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The Weill Project blog: Youkali (song)

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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Juliana singing "Youkali," July 2021.

Juliana Brandon, July 2021. Photo by Joe Mabel.

The performing side of the Weill project consists of Juliana Brandon (soprano) and Joe Mabel (guitar/vocal). "Youkali" is the last of four rough-cut videos have been posting over the last few weeks.

Kurt Weill originally wrote "Youkali" as an instrumental interlude for the 1934 French play Marie Galante by Jacques Deval. Having escaped from Nazi Germany, Weill attempted rather successfully during his roughly two years in Paris to write songs that would gain the same sort of popularity with the French public as he had achieved with the more progressive portion of the German public in the era of the Weimar Republic: hence the distinctly French flavor of this gorgeous Euro-tango. Weill would later go on to achieve similar success writing tunes for Broadway musicals United States though, oddly, American recording artists would eventually have even greater successes reworking some of his 1920s German material: Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin with "Mack the Knife" in the 1950s, and The Doors in 1966 with "Alabama Song" ("Show me the way to the next whiskey bar / Oh, don't ask why…").

The following year, the French actor and trade union organizer Roger Bertrand, writing under the pseudonym "Roger Fernay" wrote lyrics for the tune, and he and Weill jointly published the resulting piece as "Youkali." The lyrics describe an idyllic island "almost at the the end of the world" that proves in the end to be only a dream (as I said, very French). As far as I can tell, the song had fallen into obscurity by the time Weill's widow Lotte Lenya, toward the end of her own long life, passed a sheaf of Weill material to the great soprano Teresa Stratas. Stratas released a version of "Youkali" on her 1981 album The Unknown Kurt Weill. Since then there have been dozens of recordings, both instrumental and with vocals. As far as we know no one has produced an English translation that lives up to Fernay/Bertrand's original, so Juliana sings this in French.

As far as I can tell, the song has rarely been done on guitar; the one prior guitar version I'm aware of is by Tony R. Clef, whose arrangement is more delicate and classical than mine. I've approached "Youkali" more as a danceable tango, and I love the powerful vocal Juliana's come up with, which is very much her own. I hope a lot of you are already "grabbed" in the eight seconds hear before I even come in! In the course of rehearsals, I've ended up simplifying my arrangement from what I would do if playing the piece as a solo instrumental, to focus more on accompanying Juliana and keeping a steady dance rhythm under her vocal than on playing a guitar version that would stand alone.

This is the last of four "living-room recordings" we've done this summer, just using the mike on my DSLR camera (and a little amplification on the guitar); I think the levels and balance worked pretty well on this one. This is probably the closest to "stage-ready" of the recordings we are putting out there at this time, though we are still half a year from our official premiere, and it will doubtless evolve further.

Next blog post: François Villon

All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
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Original date: 2 August 2021
Last modified: 2 August 2021

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