We are in a dingy backroom of a bar with a small stage bearing red curtains and a lit-up sign, “Hotel D’Orsay,” up top. Singing tonight is Romanian Sanda Weigl, who regales the small crowd sitting in front of her with Yiddish songs and the Romanian folk and gypsy music she grew up with. Violinist LJOVA, or Lev Zhurbin, accompanies her, his solos heartfelt and playful, depending on the song. It feels like a scene from a German cabaret, maybe one plucked from the Twenties, or the same scene that gave us Sally Bowles.
On this rainy Saturday at Park Slope bar Barbès, patrons young and old sit in rows or at tables on the side, sipping beer and listening to Weigl’s voice and LJOVA’s violin. It is the second show of Weigl’s weekly residency at Barbès, which runs through March 28. She’s accompanied by a band or one musician or, in shows to come, by her daughters, too. (She’ll also be performing with a band there March 19.) Her repertoire spans German jazz and cabaret, and Jewish folklore from her native Bucharest. Weigl’s lullaby voice — sweet, accepting, homey — takes us there, to wherever and whenever these songs were first composed, somewhere pure and far away.
Weigl herself, tiny, warm and sporting short gray hair, was born in post–World War II, Communist Romania, the daughter of a German professor and Romanian publisher. As a kid, she fell in love with the Romanian folk songs she heard playing on the radio and with the gypsy music playing just outside. The family lived next door to a police station in Bucharest, gypsies taken in often for having stolen things or started fights. Their gypsy family and friends would follow as they got arrested, camping just outside the station, starting fires, playing music and dancing deep into the night.
“For us children, it was heaven,” Weigl says, over coffee before the show, about those makeshift gypsy concerts. “We loved it.” She clasped on to Romanian folk music and these gypsy songs immediately.
“My mother told me I started singing these songs when I was two years old,” she says. Eventually, political persecution led her family to move to East Germany in 1964, and Weigl had her first taste of rock ‘n’ roll with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She’d start her own rock band at sixteen, called Team Four, the group gaining notoriety with a hit song and a performance on television. It wouldn’t last. Weigl, protesting government policy by handing flyers out in East Berlin, would be arrested, sent to jail for several months, and barred from singing in public again.
No matter. After serving her sentence she would find her way back to music, singing with a jazz band in little culture halls for people to dance to. Jazz was actually frowned upon by the government, but the band would sneak in songs between the German pop hits they’d perform. In 1977, having made the list of 30 or 40 people East Germany could do without, she was given clearance to leave, and so she moved to West Berlin, where she fell into theater, directing some and acting some. She met actor/writer and eventual husband Klaus Pohl, and started a family of her own.
It was in the late Eighties in Hamburg, having taken a hiatus from her singing, that a famous actress friend heard Weigl sing and asked her what she’d been doing in the theater all this time. She should have been in music. And so Weigl got a band together and started singing yet again, the family’s move to NYC in 1992 yet another curt ending to a budding singing career. In 1998, after hearing a local cellist play, Weigl started singing in New York nonstop, borrowing, always, from her Romanian folk and gypsy background, and from German cabaret and jazz, and from her Yiddish culture, and Nina Simone and Tom Waits (and other Westerners), whom she’d picked up and fallen in love with along the way. She has since played all over the city, in Europe, Mexico, and Israel, with various incarnations of a backing band (for a while with a band of Japanese musicians, for example).
Saturday’s set with LJOVA included Yiddish songs composed by the Israeli singer/songwriter Chava Alberstein and tunes using lyrics by the twelfth-century German poet Walther von der Vogelweide that musician Anthony Coleman wrote specifically for Weigl. The Romanian gypsy songs she’s known for had people clapping upon their introduction as well. They’re songs about wine and wells and dreaming, and audience members were encouraged to sing along if, by chance, we knew the lyrics.
“I think everything we rehearsed didn’t go the way we rehearsed,” says LJOVA, laughing about the loose, raw, and improvised set. Remembering the first time he heard Weigl sing and echoing the sentiment of audience members now, he says, “I was completely taken to a different world and taken to a different country.”
Says showgoer Liza Ivanova, considerably younger than Weigl but having connected with the latter’s passion for her music, “The atmosphere of the place itself and her voice. It’s like home.”
Sanda Weigl performs every Saturday through March 28 at Barbès.
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