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- Posted on Feb 18th 2009 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
Then she married one. With that, the now Annette Ezekiel Kogan's frame of reference has changed a bit for the band's new album, 'Citizen Boris.'
"It definitely takes all the stuff I'd been doing and makes it a million times more real," says the lively singer-songwriter. "Of course, I'm learning things I didn't know but also the things I did know are coming to life in Technicolor -- went from black-and-white to color. It's pretty amazing how it all fit together so well."
Maybe not black-and-white, but the pre-'Boris' songs had something of a sepia-toned, Ellis Island aura. The material of 2006's 'Fresh Off Boat' and two previous albums were largely drawn from experiences of past immigrants -- the masses fleeing pogroms and poverty in the early 20th century, those who were able to leave in the years following World War II. Annette had collected stories from relatives (including her grandparents) and others in the New York neighborhood where she'd grown up, adding her own observations from a couple of trips to Eastern Europe (a 1992 visit to the Ukraine itself when she was a youth in a dance troupe, and a more recent Golem tour).
Then she met Alex Kogan -- at a Golem concert, no less -- who came to Chicago with his family in 1992, leaving Kharkov (Ukraine's second-largest city, after Kiev) after the fall of the Soviet Union. They married last summer, and it proved rewarding both personally and professionally.
"It all kind of came together somehow," says Annette, who grew up Jewish more culturally than religiously. "A lot of what was doing before was based on the same kind of immigrant experience I'd heard from my grandfather and older acquaintances. And when I met Alex, it was things I heard about happening now, and it's remarkably similar. There's a new song on the album called 'Mirror, Mirror,' that I wrote based on a taped interview with one of my relatives, who died before I was born. She said how hard life was there in the Ukraine, and she'd look in the mirror and say, 'I'm so beautiful. God, why did you do this to me?' Then I have all these lists in the song of things they didn't have, and those are based on what my new mother-in-law told me they didn't have -- which is now. Vacuum cleaners, pantyhose, toilet seats. That is all now."
The cross-generational commonality went both ways, she learned.
"The song 'Citizen Boris' is based on one of my husband's friends who just last year took the citizenship test," she says. "There was a party for him, he'd become a citizen and we were all drinking to him, and he showed everyone the cartoons he'd used to memorize the answers to the questions. I thought it was hilarious, and I looked into the questions and wrote a song about it, about someone taking the test.
"I think of my grandfather with that. He was really proud of being an American citizen. He became a civil engineer and lived with us, died when I was 18. He was a really important part of my life -- spoke Russian and Yiddish, though I only started learning those after he died."
Of course, Annette Ezekiel Kogan and her bandmates can take some credit for this, as well. With the new album, they've processed the stories into a lively pastiche of old Europe and new New York. Often erroneously lumped in with the Klezmer revivalists, Golem have evolved their own twists on various Eastern European-rooted sounds -- a circusy blend of accordion (by Annette), trombone (Curtis Hasselbring), violin (Alicia Jo Rabins), double bass (Taylor Bergren-Chrisman) and drums (Tim Monaghan), with the diminutive Annette and mustachioed Aaron Diskin serving as vocal ringleaders. All in all, it bears kinship to such contemporaries as Gogol Bordello and JDub Records roster-mates Balkan Beat Box.
"It's minor chords and Slavic progressions but definitely mixing with all kinds of backgrounds in the band," she says. "Everyone brings their experience, from hard rock to jazz."
It's not all other people's stories and music styles. Annette has put a real personal stamp on a lot of this album, such as the song 'Tucheses and Nenes.'
Golem, 'Tucheses and Nenes'
"That means 'asses and tits,' " she says with a laugh. "I got that from listening to a Lenny Bruce routine where he rants about censorship and has this thing about if you put 'tits and ass' on a marquee you'll get closed down, but 'tucheses and nenes,' no on knows what it means and you're fine. So it's a way of writing a dirty song without that problem. The original idea was I wanted to write a misogynist rock song, but that's not quite how it came out. And it's also based on 'Don Giovanni,' by Mozart, the whole thing where he sings about the kinds of women he's been with. So this is describing all kinds, the colors and shapes of tucheses and nenes!
"There's another dirty song, 'Come to Me.' I was thinking of this Serge Gainsbourg song, 'Je T'aime,' where they make sex noises," she says. "I was thinking I'd try to do that in Yiddish. Serge was actually from Kharkov! I hadn't realized that, but my husband knew that his parents were from there."
So just what does Annette's husband, and his family, think of all this?
"He's very supportive. Sometimes it's like, 'What do they all think of this, an American portraying their life?' But in a way it makes them look at it in a different way, too. But what do they think about this wacky American girl really interested in all the minutiae of their lives? But they're happy someone cares instead of thinking they're freaks. They have so many stories about how they didn't know anything, didn't know what things were for, and people thought they were weird."
And just why does she care so much?
"There's a Yiddish expression: Children go away and grandchildren come back. I'm really that," she says. "The whole hippie thing, the Jewish thing, people whose parents were Holocaust survivors and immigrants, and they went away from that. There's this generation that doesn't know much about it, and we're all discovering a new interest. I definitely feel drawn to the past, and yet I have my own identity and I'm not giving that up. I'm mixing the two together. My parents needed to be Americans, and that is important."
That's the children and grandchildren. What about the great-grandchildren? She'll see. "I'm pregnant now," Annette says. "So that's the next baby after this record."