Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Phil Blank: The Lowest of the Low and Jewish Deborah/Bee Goddesses

I got chatting with Phil Blank, the accordion player of the Wednesday Night Klezmer Collective. Fascinating guy. He is now officially added to "The List of People Jack Would Invite Over For Beer and Conversation If Jack Didn't Live 1000 Miles From Them." In addition to squeezing out the Odessa Bulgar on Wednesdays, Phil is an professional artist with an eye (and an ear) for esoteric musicology. Here are two paintings from his recent Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art show.

As he says "The Lowest of the Low is my anthropological musings on the role of the klezmer and their perhaps misunderstood "status" and the second is an illustration of the Jewish Deborah/Bee Goddesses, a possibly ecstatic group of women who played drums and were related to a bee cult that stretched from Egypt to Greece to India in the olden days."

Phil Blanks: The Lowest of the Low

Underlying Lowest of the Low is a wonderful sense of the Klezmer as both marginal outsider (barely tolerated for living according to other rules) and critical insider (provides spiritual and secular functions not available otherwise). Jewish Deborah/Bee Goddesses picks up a similar theme, but is even more esoteric. It contemplates mystic, ecstatic, musical, religious traditions connected to, in this case, bees. According to Phil, this tradition was widespread across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor and may have included the Israelites via the prophetess Deborah (who's name, in Hebrew, is Bee).

Phil Banks - Jewish Deborah / Bee Goddesses

Now, whether or not his art connects for you the way it does for me and whether or not you buy the connections he makes, this is important stuff to think about. We tell ourselves simple stories of the past that make the present seem inevitable and benign. It's neither. History is filled with traditions, ideas, and people who were excised from what would become the dominant story. But that doesn't mean they weren't there and that they didn't have an influence. Is it a stretch to look at klezmorim as remnants of a shamanistic mystical musical tradition that stretches back in time to Deborah (and further back to Miriam)? Probably. But the tension between Rabbinic Judaism and mystic, spiritual, strains of Judaism goes back at least that far. So why not?

Anyway, Phil and the Philedephia Museum of Jewish Art are selling prints of these and other of his paintings. Channukah's coming up.... Checkout Phil's website or write to him at phil at philblank dot net. Tell him I sent you.

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