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
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
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
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
For more information, visit www.lenkalichtenberg.com.
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
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 www.jewishmusicgroup.com,
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 www.jewishmusicgroup.com.
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.
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
For more information, visit www.idanraichelproject.com,