Jewish Music Goes Multicultural

Old World klezmer’s out, Sephardic and African influences are in, experts say, on eve of BAM events.

Prank London will offer his opinions on “Music and Jewish Identity Today at a panel discussion this week sponsored by BAMCafe. Is it a good time to be a fan of Jewish music? Well, it’s certainly a good time to be a fan if you live in the New York, metropolitan area, if only because April is Jewish Heritage Month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, meaning that the programming for BAMCafe is dedicated entirely to innovative Jewish sounds.

But what about the larger question? With the powerful and variegated lineup planned for BAMFrank London,s Brass Allstars, The So-Called Seder (so-called because it’s led by disk jockey SoCalled), a Freedom Seder with the Afro-Semitic Experience, the Seder-Matzochism Tango/ A Jewcy Passover, Midnight Minyan, Matisyahu, Morley, Rashanim, and Derek Bermel – it seemed like a good time to ask some experts about the State of Jewish Music.

Limor Tomer, who programs the BAMCafe, admits to being completely outside the mainstream in her interests and tastes, but she ventured a few observations in a telephone interview earlier in the week. “The people have mined the Eastern European Jewish pool so totally that it’s been depleted, she said. “I don’t think we need another generation of Klezmatics-influenced musicians.”

Seth Rogovoy, author of “The Essential Klezmer,” is also less than sanguine about the immediate future of that particular brand of Jewish music. “Enthusiasm for klezmer seems to be declining in the U.s.,” he noted in an e-mail last week. “Several of the top bands can’t even get record deals in America any more. New York’s Tonic nightclub has eliminated its weekly klezmer brunch. And the cutting-edge, radical Jewish culture scene that was based at the Knitting Factory is all but gone.”

Horn-based klezmer is still being recorded but the most vital klezmer sounds are coming from musicians looking back to the Old Country, to fiddle-tsimbl combinations and a slower, more pastoral and, frankly, more foreign sound. Rogovoy alluded indirectly to that trend: “Europe continues to support klezmer, with new festivals and programs cropping up each year.” At the same time, there is a rising tide of Levantine and Sephardic influences to be heard in lots of new Jewish music, including a lot of what is casually labeled klezmer these days.

Tomer, who is Israeli-born, points to her native land as an indication of where this may be leading. “In Israel everything in both pop and non-mainstream, improvised music is all about the multiculturalism of the country the Ethiopians, the Palestinians, the many indigenous musics of the area that’s where the interesting music is happening,” she said. “Another important element is the interesting sonorities and instruments of Central Asia. Israel is exploding with these energies.”

Ironically, one of Israel’s major socioeconomic problems “the wave of undocumented workers, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa may be a boon to its music scene,” Tomer ventures. “Young musicians are starting to collaborate with the Africans in Israel,” she said. “That’s happening here, too. The hottest things are to collaborate with African diaspora energies and musics. When it really works, it’s great. In Israel Yossi Fine has a band with two Israelis and two Africans. He’s the bass player who was part of the M-Base jazz collective in Fort Greene. Rogovoy points to the BAM programs as an example of precisely such a blending of sounds and forces. Paul Shapiro’s Midnight Minyan, the chasidic reggae of Matisyahu and the neo-soul stylings of Morley all draw heavily on African Diaspora musics like blues, R&B;, calypso and jazz. “Perhaps what this festival suggests is a maturation of Jewish music beyond the klezmer ghetto,” Rogovoy wrote. “As it becomes more expansive, there is a greater possibility of reaching beyond the audience of initiates that supported the music for the last 25 years. The popularity of a Jewishworld fusion band like Oi Va Voi in England is a particularly suggestive model.”

“I think that we’re seeing something exciting, the point where Jews begin consciously adapting the music around them to Jewish purpose,” Davidow said in a recent e-mail. “It makes me wonder what life was like in the early Muslim period, for instance, say around the time of the Saadya Gaon, when Jews began incorporating new melodies and new forms (piyyutim) into their services. I’m willing to bet that in the preceding period Moslem popular song was being influenced by all manner of Jewish artists the eighth or ninth or 10th century equivalents of the Gershwins or Leonard Bernstein or Irving Berlin. And then, at some point, having mastered the forms, Jews begin incorporating all of that different music into their own sacred services. It’s a part of them.

Davidow mentioned the Milken Archive recordings of American Jewish music as an interesting phenomenon that suggests the ongoing project of Jewish composers coming to grips with outside influences. It’s also highly suggestive as a reminder that for at least three centuries Jewish composers have written Jewish music that frequently took on the colors of the music being written outside the ghetto or synagogue walls. Whether it was Salomone Rossi writing Jewish baroque in the court of Mantua or Solomon Sulzer’sfriendship with Franz Schubert, Jewish composers have always straddled the line between conservatory and congregation.

Tomer points to an entire line of Jewish composers of contemporary art music who might be best understood as the heirs to that balancing act. “There’s this whole other kind of Jewish music, the descendants of Steve Reich where the sensibility and spirituality are Jewish and the music is personal” Derek Bermel, the people from Bang on a Can music that’s urban and Jewish and based in new music,” she said. When she is reminded of their historical forebears in previous centuries, she laughed and exclaimed, “How cool is that!” Pretty cool. Almost as cool as Tomer’s hope that this month’s “Fiddler Off the Hook” festival of Jewish music will become an annual fixture at BAM Cafe.

As Ari Davidow wrote triumphantly, It’s a wonderful time to be Jewish in America, and a wonderful time to listen to Jewish music. “Fiddler Off the Hook,” a salute to new Jewish music, will be at BAMCafe Live, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, from April 2 to 30. There is no cover charge at the cafe, although there is a $10 food/ drink minimum. For schedule, see www.bam.org or call (718) 636-4139.

In addition, as part of the monthlong celebration of Jewish culture at BAM, there will be a panel discussion, “Jewish Beat: Music and Jewish Identity Today” on Saturday, April 3, 8 p.m., in the Attic Studio. Speakers include Jewish Week staff writer Julia Goldman, as well as Mark Slobin, Frank London and Larry Blumenfeld. $8, $4 for friends of BAM.

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