Songs from the Garden of Eden: An Interview

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Right now it’s late at night, and I’m the only one still awake in the household. A large part of that is courtesy of Songs from the Garden of Eden. Not the whole album, though — and I feel the need to start with a word of caution. The CD’s subtitle is “Jewish Lullabies and Nursery Rhymes,” and there are a plenitude of lullabies sprinkled among the album’s generous 28 songs. However, there are also a number of pumpin’ rhythms and world-beat dance tracks, at least as appropriate for waking my kid up with a bounce of joy as for soothing her to sleep.

songs from the garden of eden
The newest release from JDub Records — the label that, arguably, is the first to treat Jewish music like actual music — is not, literally speaking, a JDub release. But in all aspects, from the slick packaging to the wild percussion and world-beat catchiness, it’s 100% JDub material.

We spoke to Roland Springer, who heads up Secret Mountain — the French Canadian label that originally released Songs — about the scope and vision of the project. As a special surprise, he called in Nathalie Soussana, the album’s producer, who also shared some of her own feelings and stories from the project.

What’s the story behind Songs from the Garden of Eden? Did Nathalie Soussana, who collected the songs on the album, come to you with a proposal, or had she already traveled around the world and made her selections?

ROLAND: Nathalie collected these songs initially for a publisher in Paris called lettre sepharade.” I also had the chance to meet some Ashkenazi elders from Poland. And of course my family in both France and Israel were very helpful. Also, several singers and musicians on the project spoke to friends, family, acquaintances -– sometimes to get the pronunciation right, or the lyrics. One singer was on the phone with her father-in-law almost daily! Finally, I listened to many existing recordings.

How did the rest of the CD come together — the arrangements, the musicians, the illustrator?

NATHALIE: We recorded the vocals first and then the arranger, Jean-Christophe Hoarau, who’s part of a wonderful klezmer group called Yankele, brought in the musicians. All kinds of musicians, not just traditional players. The publisher proposed Beatrice Alemagna as an illustrator. She’s very well-known in France but knew little about Jewish culture. She asked me a few questions about the songs and had “carte blanche” to take it in whichever directions she wanted to.

Are you Jewish? Not to put you on the spot or anything! — I’m just curious, what appealed to you about the CD and made you say, “We should do a project like this”?

ROLAND: No I’m not. I’ve been involved in world and roots music for the past 25 years — children’s music too; and initially I cracked for the recording, which is wonderfully produced and completely in sync with what we’re trying to do at The Secret Mountain. We believe children deserve quality, that parents and children should be able to take pleasure in listening to the same music (sometimes together!). It’s also about discovery and as I listened to these songs and read the translated lyrics and Nathalie’s notes, I was just so impressed with the whole package.

Random semantic question: Why do you call it “Judeo-Spanish” and not “Ladino”?

NATHALIE: We generally use the term Ladino when speaking of religious texts, whereas “Judeo-Spanish” evokes popular language.

What’s your favorite track on the CD?

NATHALIE: It’s hard to say. Just as it was hard to limit the choice to 28 songs on the album, I had collected well over a hundred! But some do have a special story to them. Sidi hbibi for example is sung by my mother who spoke Arab in Morocco before speaking French. I love the music in “Yankele” and “Nani Nani,” and the lyrics to “Dona Dona.” It’s an 80-year old man who began singing to me — badly — “Ikh bin a kleiner dreidl,” and spoke fondly of it saying it reminded him more than any other song of his childhood in Poland.

Some of these tracks, like “Durme, Durme” and “Yankele,” are traditional-minded lullabies, and others, like “Alevanta Sultanatchi,” seem to be making a play for world-music-minded cool kids — they’re almost Middle Eastern dance-club beats. Who did you have in mind when you planned out the album — kids? parents? parents who want to “cool-ify” their kids?

NATHALIE: My intention was simply to make an album that parents and children could share. To pass on the repertoire and give it a sort of new life. I’m not an ethnomusicologist. Traditional music evolves, it moves with the times, without necessarily becoming pop music. The Klezmorin music in America is a good example of that.

What’s the story behind “Sìdì Hbìbì”? It sounds like it’s being sung as the narrator is about to go into exile….

NATHALIE: It’s linked to my family. My mother arrived in France when she was 25 years old. She lived in exile, having been uprooted –- and every time she returns to Morocco to see her parents’ grave, it’s a very emotional experience. She proposed that song to me, and I think it’s for that reason.

How has the reaction to the collection been so far? Do you have any plans for anything else like this in the pipeline?

ROLAND: In France, the reaction was very positive when it came out, and the initial response here is also very encouraging. At The Secret Mountain, we have several “world music” projects that we’re working on. This fall, we’ll be putting out a storybook -– a music CD called “Sunday in Kyoto” –- the title track is about a Cajun musician who lives in Kyoto with his Japanese wife, and on Sundays they invite Spanish guitar players over to jam! It’s therefore not specific to one culture but it hopefully will open children and parents to other cultures, the meeting of cultures.

There isn’t a follow-up to the Garden of Eden album that would focus on Jewish culture specifically. That being said, we are determined to do an album of songs written by Montreal singer-songwriter Alan Mills. He recorded several albums for Moses Asch’s Folkway Records back in the 50/60s -– including several children’s songs, such as “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”

Anyway, we’ve done a lot of research (with the help of his manager Sam Gesser who passed away last year) and will soon be choosing the songs for this project. We did find a few Jewish lullabies / folk songs in his archives that he had re-worked and they may make it on that album.

In the USA, Songs from the Garden of Eden is available from JDub Records. In Canada and the rest of the universe, check out The Secret Mountain.

Posted on May 13, 2009

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