If you think Jewish music is confined to singing Hava Nagila at Jewish summer camp, well get ready to have another nagila. The Jewish Music Festival, now in its 24th year, features music in Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish and English performed by a cosmopolitan array of singers and musicians representing traditions that range from the Sephardic Balkans, European classical, Eastern European Chasidic and klezmer, Indo-European Gypsy, Middle Eastern Mizrachi as well as blues, jazz, swing, bluegrass, gospel, rock, punk and hip-hop. In whatever lands that Jews have lived, they have absorbed musical influences and in turn have influenced the music of their adopted lands. Nowhere has this been truer than in the United States.
The festival kicks off at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 21, when African-American cantor Joshua Nelson brings his kosher gospel to Oakland’s First Congregational Church (2501 Harrison St.), along with special guests Mark Rubin, a bluegrass virtuoso on tuba and bass, and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, directed by Terrance Kelly. Many people, even Jews, are unaware of the tradition of black Hebrews or Black Israelites that dates back to the 1880’s in the United States. I first became aware of them through photographs of black Hebrew congregations taken by pioneering Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee in the 1920s. More recently, black Hebrew congregations made the news because the First Lady’s cousin is Rabbi Caspers Shmuel Funnye of Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago.
Cantor Nelson is a native of Newark, New Jersey, where he grew up singing the Hebrew liturgy in an African-American Sephardic congregation. If you have heard his recordings, you know that he sings traditional texts and melodies, but with the spiritual power of the great gospel singers. In fact, Mahalia Jackson was his earliest influence and he is as concerned to preserve the authentic sound of gospel music as he is in bringing that power to the music of the Jewish liturgy.
Mixing the gospel sound with Hebrew words and Jewish cantillation may seem strange, but after hearing Nelson’s stunning version of “Shema Yisrael” (“Here, O Israel”), I was reminded of Gershom Scholem’s remarks about the author of the mystical Zohar, that “the true interpretation of certain passages of the Torah may…after all be found here and nowhere else!...Again and again a hidden and sometimes awful depth opens before our eyes, and we find ourselves confronted with real and profound insight.” Indeed, Nelson imparts to his chosen texts that quality that Freud calls unheimlich, the uncanny, at once strange and familiar. In his voice we witness the confluence of two great mythic currents: the ancient Exodus story of enslavement and freedom merging with the modern history of an African diaspora, slavery and liberation. If you have usually been disappointed with the chanting heard in American synagogues, Nelson’s beautiful interpretations will come as a revelation.
The following are some of the highlights from the rest of the festival that promise to be just as fascinating:
The Young People’s Symphony Orchestra commemorates the music of Swiss-American Jewish composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) on the 50th anniversary of his yahrzeit with performances of Bloch’s Schelomo featuring cellist Bonnie Hampton, a klezmer concerto by Berkeley composer Arkadi Serper featuring violinist Jeremy Cohen, and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” featuring pianist Chloe Pang. 2 p.m. Sunday, March 22 at the Castro Valley Arts Center, 19501 Redwood Road, Castro Valley.
Andy Statman, clarinet and mandolin virtuoso, performs with his trio in a blending of bluegrass and avant-garde jazz with klezmer and Hasidic nigunim, among other influences. 8 and 10 p.m. Monday, March 23 atYoshi’s San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore St.
Flory Jagoda, Sarajevo native, octogenarian, composer of the Chanukah classic “Ocho Kandelikas,” and NEA National Heritage Fellow sings in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language of the Sephardim. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 25 at JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley.
Di Goldene Pave (the Golden Peacock): Yiddish Muse and Mystery features Lenka Lichtenberg, Toronto native and Yiddish singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist, in duet with Kinneret Sagee, master clarinetist, for two programs of Yiddish standards and originals. 1 p.m. Thursday, March 26 at JCC of the East Bay, and again at 6 p.m. at the San Francisco Public Library, Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin St. (at Grove).
Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird with Beatboxer Yuri Lane perform their mix of contemporary klezmer, Yiddish song and political cabaret at the release party for their second CD Partisans and Parasites. 9 p.m. Thursday, March 26 at Rickshaw Stop Club, 155 Fell St., San Franicisco, and at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 2 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills.
The all-female Sisters of Sheynville, created by Lenka Lichtenberg, and Django Reinhardt-influenced Gaucho present an evening of Klezmer and Gypsy swing. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 28 at JCCSF, 3200 California St., San Francisco.
The festival concludes with a family music day, instrument petting zoo and finale dance party featuring Brass Menazeri, a klezmer/Balkan brass band; Yuri Lane; Daniel Kahn and members of Painted Bird; Elana Jagoda and Sisters of Sheynville. 11 a.m., Sunday, March 29 at JCC of the East Bay.
24TH JEWISH MUSIC FESTIVAL
Begins at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 21 and continues through April 2. (800) 838-3006. jewishmusicfestival.org.