Papirosen (“Cigarettes”) – traditional Yiddish song

Actually, “Papirosen” was originally not a song, but a dance: a vigorous and joyful dance, not unlike “Mazl Tov”. Then, after the World War I, Russian songwriter Herman Yablokoff wrote a poem, and put it to the music of the popular dance, slowing it down considerably. The poem is extremely sentimental: it tells of a young boy who is crouching under a wall, drenched in rain, begging passersby to buy cigarettes from him. His father, he tells them, was lost in a battle, his mother died from grief, his sister also died; he himself is blind, homeless, and hungry. On and on it goes, woe after woe; and so – “buy my cigarettes”...

Because of its doleful character, the song became an immediate hit... with the criminals of the famous Russian city, Odessa. It continued to be a criminal song for decades. Maybe because of that, I never liked the song: neither the utmost sentimentality of the text, nor the vulgarity of the “criminal” singing style.

Then, one day, the revelation came – I heard a violin arrangement of the song: gentle, flowing and wistful. I felt as if the violinist found a diamond in a heap of trash; he cleaned and polished it, framed in gold, put on black velvet – and a diamond finally became what it was: a diamond!

I try to do on the piano what that violinist did on the violin...

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This story is just a tidbit from Alexander's "Songs of Exiles" concert program. To hear the full story, together with Alexander's virtuoso performance, come see him at his next concert! To buy this track, or the full CD of the music from "Songs of Exiles", follow the link on the left.  

You may also listen to a sample of this song on or iTunes