Awe-some Music Inspired by the Jewish High Holy Days
Photo of klezmer composer Frank London by Volker Neumann/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
If you’ve never listened to the playlist that accompanies each show, I highly recommend checking out the list for this week’s show exploring the meaning and sounds of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, “Days of Awe.” You can hear full-length tracks of each song played in the program.
As we were preparing this program for rebroadcast, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the music Mitch compiled, which is inspired by this sacred time. I looked a little more closely into the background of some of the songs, discovering some interesting history and modern context. Here are a few examples:
“On Rosh Hashanah”
Bassist David Chevan’s 10-minute rendition of “On Rosh Hashanah” is a contemporary jazz composition that fuses Jewish and non-Jewish musical influences. Chevan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, grew up in a Conservative-Egalitarian synagogue where he led services from the age of 10. He’s melded sacred music with jazz for years, and he currently performs with an ensemble called The Afro-Semitic Experience. Their compositions blend a wide range of music influenced by both Jewish and African-American traditions, from 18th-century cantorial works to the music of Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson. In this 2002 NPR profile of Chevan and Afro-Semitic pianist Warren Byrd, they describe how the point of their collaboration is to address differences and commalities among faiths and races in America.
“On Rosh Hashanah” is from Chevan’s 2003 album, The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. A review of the album called it a “groundbreaking work if only because it is the first time that a jazz musician (or any instrumental musician) has ever made a recording solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days.” “On Rosh Hashanah” features Chevan, The Afro-Semitic Experience, and trumpeter Frank London. Like many of the works on the album, it’s based on a 1907 recording by the famous early 20th-century cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt.
“Rivers of Babylon”
Rabbi Sharon Brous sent us this version of Psalm 137 (expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem) as one example of “the vibe of services at IKAR.” Originally recorded for an IKAR Shabbat CD, she says it is also used for High Holy Days, and she calls it “one of the most soulful compositions” she’s ever heard. It’s based on the 1972 version written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians — a 1960’s Jamaican rock-steady reggae trio. It first appeared in the sound track to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come — a film based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, a Jamaican criminal who achieved fame in the 1940s. Many other musicians have covered it, including Boney M, Sinead O’Connor, the Neville Brothers, and Sublime.
As in her conversation with Krista, the influence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Brous surfaces again in this quote from IKAR’s Web site: “Heschel taught that music is the only language that is compatible with the wonder and mystery of being.”
The lead female voice on “Rivers of Babylon” is Jessica Meyer, a former IKAR member who taught prayer music to children and sang at services. A former actress (she was in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist), Meyer gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career to become a cantor. She recounts what drew her to IKAR:
“I was a Hebrew School dropout. Disgusted with the Judaism ‘Lite’ espoused by the Conservative synagogue of my childhood, I went in search of a spiritually vibrant, politically engaged Jewish community committed to a culture of Jewish learning and prayer. I did not find it until I came to an IKAR service…
The music of prayer at IKAR is electrifying. The melodies range from Ashkenazi old school to Carlebach, to one inspired by a Sufi chant! The people who lead services are not performing, they’re praying. (It is amazing how much closer people can come to a prayer when they have the freedom to explore for themselves – when there isn’t a someone performing it for them.)
It took me many years, and three continents to find Ikar. It is a blessing to be a part of this community.”
Check out the “Days of Awe” play list for other songs by Leonard Cohen, the BBC Symphony, and Barbara Streisand. Which ones resonate with you?