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Dec. 15, 2006

Eclectic Jewish music


One World, Many Cultures is the name of one of the CDs reviewed by the Independent this Chanukah season, but the phrase describes the choices available: all Jewish artists, but everything from show tunes to chamber music, rock 'n' roll to Ethiopian-inspired Israeli songs. We begin with music from Czech-born, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Lenka Lichtenberg and conclude in the Promised Land, with the Idan Raichel Project.

Yiddish music thrives

Lichtenberg's Pashtes/Simplicity (Sunflower Records) is anything but simple. With Brian Katz, she has set the poetry of Simcha Simchovitch to melodies that are influenced by Jewish, jazz, Brazilian and other world music. The arrangements highlight the poignant optimism of Simchovitch's poems and bring his Yiddish to life.

Part of Lichtenberg's extensive music training was taken at the University of British Columbia, although she has been living in Toronto for many years now. She hooked up with Simchovitch at a Jewish book fair, where he was presenting a new volume of his poems. The organizers asked Lichtenberg to perform some songs of his poems that were set to music by somebody else, and she did.

"I really liked the poems," Lichtenberg told the Independent in an e-mail interview, "so I soon got the idea, why not set the poems myself? Simcha was actually quite accustomed to this by then. There were at least three (that I am aware of - and likely more) composers that approached him about setting his music, as it is quite a rare occurence these days to have a poet writing in Yiddish. He just went along with it, glad that people take interest in his writing.

"The other composers took a very different approach, more neo-romantic in style, and, as far as I know, none of those were ever recorded on a CD. When Simcha realized that we were actually going to take this further than anyone else, I think he was quite excited!"

For this project, Lichtenberg turned to Katz, someone with whom she had previously worked.

"I am in awe of Brian's depth of musical expertise on all levels," she said. "He really is brilliant and one of a kind. He should be world-renown[ed] and rich and famous, but with his two university jobs, he has no time to promote himself.... So, because of that, I can take his musical demands. He is utterly uncompromising, things must never sound cheap or shmaltzy or predictable, everything goes to a higher level. He's never going for what may be popular; he aims only for the highest possible artistic quality.

"In me, he respects my creativity," she continued. "He thinks I have a great gift for melodies and he likes my voice, so, with this kind of respect, we can create together."

Lichtenberg has been working in music since the age of eight, she said. She has performed a wide variety of genres, ending up in Vancouver for awhile, where she sang "in lounges, bars, in a rock band, more bars, and a cruise line." She also returned to university here, to get her bachelor's degree in education, before taking a trip to Israel.

"There it occured to me that I needed to change my direction and truly embrace my roots, my identity, which at that time was barely visible," she explained. "I decided to 'do Jewish.' Being a musician, it meant dropping the kind of music I made my living with up to then in Canada and starting from scratch as a Jewish singer.... I concentrated on Yiddish, as I felt it would be closer to my true identity than Hebrew, even though my family, my mom and grandma, Holocaust survivors, didn't speak a word of Yiddish. [They were] totally assimilated, as [were] most Czech Jews."

Lichtenberg describes her experience with Jewish music as being "a growing process." In the last few years, she said, she has also gotten quite seriously into liturgical music.

"I am studying to be a cantor and am already leading services, singing at funerals and at High Holidays, Kol Nidre and all," she said. "Many people say that I should actually solely focus on that, as my soul comes out the strongest in liturgy. While I know that it is true, I literally get shivers from singing many of the pieces (especially psalms from the Yizkor service, but not only), I don't think I can abandon my other musical life. I love performing too much! I have a band – Sisters of Sheynville – we are recording a debut CD right now and I see us really going places with that as well (which is not very easy with three kids)!"

Pashtes is playing in 20 countries and Lichtenberg wanted Vancouverites to know that they'll soon have a chance to hear her in person: "I'll be there in 2007 and [will] sing my Jewish heart out!"

For more information, visit

Not all showstoppers

Two renowned singers have recently released collections of musical theatre classics through the Jewish Music Group: Theodore Bikel and Dudu Fisher, who has also just released an easy listening CD.

Bikel is, undoubtedly, a legendary performer. For more than 50 years, he has entertained audiences and garnered great accolades and applause. This is perhaps what makes Theodore Bikel: In My Own Lifetime (Craig n Co. and JMG) so disappointing. Other than in "If I Were a Rich Man," Bikel just can't muster enough energy to hit the notes anymore, even the low ones. Some songs are downright painful to the ear. Anyone wanting to remember Bikel as the consummate performer he was should give this CD a pass.

But there is another option for anyone hankering for show tunes and that is Fisher's Showstoppers. Although a little prim and proper – Fisher can certainly enunciate well – this CD is quite enjoyable. The best songs are Fisher's duets with Ruthie Henshall: "All I Ask of You" from Phantom of the Opera and "More and More" from Kol Nidrei. He also does a fine job of "The Impossible Dream/Man from La Mancha," which is one of the more heartfelt tracks on this recording.

For those who prefer the softer side of music, JMG has also put out Standing Where You Are, Fisher's first new studio album in years. It features love and inspirational songs.

For more information on any of these CDs, visit, or

Rabbi rocks the house

It's hard to imagine a rabbi who is married and has six children being a rock star, yet Rav Shmuel is just that. Well, maybe not a star, but he is very good. And we have the eclectic Jewish Music Group to thank for recording him.

The title track of Protocols has the good rabbi – who wrote all the songs – deciding to "embrace my people's conquestorial dreams by declaring myself a full-fledged member of the Elders of Zion! (But where do I pay my dues?)" Many of his other songs have similarly provocative themes and an edge that you wouldn't expect to hear from, well, a rabbi.

Anyone who likes Phish or the Barenaked Ladies will enjoy Protocols. For more information, visit

Recognition that is long overdue

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was one of the most distinguished composers of the former Soviet Union. Born in Warsaw, he was an accomplished pianist on his way to becoming a virtuoso when the Nazi invasion in 1939 forced him to flee. Eventually, he settled in Moscow, where he lived the rest of his life.

The liner notes of On the Threshold of Hope (Sony BMG Music Entertainment) include much more on Weinberg and the songs that comprise this excellent recording: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 28 (1948); Jewish Songs After Shmuel Halkin, Op. 17 (1944); and Piano Quintet, Op. 18 (1944). The chamber music is performed by the ARC Ensemble of Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music and Canadian tenor Richard Margison.

For more information, visit www.sonybmgmasterworks. com.

Multicultural Israel

In 2002, in Kfar Saba, Israel, keyboardist, composer and producer Idan Raichel began inviting musicians from various backgrounds to his improvised studio in the basement of his parents' home. The result has been two albums of Israeli world music, blending traditional instruments and ancient texts with modern-day recording techniques. The Idan Raichel Project (Cumbancha) features some of the best songs from those recordings.

And, because Raichel's endeavors deserve a wider audience, it is heartening to see that the Idan Raichel Project is one of the contributors to One World, Many Cultures (Putumayo World Music), with the Israeli/Ethiopian song "Come to Me." Other artists on this CD include Youssou N'Dour, Willie Nelson, Taj Mahal and Ziggy Marley. The music is also from Senegal, the United Kingdom, France, Jamaica, the United States, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, India, Ghana, France, Morocco, Italy, Congo, Algeria. It is quite a wonderful compilation.

For more information, visit, or