When you mention Jewish music to most people they will most likely either think of Fiddler On The Roof, groups of Kibbutzim dancing Israeli folk songs, or maybe even Klezmer. However most people don't associate Judaism with religious music, and for the longest time music was forbidden to Jews by Rabbinical edict as a symbol of their mourning the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Yet, by the middle ages those strictures were relaxed and instruments were once again to being used to help celebrate religious feasts and secular events.
Of course with such a huge break in their own musical tradition, and the fact that most Jews were now living in Eastern Europe instead of Jerusalem, their music was heavily influenced by the folk music of their gentile neighbours. Like Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe for day to day usage, you can hear traces of everything from German, Polish, Czech, to the Romani (gypsies) in Klezmer and Jewish religious music. While Klezmer music has obtained a level of popularity recently and there are any number of recordings available, the same can't be said for the religious music.
However two musicians who were instrumental in creating the interest in Klezmer music through helping found the band The Klezmatics have now begun making recordings of Jewish religious music as well.
Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg have just released Tsuker-zis on the Tzadik label, a collection of fourteen songs celebrating various holidays and aspects of Jewish religious life. The title is Yiddish for sugar sweet, and according to notes accompanying the release Jewish imagery often uses sugar metaphorically to describe the divine sweetness of our lives. That doesn't mean the songs on the album are sickeningly sweet, rather they are expressions of the joy the various holidays bring to people. For even a holiday as intimating sounding as Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, can be considered joyous as its a part of the overall sweetness of the divine in a Jewish person's life
However, you'd be forgiven for wondering what kind of disc of Jewish religious music features an Armenian oud player, Ara Dinkjian, a tabla player from North India, Deep Singh, and an electric guitar player, Knox Chandler, whose credits include Cyndi Lauper, the Psychedelic Furs, and Siouxie & The Banshees. Well, when you consider that trumpeter and keyboard player, London, has worked with everyone from Itzhak Perlman to LL Cool J and vocalist and accordion player Sklamberg has taught Yiddish singing from Maui to Kiev, the fact that they have elected to work with three musicians from such diverse backgrounds makes a little more sense.
Anyway, remember the Jewish musical tradition that has inspired this recording drew upon a wide variety of musical influences to begin with. It only follows that modern day adaptations of these songs should follow in their footsteps by drawing upon the world around them as well.
Right from the opening track, "A Sukkah Of Branches", you realize you're in for something completely different from what you're used to if you've heard any Jewish music before. While I have to admit that swirling, atmospheric keyboard music was the last thing I expected to hear when I hit the play button, it not only suited what they were doing with that song in particular, it served as an overture to the whole recording by giving you fair warning of what was to come. This isn't another "ethnic" recording that would look good on stage in "authentic" clothes accompanied by "traditional"cuisine for those looking to take a Disney world tour of cultures.
Instead of merely being content with recreating music as it would have been played five hundred to six hundred years ago, the musicians have found new ways to turn music into a celebration of the presence of the divine in people's lives. While four of the tracks either are composed by, or include text written by, others, the remaining songs are either originals or new arrangements of traditional songs. Not only does this make the music more relevant to a modern audience, it also has the added benefit of allowing them to make the music accessible by including instruments not normally associated with the Jewish tradition.
Now that doesn't mean they have done anything stupid like disguise what it is they are singing about by hiding the fact that the songs are about religious celebrations. With titles like "Our Parent, Our Sovereign", "The Lord Sent His Servant", and "Elijah The Prophet Bought A Red Cow" it's pretty hard to miss the fact that the songs aren't just pretty little tunes or interesting music to listen to. In fact even just listening to the music without knowing the titles, or understanding every word being sung should be enough to let you know what's going on.
For somehow these five musicians have created music that no matter what your belief system communicates the joy and sweetness that's to be found in the act of believing. However, even if you should somehow miss the point from the music, once you hear Lorin Sklamberg start to sing you can't help but understand what the music is about. I'm not one to use the term divine inspiration lightly, but when you listen to Sklamberg sing you can't help but feel like he's been inspired by something beyond the mundane.
It's hard to describe, because he's not doing anything overt like engaging in histrionics or any of the other melodramatic things some singers do to indicate their "sincerity" and "passion". Yet, there can be no doubting the depth of his passion or the level of his sincerity. He has integrated himself into the ensemble as another instrument to the point where he sounds like he's giving voice to their feelings letting you know its the message that's important, not the messenger.
Taken as a whole Tsuker-zis celebrates the belief in the divine on a universal level even though its content is specific to one religion. For even if you're not Jewish, you can't help but be moved by the what the musicians involved have created in the name of that belief. If you're Jewish you will definitely be moved by this disc, but if you're willing to listen with your heart as well as your ears, you can't help but be moved no matter who or what you believe in.
(Originally posted July 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.