Today I submitted the much-loved chant, Havayah, from the new album, Kirtan Rabbi: Nondual for consideration in the Jewish Forward’s search for the latest in Jewish music. As you can read in a previous blog entry, Havayah was the inspiration – the chant out of which the rest of Nondual spiraled upward and outward. And even as much exciting material emerged later (the Kedushah Reggae comes to mind), this first chant I did on guitar remains my favorite on the album. (Well, actually, the two track Zikr is my secret favorite, but that’s another story.)
In submitting the track to the Forward we were asked to comment. Here is what I wrote to each of these questions. I thought the Kirtan Rabbi community might enjoy the the idiosyncracy of the answers.
1. Please include a short bio explaining what Jewish music means to you and how it inspires your community
Criss-crossing the country for the last ten years as the Kirtan Rabbi, I have followed Abraham Joshua Heschel’s saying: “First we sing, then we believe.” It is the music — whether this be at a prayer service, slapping our hands on a Shabbat table, or the droning intonation of a Torah reading — which has always driven my Jewish practice. Our innate musicality takes us beyond ourselves and our daily concerns, breathes meaning into our texts, and binds us together as one.
In my own practice, the chant and tonal expression serve two specific purposes:
First, Hebrew kirtan — continual, call-and-response chanting of short phrases from the Jewish tradition — makes Jewish prayer and meditation accessible. A very simple prayer technology developed in India, kirtan opens up a space for us not only to sing, to do, but also not to do… to listen. A motif is offered; playfully improvised variations build to an ecstatic mash-up; then, the chant grounds itself, gracefully coming to resolution. The silence afterwards allows even “poor meditators” to discover a deep, unruffled silence.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, Kirtan, as exemplified in Havayah, the chant offered here, renders us “ach sameach:” simply, completely blissful and happy.
2. Who are your influences?
The influences upon Kirtan Rabbi’s music, live and recorded, are many. Since the 80s, as a Ph.D. student at JTS, I have been a sponge for Jewish music in all forms: including synagogue music of all streams, piyyutim, Shabbat table rounds with unbridled harmony, and long, relentless niggunim. My biggest influence to this day remains the music of Shlomo Carlebach, especially as brought down in services at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York.
I am a Western classically trained musician (I studied classical guitar in conservatory). I have also had a love from my youth for Indian classical music, first popularized by Ravi Shankar in the 70s. As my music – like most Jewish music through the ages – is “hyphenated,” I greatly admire the work of Western kirtan artists such as Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Wah!, and Snatam Kaur — as well as that of Indian masters such as O.S. Arun, Shweta Jhaveri and Jagjit Singh. Rock music from the 60s and 70s runs deep in my veins, especially the work of Bob Dylan and the space jams of the Grateful Dead.
On my new album, Kirtan Rabbi: Nondual, if you dig deep, you will discover references to the music of early Jewish composers such as Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski. On track offered here, Havayah, you might find an odd combination of the influences of Johann Sebastian Bach and Iron Maiden!
Let me know what you think of these statements. And, come September, please keep an eye out for when the Forward asks for your comments.