“So how long have you been a singer?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked from time to time, and one that I can’t seem to answer without sounding sarcastic.
Singing is unique, in that if pose the “how long have you been…” question to a pianist, violinist, or some other instrumentalist, they can usually give you an exact age when they remember the first feel of the instrument in their hands. Technically, I’ve always had my instrument. And I’m using my instrument all the time, which is both a gift and a curse.
My earliest memories of actual singing are from Sunday School at my synagogue in Chevy Chase, Maryland. It was fun to see how much singing was involved in Jewish life and learning. We learned prayer chants as well as folk songs about our traditions and culture. Even now I’m amazed how many songs I remember from decades ago.
But you don’t have to be a musician to appreciate music. As you learn to develop your own taste in music, it’s your family that ultimately influences your early tastes that eventually evolve. I would steal my brother’s Green Day and A Tribe Called Quest CDs, which explains my affinity for pop-rock and hip hop, and my mother would insist on us listening to the “oldies” channel on the radio which explains my love of Motown and classic rock.
Now, thanks to social media outlets and music sharing apps like Spotify which allow you to share playlists with your friends, I couldn’t even tell you what “types” of music I’m into. I just listen to a song/artist/band and think “yes, I like this” or “no, not for me.” The way I see it, there is less need for labeling. It’s actually comical to me how far some people are willing to go to assign genres to music these days, saying “Yeah, it’s kind of like indie trip-hop with a soul pop vibe.”
Is that going to help me enjoy it more? Probably not. But hey, if it works for you, great.
Ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide how their musical roadmap is paved and in what direction it’s going. Do you want to listen to nothing but one type of music the rest of your life? Be my guest. Am I going to feel sorry for you? Absolutely.
Music is constantly evolving, and we’re lucky enough to be able to see and hear it with our eyes and ears. It’s true in the secular music world—and it’s true in the Jewish music world. One of the current trends is multi-platform music festivals. It supports the idea that you can have something for everyone, educates your audience on new music they might not have heard before, and allows music lovers to interact socially, in real life and through hashtags and Instagram and more.
It’s something I’m passionate about. And it’s something I feel I can help contribute to the Southern Jewish scene.
Being a co-chair of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival (AJMF) means being on the forefront of musical trends, from artists to festival fun to amazing social interaction and emerging music-interaction opportunities. As the Southeastern Jewish community changes, AJMF seeks to represent that change with our festival offerings. The festival aims to transcend what can often be blurry lines between religion and culture and provide a space for people to appreciate and learn about not just the music itself, but also how it relates to the world around them.
We don’t know what the future of music looks and sounds like. But to me, that makes the whole thing more exciting—and I’m also proud that right here in Georgia, we’ll be a part of that future, whatever it may bring.
In this season of Thanksgivukkah, I’ve started to think a lot about cultural syncretism. I’ve come to the conclusion that, as a Jewish banjo player playing Hebrew prayers, I’m a very good example of cultural syncretism.
Cultural syncretism can be defined as combining aspects of two different and separate cultures, traditions, or belief systems. Some good examples of cultural syncretism in Jewish life would be the Passover seder being based on a royal meal in Ancient Greece, Ashkenazi challah being a Jewish take on German sweet bread, or the convenient similarities between Purim and Mardi Gras.
So how is a Jewish banjo player an ultimate example of this phenomenon? This calls for a brief history lesson:
The banjo began not in backwoods America, but in medieval Africa. During the colonial period, the banjo was brought over to the Americas by enslaved Africans who found similar materials easily available in their new environment. Soon enough, European Americans soon learned about the banjo from the enslaved African Americans, and by the mid-18th century, European Americans were touring around the country playing banjo in rural and urban settings (typically in minstrel fashion, including the infamous blackface). They also merged it with other musical traditions they were familiar with such as Irish, English, and Scottish music. Everyone was doing it!
Although the banjo waned in popularity in the early 20th century, it was re-popularized in the 1940s with the advent of bluegrass music (a combination of jazz and blues), most Jewish players of the banjo didn’t begin to learn it until the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. And nowadays, these Jewish players also have brought the banjo into many modern Klezmer bands, combining it with our own old-time Eastern European traditions. They’ve also created their own genre – Jewgrass. Check out Lucky Break, Banjo Billy, and The Sinai Mountain Boys!
It’s one of those ideas that it is hard to wrap my head around. When I’m playing Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah on the banjo, using chords and lyrics from the handy Shireinu, I’m not combining just African and Jewish traditions. Instead, I’m really combining African, Jewish, Irish, English, Scottish, American, and Eastern European musical traditions into one.
If that’s not cultural syncretism – I’m not sure what is. Bring it on, Thanksgivukkah!
I am a music snob. People know this about me, and I deserve the title. I have said hurtful things in the past, and if you were on the receiving end of any of my snobbery, I apologize (unless I was right).
My snobbery extends to Jewish music, as well. My master’s thesis, after all, is entirely about the history and meanings of contemporary klezmer, a musical genre descended from the instrumental music of Eastern European Jews.
So, in preparation for my wedding last weekend, one question loomed larger than any other: what to do about “Hava Nagila?”
I won’t recap the entirety of the song’s history, ubiquity and supposed fall from favor, but it is fair to say that I fall into the camp of concerned listeners who hear it as a schlocky piece of music that has come to stand in for a much richer repertoire of celebratory Jewish tunes. But people expect it. After a few fraught exchanges with our wedding DJ and extended consultation with fellow music snobs, I came to the following conclusion: the DJ could begin with the version of “Hava Nagila” he’d originally proposed—the beginning of a pretty canned medley of Hebrew songs—so long as he faded into my preferred tracks. The opening “Hava Nagila” got people dancing in a circle and cued our friends to lift me and my bride up in our chairs, but by the time I was safe on the ground again, I was able to dance to Jewish music I actually enjoy.
So here are the tunes I picked:
This is a live video of Maxwell Street Klezmer Band> performing “Chusn Kalleh Mazl Tov.” I picked a studio recording of the track from their 2002 album Old Roots New World.
And a personal favorite, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars doing “Lieberman Funky Freylekhs,” from the 2002 album, Brotherhood of Brass. Just hit the play button below.