music, diaspora and time

by tobybee

Recently, I’ve been listening a fair bit to an album that was released a few years ago called Fresh Off Boat by a New York Klezmer band named Golem. I’ve also, as part of my research, been thinking about temporality: how we’re conditioned to think chronologically and how, as E.P. Thompson has argued, this works to discipline us. We think of time as always progressing, and as a commodity which is able to be traded (so we can say, it’s better/cheaper to pay someone else to do something rather than spending my own time). We can only think in this way because we think of time as continually moving forward and as able to be captured and comprehended. In turn, time is pacifying: there is only one way to think and act, and that is chronologically, always moving forward.

So what brings this new Yiddish music and temporality together? Golem’s song ‘Bublichki’.

In this song they sing predominantly in Yiddish, but there is one bit which is said in English. The lyrics go:

“Standing on this cold street corner, selling my bagels, nobody will buy!
I will starve to death on this corner. The blackness is covering my eyes.
My father’s a drunk and my mother, a cleaning woman.
My sister, she’s a street walker; such a shame to my family.
And my little brother, well, my little brother, he picks the pockets of hipsters on the L train.”

I like how this bit plays with time. For the most part, particularly as it’s Klezmer music, the listener (or at least me!) thinks we’re listening to someone talk about the early twentieth century – life, probably on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is tough. But then the last line comes in, talking about a very late-twentieth/early twenty-first century phenomenon – hipsters on the L train (who are, most probably, in Williamsburg in Brooklyn). So we have a temporal (as well as spatial) disjuncture, a sense that time is blurred, what’s old repeats, what’s new is also old but also that everything changes.

And that, I think, is a diasporic temporality that I like. It works to break us out of ourselves a bit, plays with the logic we’re thinking of, and brings a smile to the face (or at least it does to mine!)

Check out the song here (the English bit is at about 2mins 30secs):