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Semer Ensemble

  • country:Germany
  • region:Jewish
  • style(s):
    • Classical
    • Yiddish
  • label:Piranha Records
  • type: Band
  • gender:male, female
  • instrumentation:instrumental, vocal

Semer Ensemble: "Rescued Treasure - Live at Gorki Berlin"

A Golden Age of Jewish music almost forgotten - the songs captured in 1930s' Berlin by Hirsch Lewin on his Semer label. The Semer Ensemble brings this astonishing music back to life with critically acclaimed concerts and their first album, recorded live at the Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin, in November 2015.

1920s Berlin, a Golden Age of Jewish music and musicians. 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.

In the midst of Berlin's immigrant center, the Scheunenviertel, 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 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. Bern: ”It's amazing, but 80 years after the destruction of this culture there is once again a critical mass of musicians in Berlin able to take on a project like this.”

Drawing amply from this new wealth of Berlin talent and backed up by jazz master Martin Lillich on bass, the ensemble brings together two of the most prolific pioneers of Jewish music - Lorin Sklamberg and Paul Brody - with four leaders of the new generation of powerful performers - Daniel Kahn, Sasha Lurje, Mark Kovnatskiy and Fabian Schnedler.

The Semer Ensemble’s depth and virtuosity can and does match the entire breadth of Hirsch Lewin's original Semer label recordings. Its fresh interpretations and provocative, contemporary arrangements open 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.

Artist info

Alan Bern - piano, accordion, musical director
Founding director of Brave Old World, The Other Europeans & Yiddish Summer Weimar. Also performed with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, The Klezmatics, Kapelye, Itzhak Perlman, Guy Klucesvek, to name but a few. Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1955, living in Berlin since 1987. Bern has an M.A. in philosophy and a D.M.A. in music composition and is the founder, driving force and director of Semer Ensemble.

Lorin Sklamberg - voice, accordion
Hailing from California, the founding member of The Klezmatics – his singing often described as transcendental – turned to Yiddish music in his teens. He went on to become one of the most famous singers of the genre and - being openly gay – a considerable force in developing concert formats successfully bringing together both Yiddish music and the gay lifestyle.

Daniel Kahn - voice, accordion
Based in Berlin, the American is the leader of Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird. The band was founded in 2005, has released four successful albums to date and is known for its special mix of Klezmer, radical political views and Punk attitude.

Sasha Lurje – voice
The versatile singer from Riga, Latvia. She leads her own band ForShpil, working the Yiddish repertoire with a special emphasis to use the traditional sounds for contemporary content.

Fabian Schnedler - voice, electric guitar
After attending drama school Ernst Busch, he studied Yiddish and German literature, Theatre studies and Ethnomusicology. He taught at Yiddish Summer Weimar and Klezkanada and founded Schikker wi Lot and Fayvish - two landmark projects in German's Yiddish music scene. Together with Alan Bern he co-developed Semer Ensemble. Fabian Schnedler works at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Mark Kovnatskiy – violin
Based in Hamburg, Mark Kovnatskiy is a leading Klezmer violinist and composer, teacher of Jewish dance, and music director of the international Jewish music festival Yiddish Fest Moscow. He leads his own ensembles, the Hamburg Klezmer Band and the European World Music Ensemble, guests with a variety of Ensembles worldwide and teaches at festivals from North America to the former Soviet Union.

Paul Brody – trumpet
Originally from California, Paul Brody studied composition and trumpet at Boston University and the New England Conservatory. Based in Berlin since the middle 90’s, he has lead a number of groups, including Paul Brody’s Sadawi, which has won the German Recording Prize Best List. As a composer and performer he has also worked extensively at Burgtheater, Munich Kammerpiele (Artist in Residence), and the MC93 Bobigny Performing Arts Theater in Paris.

Martin Lillich – basello
Having started his career with a classical education, double bass, bass and basello player Martin Lillich from Bad Boll in Southern Germany then went on to almost any other field there is – from Jazz through Fado, Flamenco and Turkish to Klezmer. Apart from actively playing – active ensembles at the moment Berlin 21 and Rasgueo – he always taught bass playing, before at Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler and international Sommerakademie für Jazz Berlin, now at Global Music Academy in Kreuzberg.


"The Semer Ensemble have brought the musicians of 1930s Berlin back to life after decades of silence. [...] Εvery song trails remarkable back stories and characters."

Songlines (October 2016)

"An intriguing set by Semer Ensemble – a celebrity band that has revived this often dramatic, emotional music from the 1930s."

The Guardian (June 2016)

Line up

  • Alan Bern (piano, accordion, music director)
  • Daniel Kahn (voice, accordion)
  • Fabian Schnedler (voice, electric guitar)
  • Lorin Sklamberg (voice, accordion)
  • Mark Kovnatsky (violin)
  • Paul Brody (trumpet)
  • Sasha Lurje (voice)


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