Holy Day Music
By Alex Kats
It’s fair to say that I don’t know much about music. In fact, music was the only subject I ever failed at school. Yet despite that, I listen to at least some sort of music every day of the year, and especially at this time of year. In the week before Rosh Hashanah I went to a pre-slichot concert that put me in the mood for the music of the festivals, and now in the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I went to two special performances.
It has become somewhat of a tradition in many shules around the world, but particularly here in Australia, to bring out guest chazanim for the festivals. Many of these cantors are established musicians in their own right, and two of the visiting chazanim performed recently in Melbourne.
The first was Avram Mlotek, who was the guest chazan for Shira Hadasha. He has been described as being from a family of Yiddish royalty. His grandfather was the editor and author of many Yiddish books and his father is the artistic director of New York’s National Yiddish Theatre. His family is so prominent in Yiddish culture in America, that his recent wedding was reported in the New York Times, amongst many other publications. As part of the performance, Avram spoke about this yichus, and also introduced the audience to his wife, who joined him on some of the harmonies and songs. But really everyone was there to see the man himself, and he didn’t disappoint. He has been performing since the age of three, and it is very clear to see that he feels comfortable in front of an audience.
The sizeable audience on this occasion was made up largely people in their 40s or older, some well into their 80s. There was only a very small sprinkling of younger people, including a few representatives from SKIF, the Bundist youth movement. In our community at least, Yiddish is often seen as being a dying language, and this concert certainly reinforced that. But it didn’t deter Avram. He started with a few songs from the old country that much of the audience recognised and sang along with. He told the stories behind the songs and the beauty of some of the language that may have otherwise been lost on the Yiddishly challenged amongst us. He accompanied one of his songs on the piano and played the bongo drum on a few others, but mostly it was just Avram and a microphone. He explained that normally he plays with a band, but on this occasion it was the purity of his voice that drew us in.
After a few known Yiddish songs, he introduced us to some of his own original compositions. He described them as fusion, and the truth is that there is probably no other better word to use. The lyrics were a fusion of Yiddish and English, whilst the music was a fusion of hip-hop and rock mixed with niggunim and original score. But somehow it all worked. One of the original tunes was written after 9/11 and the war on terror, and another was written after Hurricane Katrina. The raw political edginess was beautifully juxtaposed by the ironic charm of Yiddish soulfulness. That alone was worth the price of admission and ingratiated Avram even more.
He finished with a lovely song for the holy days and then in answer to some questions, told the audience about his performances in New York, both in the theatre and in pubs and clubs around town, mixing it with other young artists and popularising Yiddish and Jewish culture as expressed by the Yiddish language, amongst the youth of America. He is now studying to be a rabbi, and though I don’t know much about music, I can’t wait to one-day step into his historically melodic shule.
A couple of days later though, I had a chance to experience the sound of another internationally acclaimed chazan. Naftali Abramson is an American-born Israeli who has released multiple albums of Jewish music. He was the guest chazan for Hamayan and showed off some of his talents. But before he came on, the audience was treated to a short set by local act Moshe Hendel and his band of bearded brothers. He performed a few songs from his recently released debut album. All the songs have lyrics in English, but the music is borrowed from old niggunim mixed with original compositions. Considering this concert was just a few days after Rosh Hashana, many of the songs had great poignancy. But Moshe Hendel was just the entrée.
Like Avram Mlotek’s, Naftali Abramson’s music is also described as a fusion, but in his case, a fusion of American rock, folk, and Celtic music, mixed with the tunes of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and in some cases a tinge of country music as well. All in all, it was an original combination, though the lyrics were anything but original. Most of the songs were musical interpretations of prayers or taken from other parts of Jewish liturgy and entirely in Hebrew.
His strength is certainly his ability to perform and entertain through his music. His stories were not as polished as Mlotek’s and some were quite esoteric in a Carlebach kind of way, but most people came for the music, and on that front he certainly delivered. One particular story though struck a chord, when he spoke about a friend from Yeshiva who was killed in an enemy tank explosion after volunteering for the army tank unit. Some people had tears in their eyes when he finished the story, but the song by contrast was high energy and somewhat joyous. And that was the way it was with most of his songs.
By the end of the night, half of the mostly religious, nearly 250 people strong audience, were dancing in the aisles or at least dancing in their seats and clapping along. It was an impressive and energetic performance, especially given that he only got together with the four local members of his band just the day before. During virtually every song, each of the band members had a solo part to showcase their talents, whilst Naftali himself played along on his guitar throughout each song and during most of the stories.
My favourite songs of the two hour performance were the two rock niggunim without lyrics, but then again, I don’t know much about music so I might not be a good judge. What I know for sure though is that Melbourne was privileged to have such acclaimed musicians in town for the chagim, and if their concerts were so energetic and engaging, I can only imagine that the services they led over the festivals were truly inspiring.