recover and restore almost the entire catalogue. In 2002, the Bear Family label reissues the recordings in a box set of 11 CDs and 1 DVD, titled “Vorbei: Beyond Recall.” In 2012, the Berlin Jewish Museum Berlin commissions New Jewish Music luminary Alan Bern to create new interpretations of the archival recordings. Bern puts together a world-class ensemble of musicians from all ends of his musical world – America and Berlin, the old generation and the new. For the first time since the war, Berlin is once again home to musicians with the artistry and knowledge to handle a repertoire with such a breadth and depth.
The Semer Ensemble’s music opens a time tunnel between 1920s Berlin and today’s New Jewish Music: Berlin cabaret, Russian folk songs, Yiddish theater hits, operatic arias and cantorial music are just a small sample of this remarkable repertoire.