Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Shana Tova, Amazing Grace, and Adi Cohen

Apropos of yesterday's post about Jewish gospel, this video surfaced this morning on one of my mailing lists. It's Israeli vocalist Adi Cohen singing the song Shana Tova to the tune of the gospel classic Amazing Grace.

Monday, September 27, 2010


The idea of Jewish approaches to Gospel music isn't brand new. Anyone who's following contemporary Jewish music has been exposed to Jewish Gospel music through Joshua Nelson's "Kosher Gospel" project. Nelson's been making a big stir with a string of well received performances and is becoming a regular on the summer festival circuit. The basic idea is that Gospel music is an African American form of spiritual music that predates the African Christian experience. So why not bring it's power and energy to the Jewish experience as well?

It turns out that Nelson isn't the only one to make this connection. Sharon Alexander has been working this area for years, quietly developing a popular workshop series and working on a PhD through the University of Bern. Here's Alexander's blurb and a video that gives a taste of her workshop and approach...
"Many non-Christians are attracted to gospel singing but feel uncomfortable by the songs' Christian themes. However, the actual secrets to the techniques of gospel originate from much older African wisdom, which invokes the power of song to raise energy, build spiritual community, and affirm its goals.

In addition, gospel reintegrates fundamental Judeo-Christian metaphysical techniques back into the prayer service. Gospel uses the conscious praising of God to help a congregation ascend upwards into personal conversation with the divine, and then higher still, into a state of absolute ecstasy. These techniques--like the secrets of Eastern meditation and yoga, recently discovered by western spiritual seekers--are available and teachable; potent tools, which can and should be added to the repertoire of all spiritual communities.

Sharon Alexander offers gospel choir workshops to the general community, teaching the theories and techniques of gospel singing and leading communities in ascending together to meet God. "

Interesting stuff. Alexander doesn't come close to Nelson's performance chops, but her workshops seem like they'd be interesting and a lot of fun. Particularly to the folks looking for novel and energetic Jewish music to add to their communities repertoire. I'm thinking Jewish Renewal groups and folks drawn to Hebrew Kirtan in particular, but any Reform group with a choir might want to give it a go. At least on the right occasion.

I will kvetch a bit and say that I'm not fond of the term "Judeo-Christian" and find Alexander's talk of "the secrets ...gospel and ... of Eastern meditation" a bit much....but I understand very clearly where she's coming from. There area lot of Jews out there that found Jewish liturgical practice very dry, formulaic, and lacking in any spiritual content. And this is for good reason...the latter half of the 20'th century wasn't kind on synagogue practice in a lot of places. One of the results of this was the rise of the "Jew Bu" Jewish Buddhist as well as the introduction of the folk song liturgy now becoming common in a lot of liberal temples and synagogues. Jewish Gospel is another thread in this weave.

For more info on Sharon Alexander or to book her workshop, check out her website Shir Ecstasy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Melodies I Have Seen: Jeremiah Lockwood's Nigun Project

Jeremiah Lockwood is one of my favorite contemporary Jewish musicians. With this band Sway Machinery, he has the uncanny ability to fuse cantorial singing and old-school R&B guitar and horns and create something deeply resonant, both hip shaking and soul shaking at the same time. Recently, with support of the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, Lockwood has begun a musical experiment. In monthly installments he's exploring Chassidic niggunim by creating contemporary settings of older melodies. The exercise is an experiment in many ways. While he's deeply familiar with niggunim, he wants to see where they take him musically as a contemporary musician and he wants to see what happens when he brings on board his musician friends who aren't familiar with niggunim.

Here's a representative example, with Lockwood working with Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the nigun "At the table."

Lockwood explained his motivation, and a bit on the background of niggunim, in the first Forward article back in March.

"In the Nigun Project, I am seeking to explore this seminal Jewish music form and remake it for the 21st century. The melodies of the Hasidim are a numinous and multivalenced text ripe for rediscovery and recontextualization, but as with so many aspects of Jewish traditional culture, the vast body of nigunim is lost to most people outside the religious community. The Nigun Project will reinterpret and bring these melodies to music lovers on the level playing field of art, where religious and nonreligious, Jew and non-Jew alike, can partake of that which is good."

I love Lockwood's work and I'm all for experiments but, after six or so installments I'm not sure how I feel about this one. For me two questions echo: how interesting are the reinterpretations (how good is the music) and how well does the project bring some essence of the niggunim to a contemporary audience that doesn't have direct connection with the niggunim tradition (how good is this music at conveying niggunim)? While I applaud the experiment, I don't think the music holds up well to either question.

First...is it good music? Lockwood and his guest musicians are all talented and have put a lot of energy into each recording. Undoubtedly each will find fans. And because of the revolving door of collaborators, Lockwood is systematically exploring different stylistic choices: mostly different flavors of indie-pop and hip-hop so far. That gives a certain breadth to the music but also makes it a bit thin. There is much less consistency or vision to link the installments than I would have hoped. While Lockwood understands niggunim, he seems to be giving too much control to his collaborators who don't. The result is fairly inconsistent and underwhelming.

This leads to the second question..how good is this music at recontextualizing (showcasing, drawing from, interpreting) niggunim? Unlike his work on recontextualizing cantorial singing, I find the niggunim project disappointing. As someone who deeply loves and finds power in the niggunim tradition, but also loves contemporary music and experiments like this, I had high expectations to love this project. But after listening to the first six, my only thoughts are that the tracks were well constructed but lacked any vision. After hearing them once, I had little interest in listening to them again. After listening to them a few times each I still had little interest in listening to them again. There's just a lot better out there.

Niggunim are not a melodic style as much as a participatory performance style. Niggunim melodies came from a wide variety of sources, some internal to the Chassidic movement and many borrowed from surrounding cultures. If there's a melody you love, you can make a niggun out of it. It's the making the niggun out of it that's the interesting part. Nigun as a musical practice is centered on a voice, typically a group, singing with an emotional intensity that rivals cantorial singing but in a much more intimate space. The reason that niggun are powerful is because there is a deep seated yearning in them, to escape words, to escape the body, to connect with the group and God. To my ears, this yearning and passion is lost in Lockwood's recordings. And with that lost, any real connection to niggunim is lost.

So, while I feel that Lockwood's Sway Machine truely understands and communicates the essence of cantorial singing, I feel that he's failed to do the same for niggunim in the Nigun Project. But not all experiments succeed and I'm very glad he's trying.

Here's an interview with Lockwood where he describes niggunim and what he's trying to do.
Listen to Jeremiah Lockwood discuss the Nigun Project:

For the full set of Nigun project recordings see the Jewish Daily Forward. I want to thank and congratulate the Forward for their support of the experiment. My understanding is that they've provided Lockwood the recording facilities he needed to put the project together. That's a wonderful use of their facilities and I hope they continue the project and consider other similar ones in the future.

Finally, I want to point out a much much better current recording that interprets the nigun tradition from a contemporary perspective. The group Darkcho's recording, now out on Shempspeed, does a fabulous job at picking up and interpreting the core essence of niggunim. Check it out.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Kol Nidre

Tonight's Erev Yom Kippur and I'll be attending Kol Nidre. To get in the vibe, I've been listening to a variety of recordings of Kol Nidre on You Tube. Here are a few favorites

Johnny Mathis

For more on Johnny Mathis singing Jewish music, see the new recording and website Black Sabbath

Moishe Oysher

Shlomo Carlebach

Other great ones include...Mordechai Ben David, Perry Como, and Richard Tucker

Hat tip to youtube users cybernautev, fivnten, and EdmundStAustell respectively.