By AARON HOWARD | JHV•Thu, Jul 11, 2019
With months to go before the holiday, I’ve been listening to Yale Strom’s Chanukah music CD “Shimmering Lights” nearly every day. It’s Chanukah music for grown-ups, a fusion of Jewish traditions with other diverse genres such as Arab-Andalusian and Ottoman music. It’s an example of world music done well.
How does one make old music speak to us in new ways?
For Strom, who was one of klezmer revivalists in the 1980s, first, there was discovery. Klezmer, as a musical genre, had nearly disappeared, except in the most traditional Jewish communities. And, even there, klezmer had come to have a pejorative flavor – a klezmer musician was a sort of musical shleper.
Like other revivalists, Strom founded a klezmer band, Hot Pstromi, in order to bring back the music to the stage and recording studio. Other revivalists learned the repertoire from old recordings and sheet music. Some revivalists went to the few surviving practitioners of klezmer, and learned from them.
Strom, who is also an ethnomusicologist, went to Central and Eastern Europe to research Jewish music. For example, he discovered the songs composed by Shmuel Vladimirovich Polonski, a Jewish musician active in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Polonski composed 19 songs for a songbook intended to be performed by a children’s choir. On a previous CD, “Cities of the Future: Yiddish Songs from the former Soviet Union,” Strom wrapped these Soviet-era songs in modern, sometimes musically challenging packages. Maybe “Girls at the Sewing Machines” isn’t the pinnacle of Yiddish songwriting. But, by bringing this repertoire back to life, Strom illuminates a particular time and place in Jewish history, while providing a contemporary musical experience.
Similarly, on “Shimmering Lights,” instead of simply taking the songs as they were written, Strom wrote original intros and outros for all of the songs. He allowed himself a great degree of freedom in interpreting the originals, instead of simply repeating the repertoire of the holiday taught in day schools, Strom searched for versions that reflect our diverse Jewish culture.
For example, Strom introduces us to “Kita’Tas,” which he found included in Yitzhak Levy’s “Anthology of Judeo-Spanish Liturgy, Volume IV.” Levy, an Israeli composer, songwriter and musicologist, was not only a revivalist, but he also re-imagined Sephardic music. Strom takes Levy’s version, which originates from old 78-Ottoman era Sephardic Jewish recordings, then fuses his own musical entrances and exits onto the song. This leads to unexpected and dramatic textural variations in a composition that stretches out over 12 minutes in length.
Strom achieves a seamless fusion, thanks to the outstanding group of musicians he’s surrounded himself with in the studio. Dubbed the Broken Consort, the musicians include Fred Benedetti on acoustic guitar; Sara Caswell, violin; Alexander Greenbaum, cello; Amos Hoffman, oud; Jeff Pekarek, contrabass; Elizabeth Schwartz, vocals; and David Wallace, viola.
Another track, “Latkes,” is based on an old Yiddish song “Bulbes,” which I first heard on Mark Olf’s 1951 Folkways album “Jewish Folk Songs”. Originally a lament about how poverty resulted in a never-ending diet of potatoes (bulbes) and more potatoes, Strom changed the Yiddish lyrics to reflect the never-ending servings of latkes (potatoes fried in oil) that seem to accompany the holiday in some households. Strom’s playful adaptation is reflected in the up-tempo variation added to the “Latkes” vocal. Listen for the outstanding solos from Hoffman on electric guitar and Benedetti on acoustic guitar.
Another favorite track is “Maoz Tzur,” which has been part of the Chanukah repertoire since the 13th century. Typical of the Arab-Andalusian genre, Hoffman opens this version with a brief oud improvisation, a statement of a simple musical idea. Then Schwartz launches into a Moroccan version of the traditional lyrics. The musicians then stretch out the Moroccan-themed melody with a couple of outstanding violin solos from Caswsell and Strom before exiting with a complete change of tempo and melody.
In the CD’s liner notes, Elizabeth Schwartz has written that the objective of the project from the beginning was to do a Chanukah album that reflected the band’s interests and “Yale’s extraordinary arrangements and compositions, with music that could be enjoyed by a wide range of listeners, from little kids to serious music appreciators.” The producers, musicians and the entire project have definitely succeeded. Don’t wait until Chanukah to add this CD to your Jewish music shelf.