The Sounds Of Belarus, Reimagined In Brooklyn


He is a man who bestrides two worlds, with one foot in America, the other in Belarus. Or one foot in academia, the other in music. At the moment, though, Dmitri “Zisl” Slepovitch has both feet planted squarely in being a Daddy; his sleeping 20-month-old daughter is now safely entrusted to her nanny.

“I’ve been building my entire schedule around her,” he says, laughing. “But that’s only natural.”

Slepovitch is the clarinetist and artistic director of one of the more unusual bands on the New York klezmer scene, Litvakus, and since the band’s first CD was released in October, he has been busy playing locally; on Feb. 10 Litvakus performs as part of the New York Klezmer Series, and in March it appears at the JCH in Bensonhurst.

The Brooklyn-based, Minsk-born musician has a few other day jobs. He teaches Yiddish language and culture at the New School, works as assistant to the artistic director at the Folksbiene/National Yiddish Theater, and serves as a music consultant and occasional actor on period European-set films like “Defiance.”

Not bad for a guy who has only been in the United States since 2008.

“It felt like home pretty quickly,” Slepovitch says. “I had a seamless transition from ‘I’m on vacation’ to ‘I live here.’”

He’d been in North America before. Indeed he met his future wife, a transplanted Minsker herself, at KlezKanada. When he finally moved to the States, it was on a fiancé visa.

He has been in the same building in Brooklyn ever since.

Slepovitch claims an older set of American roots, only half-jokingly. Friends of his who work for Radio Liberty were doing a story on the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic in 2012, and showed him the names of the three Belarusians who survived. He immediately recognized one.

“It was my grand-aunt,” he says proudly. “She died in Brooklyn in 1951. So now I tell people that I came to America over a hundred years ago. It adds to my already strong sense of belonging here.”

For many years before and after his emigration, Slepovitch led a trio, the Minsker Kapelye, with a tsimblist and a cellist. But while he was working with the Folksbiene as clarinetist and rehearsal pianist for its production of “Gimpel Tam” he bonded with other members of the orchestra, and Litvakus was born.

“We continued the concept from Minsker Kapelye,” he says. “The concept was to represent the Litvak musical tradition. It’s an absolutely distinct sound: a mix of drones from Belarusian bagpipes with a recognizably Jewish idiom. It is a sound that is totally unknown anywhere else.”

It is also a sound that was all but forgotten even in Belarus. Slepovitch drew on traditional pieces he had encountered doing fieldwork in the region and on the collection of Sofia Magid, who compiled a formidable archive for the famous St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music.

Litvakus is a tightly woven ensemble that draws its talents and inspirations from a wide spectrum, starting of course with the Litvak (Belarusian Jewish) foundation. The sheer diversity of the band members’ backgrounds is, Slepovitch says, one of the group’s greatest strengths.

“These guys are amazing musicians,” he says. “Taylor Bergren-Chrisman [the bassist] plays a lot of Jewish music with Golem and in Yiddish theater, but that’s not what he does all the time. On the other hand, Josh Camp [the accordionist] is a composer who played for a production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and that was his only connection to Jewish music” before the group formed.

What drew them together with Slepovitch, violinist Craig Judelman and percussionist Sam Weisenberg was a willingness to open their ears and minds to a different sound.

That sound evolved as the result of tight communal bonds between Belarusians and their Litvak Jewish neighbors, an almost hypnotic blend of high-pitched drones from the pipers, highly syncopated rhythms from percussion and handclaps and the strangely “oriental” harmonies of the Jewish modes.

As heard on the band’s first album, “Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus,” the sound is at once invigorating, a sort of acoustic Jewish/Eurasian dance music (but with a lot more rhythmic complexity), and appealingly exotic.

But a lot of the material has been reimagined by Slepovitch in ways that depart from the originals significantly. So, is it authentic?

Slepovitch is candid in his reply.

“[The music] is traditional in terms of inheriting certain cultural idioms, and expressing your belonging to the tribe through sophisticated means like academic study and performance,” he says. “To me it’s absolutely authentic [even] though I’m composing a lot of it. It all works towards one single goal, to portray ‘raysn,’” (which he describes in the album’s liner notes as an old local Yiddish term signifying Belarus as a concept, a homeland, a quality, rather than a mere name on the map).

Slepovitch readily admits that the explorations the band is performing are “a continuation of my own discovery of my Jewish identity.” But as music for performance, they must do more.

“It was essential for me to translate this culture, to convey the beauty and the sentiment of it, to make it work for people who were not born into that,” he says. “We’re authentic to ourselves and our time and the expressions we perform. To make people feel it, that makes it authentic.”

Litvakus will be performing as part of the New York Klezmer Series at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (30 W. 68th St.) on Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. They will also be performing on Sunday, March 1, 4 p.m., at the JCH in Bensonhurst (7802 Bay Pkwy., Brooklyn). Their first CD, “Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus” is available from their website,