Around the world with Jewish music
From an Israeli superstar straight from a gig at South by Southwest to a one-woman show that carves up Bernie Madoff, the 29th annual Jewish Music Festival has peppered its program with diverse artists from multiple genres.
Andrew Muchin, the festival’s interim executive director, uses words like “deeply personal” and “artistically compelling” to describe the music in this year’s lineup.
“It’s all passionately Jewish in a unique way,” says Muchin, who began organizing this year’s festival after longtime director Ellie Shapiro took a leave of absence to study in Poland.
The eclectic spring festival includes six events, starting with a March 20 performance at a new venue for the festival — Yoshi’s in San Francisco — and ending with Ben Sidran’s “Jews and the Great American Songbook” concert on March 30 in Berkeley.
Opening night honors went to Dudu Tassa, a major figure on the Israeli rock scene, and his six-member band, who were coming off quite a busy week: gigs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, at the Boston Jewish Music Festival and at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in a span of four days.
What everybody got to hear was music from Tassa’s eighth album, “Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis,” on which he digs deep into his musical roots, playing Arab songs that his grandfather and great-uncle made popular in Iraq in the 1930s and ’40s.
A project of the JCC of the East Bay, the festival will continue to pick up steam over the weekend with two shows in Berkeley: the Afro-Semitic Experience on Saturday, March 22 and a show called “Convergence” that mixes black spirituals, Yiddish and Jewish liturgical songs on Sunday, March 23.
While previous festivals have had themes — such as 2013’s Polish focus and a 2009 lineup that celebrated American music — this year’s lineup is simply eclectic, as it draws music from around the globe.
A great example is the Afro-Semitic Experience, a seven-piece percussive jazz and world music group that is interfaith and multiracial. Similar to the Idan Raichel Project, the Afro-Semitic Experience mines the musical relationship between African American and Jewish music. The band has collaborated with famous cantors such as Alberto Mizrahi and Jack Mendelson, and also has worked with Frank London of the Klezmatics.
Bringing a soulful twist to the music, the Afro-Semitic Experience features the occasional electric keyboard and creates what Muchin says is “swinging Jewish music that doesn’t lose a sense of sacredness.” The band will perform at 8 p.m. March 22 at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.
The next night, at 7 p.m. at the JCC in Berkeley, Anthony (Mordechai-Tzvi) Russell’s “Convergence” will make its world premiere. Russell is teaming up with Veretski Pass, a Bay Area trio that plays music from the Old Country, to combine diverse strains of traditional Jewish and African American music.
Russell, who is black, has a background in opera, but in recent years he has been devoting himself to cantorial music, Hassidic nigguns, klezmer and Yiddish. The journey has taken him to some very interesting places musically, and has landed him on stages from Montreal to Manhattan to San Francisco.
Another experimental piece will be Torah
scholar Alicia Jo Rabins’ one-woman rock opera “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff.” She will perform it at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 27 at the JCC East Bay, then will return to the same stage two nights later to perform with her indie folk band Girls in Trouble.
The festival will conclude on Sunday, March 30 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, where Sidran will present a concert and a talk based on his book “There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream.” Sidran is a songwriter, music historian, singer and pianist.
Though that event will mark the end of the festival — passes will no longer be good after March 30 — the curtain won’t be coming down until the end of May.
The Jewish Music Festival is presenting three more shows: “Yiddish Spring,” a concert in honor of Yom HaShoah, on April 24 and 27 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco; “Lilith, the Night Demon, in One Lewd Act,” the world premiere of a composition that will be performed by Veretski Pass and the 24-voice S.F. Choral Artists on May 3 at the JCC East Bay; and a concert at a private residence in Berkeley by noted Bay Area musicians Stephen Saxon and Gordon Lustig on May 31.
Jewish Music Festival, through March 30. $22-$32; festival pass $125-$140. https://www.jewishmusicfestival.org