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.
Other times, it becomes part of a musical moment of comedy.
Recently, in partnership with the Schusterman Visiting Artists Program, the ISJL brought dynamic Israeli musician Amir Gwirtzman, “a cultural ambassador of the Jewish State,” on several whirlwind tours in the Deep South. Amir delighted audiences of all ages and backgrounds wherever he went.
And in LaGrange, GA, his shofar-and-modern-horn-comedy-duet brought the house down. For those in the audience who might not have ever heard the sound of the shofar before, they now know it to be a versatile and hilarious instrument, as well as one with deep meaning, much like the community that hearkens to its sound.
Just another day in the Jewish South…