International Jewish Music

Jews have wandered the world over, and sometimes all that wandering gets packed into one song.

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This article, originally written for the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals, tracks the multinational influence on Jewish music, creating unique sounds reflecting the diversity of the Jewish people.

Spend an hour turning the radio dial in Israel, or attend a Jewish music festival anywhere in the world, and you'll quickly realize that all the moving around the Jewish people have done over the past few thousand years has definitely seeped into the music. Performers freely mix languages and traditions, just as they mix Biblical references with snippets from their love lives. A blend of Greek, Polish, and Italian is par for the course, as is a medieval poem written by a rabbi, accompanied by electric guitar and drums. Jewish music, like the Jewish people, spans the globe and the centuries, and sometimes all that wandering is packed into one song.

What is Jewish Music?

But what is "Jewish" music, anyway? Generally, it's divided into three categories: Ashkenazic, or European music like Klezmer; Sephardic, which means Mediterranean music from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Greece, and Turkey; and Mizrachi, which is the music of Jews who lived in Arab countries for thousands of years. What's exciting about today's Jewish music is how much those three categories blur, especially if you're listening to Israeli pop or musicians who draw from their fascinating personal backgrounds. They include the descendants of Marranos or conversos (those who converted rather than be exiled from Spain), the children of Sephardic-Ashkenazic marriages, and rockers who returned to their Jewish roots once they hit 50.

 

Sample the Tunes

Click to listen to samples of the following songs from the CD "A Jewish Odyssey":

 

Di Goldene Pave,

By Chava Alberstein

 

Shalom Aleichem,

By Fortuna

 

Rachamim,

By Ofra Haza

Links courtesy Putamayo World Music

RealMedia player required. (Click to download.)

 

One thing that seems to unite these contemporary performers is their willingness to reinterpret ignored, under-appreciated, or forgotten music. That's how Klezmer music, what grandparents used to listen to, has experienced a huge revival worldwide, especially in unexpected places. These days, in New Orleans, twenty-something bar-hoppers rock to the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, who manage to make wedding music sound funky. The band was called "genre-crossing" and "nutty" by Billboard, and the Village Voice labeled them "easily the funniest and wildest of the new wave." Meanwhile, "KlezFests," which attract hundreds of eager Klezmer fans, are held regularly in St. Petersburg and London.

The Jewish Music WebCenter, at www.jmwc.org, maintains a list of upcoming world Jewish music events, and for devoted Klezmer fans, www.yiddishsong.org has an online sound archive dating back to 1915, which is a treasure trove.

Klezmer isn't the only genre that's benefiting from a new image. Mizrachi music, which was once called "bus station music" because you bought tapes of it at the sketchy old bus station in Tel Aviv, is now mainstream radio fare and slowly moving upscale. In America, where fans gleefully stock up on Mizrachi CDs, the organization Ivri-Nasawi promotes Mizrachi music and literature at http://www.ivri-nasawi.org, and the group has branches in NY, LA, and San Francisco.

A CD of Jewish World Music

A good introduction to the wide world of Jewish music is "A Jewish Odyssey," a release from Putumayo World Music. The CD includes music from Chile, Brazil, Turkey, and Italy, along with Israel, America, and Canada, and it has plenty of useful artist information. "Odyssey" starts off with a haunting Yiddish melody sung by Israeli legend Chava Alberstein, called "Di Goldene Pave," or the golden peacock. The lyrics are actually a Yiddish poem written by Anna Margolin, a Russian-born radical who moved to America around the turn of the century, and her words set the stage for the CD's globetrotting. Next, there's "Rad Halaila," about the strength of the night, from the British band. It's based on a traditional Hasidic melody that might be familiar if you're a frequent wedding or bar-mitzvah attendee.

Then the CD gets to something so unusual and so moving, that it seems to encompass the entire Jewish people and its travels--the song "Fel Shara" by the Italian group KlezRoym. Singer Eva Coen actually sings in five languages: Ladino, Italian, French, English, and Arabic, all in one song. Her delicate, haunting voice reinterprets an old Sephardic love song, but its mix of Eastern European and Mizrachi influences shows how the Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition absorbed the music of their new homes. Italy, which is Europe's oldest Jewish community, now has a crop of young Jewish musicians who weave the already multi-layered Jewish song with Italian folk music, plus jazz and cabaret.

Listening to Coen, I could imagine the Jewish traveler of medieval times, trying to blend in to a new culture while still dealing with the usual human concerns of love and loss.

The CD also includes a fabulous Ofra Haza selection, "Rachamim," which uses the words of Israeli poet Natan Alterman. It describes a woman walking down the street who is ogled by all the men of the neighborhood, but all she wants is "Rachamim," which is a man's name that also means "mercy." Haza sings for both – for mercy and for the man she loves, all at the same time. In the song, I could hear Shechunat HaTikva, or the neighborhood of hope in South Tel Aviv where the singer grew up, still a place where local guys flirt shamelessly and Mizrachi music blares.

After the Italian masterpiece, I was eager to hear more Jewish music from unexpected sources. The CD delivered with a Turkish song from the husband-wife team Janet and Jak Esim, called "Ija Mia Mi Kerida." Because about one-third of the Jews who fled Spain settled in Constantinople, Jewish music thrived in Turkey. Since so many Turkish Jews have left for Israel, that musical scene is mostly gone, but the Esims have painstakingly tried to preserve it, recording aging singers and learning their songs.

A Vision of True Peace

I heard Spanish Jewry's painful escape as a thread running through much of the exotic, blended sound of today's Jewish music. While some Spanish Jews fled to Turkey, many fled to Mexico and South America. Consuelo Luz, featured on the CD, sings the Spanish "Las Estreyas" or "The Stars," which was a popular love ballad in Spain before the Inquisition. Born in Chile, and descended from a famous converso, she now lives and sings in New Mexico, the destination of some Spanish Jews in the 1500s. Without planning to, Luz returned to her Spanish-Jewish roots by settling in the Southwest.

The big story now is what will happen when the Sephardic music carried by Spanish Jews and transported throughout the world hits Israel in big numbers with the increasing aliyah (emigration to Israel) from South American countries. For a hint of what's to come, the Brazilian singer Fortuna takes on "Shalom Aleichem" in Hebrew. Fortuna interprets the song's promise of peace as a remembrance of the way things were before the Jews were kicked out of Spain, a time when Christians, Jews, and Arabs lived together.

Although many Jewish songs from various centuries sing of pain, poverty, and exile, the musicians are always willing to hope for joy and in every language, they often return to a vision of true peace.

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.