Kirtan Rabbi Blog

Category Archives: Musical Discussions

Discussion of matters musical.

Eight Days, Eight Songs. Candle Four: Zikr (Tracks 5 & 6 from Nondual)

This is part of Kirtan Rabbi’s Gift of Listening: Eight Days, Eight Songs. To hear this candle and the previous ones, please click on the:

Kirtan Rabbi Music Player

Zikr is one long chant, which has an invisible marker in the middle which makes it into two tracks on Nondual. Zikr is secretly — well not any more — my favorite song on the album. It was quite amazingly synchronistic. When we did the final take, my producer, Frank Wolf, turned to me and said, “Well, now you have your huge ‘Epic’.” And then everyone else who worked on it or heard thereafter all independently used that same word to describe Zikr. EPIC.

The music has an eerie James-Bond-theme like timbre. You almost feel sage brush blowing across the prairie — especially at the beginning. It has an amazing violin solo at the end, so please listen all the way through. More than any other mantra on this album, I believe Zikr has the capacity to put you in a deeply, deeply altered state!

Zikr certainly was a challenge to create. Essentially, for eleven minutes, the same phrase is repeated again and again and again and again – which is just what a Zikr is supposed to do. It is essentially a Sufi practice which found its way into Jewish practice centuries ago. And then I went and kirtanized it.

Nuri jerrahi zikr 300

Related to the word for ‘memory,’ you should imagine a zikr going on all night, with the participants dancing in a circle, getting faster and faster and more fervent, the drums beating and the sweat pouring. The idea may be to remember the pearl of truth in the words, by repeating them so many times and – most importantly – getting them into your body.

While I had heard this chant many times before, this tune really sank in during my work as Visiting Rabbi at Metivta: a center for Jewish Meditation in Los Angeles. Specifically, when I was co-leading a silent retreat in the Valley, one of the other leaders, Evelyn Baran, guided us in this chant. During the ensuing, long meditation, the words and melodies kept going in my head. Even though I wasn’t moving, I felt my head bobbing in the six directions. It really functioned as the best of what a mantra is supposed to be: it brought into focus what was to become very deep meditation for me.

Somewhere in a parallel mind stream on the meditation-scape — or maybe later, I don’t remember – I had the sneaky, less than fully noble thought: “Wow. I could really hook this up!” And so the next chant after Havayah came into being. (I often segue between these two chants live; the offer a kind of masculine/feminine, Shiva/Shakti effect for me.

The words of the chant.

This Zikr has the following words:

Adonai Melech, Adonai Malach, Adonai Yimloch l’olam vo-ed

Yah rules, Yah ruled, Yah will rule for ever and ever.

You can easily substitute the word “is sovereign” for rules, if it bothers you. Essentially, I have decided to understand the language of Kingship (malchut), antiquated as it is for us, to more correctly express God’s state of constant activity. God is always producing this world, and were God to stop, even for he blink of an eye, giving the world vitality (chiyyut), it would disappear instantly.

The tenses in the phrase are a bit strange. Why? Because it oddly moves from present tense, to past, and then back to future. Not exactly what we would expect. The sages say that this is to emphasize that we truly only live in the present, in the now: Past and future are rolled into what eternally exists. I invite more thoughts on this, especially on the Facebook Post.

Finally, what does the phrase l’olam vo-ed, for ever and ever, mean? What does it come to teach us about nondualism? It was in pondering this that I realized something very interesting.

Most of the mantras which inculcate nondual consciousness are spatial in nature: They say that God is every where; or that God is every thing; or that there is no place devoid of God. But what about time? Is there not also a sense of a temporal non-dual expression? Well, I think that’s precisely what we find here (as well as in the sister chant Havayah which, interestingly, also features the phrase l’olam vo-ed). Simply put, God is not only every where; God is every time. God fills (m’malei) the run of time, and — of course — God is beyond (soveiv) time all together.

Both the phrase, “forever and ever,” as well as putting the present first help us to remember this Truth.

This chant features the virtuosic Meg Okura on violin.

Eight Days, Eight Songs. Candle One: Kedushah Medley (Tracks 1 & 2 from Nondual)

Together, these first two tracks of Nondual, offered me an opportunity to start the CD by expressing gratitude to my Reform Jewish upbringing – an upbringing which did not always work for me when I was young, but which I have come to appreciate more as time goes on. The two tracks form a medley, meaning that they both segue one into the other and that they use the same mantra. For me, this was meant as a bit of a joke, as you’ll see: the mood between the two tracks couldn’t be more different.

The first track, Kedushah Traditional, is a new-fangled, 21st century remake – replete with harmonium and tanpura drone – of the choir in the pipes I remember so well. We would sit in synagogue listening (and only listening) to the opera singers from on high. We dared not participate at all, God forbid, by singing along! So, as a beginning of the album,I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to take this famous melody (with a variation) from the 19th Century composer, Louis Lewandowski, and make that choir my response singers in a kirtan!”

After a very intentional “Dorothy we are not in Kansas anymore” psychedelic tone, the Medley segues into Kedushah Reggae. This song, in an equally humorous fashion, refers to my Reform Jewish background… but I’m going to let you all figure out how and why that is.

This mantra is called the “Kedushah” (Holiness) from its characteristic repetition: Holy, Holy, Holy — which the angels sing in Isaiah 6:3. The full verse is:

Holy, holy holy is Adonai of Hosts. The whole earth is filled with God’s Glory.
Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh. Adonai Tz’vaot. M’lo chol ha-Aretz k’vodo

The second major motif, also comes from that section of the prayer service which is itself called the Kedushah:

And they asked one another: Where is the place of God’s glory?
Sho-alim zeh la-zeh: Ayei m’kovodo

So how does this chant, especially the second track, tell us something about Nondual consciousness? First of all, Jewish nondual tradition has taken the second half of the first mantra — The whole earth is filled with God’s Glory — as perhaps the statement that God is everywhere and that leit atar panui minei (that there is no place empty of God). That’s a pretty clear philosophical statement: When the veils and coverings are peeled away, we ultimately “know” that everything is God and that God is everywhere. So, it’s kind of strange that the angels go on to ask one another, right after saying that, “Where is the place of God’s glory?”

As I’ll talk about more in the coming days, it is just such a tension between two feelings that makes for a true nondual consciousness. It’s not just that we use our heads and say, “it’s all God,” or even, “It’s all for the good.” We also, being human, feel a strong yearning, a sense of lack, a desire even so, to cry out: “Even though I know You’re everywhere, Where, O where, are You?!” In our condition, we go back and forth — ratzo va-shov — between a cosmic truth and the longings of our heart for knowing where You are. For this reason, I changed the traditional verse from third person and made it… Where is the place of Your glory?

In the jazz mashup in the end, my angels – Cantor Meredith Greenberg and Emily Stern – fade out asking, Ayei, Ayei, Ayei: Where, Where, Where.

Kedushah Reggae features: Frank Wolf on lead guitars and the CNP Horns — Thomas Hutchings, Indofunk Satish and Matthew McDonald.

Kedushah Traditional features beautiful clarinet playing by Steve Gorn, who also plays bansuri flutes on All Worlds — tomorrow’s track of the day.

Birthday and the Beatles

I’m going to keep this post short, because it’s my birthday, and I don’t feel like working too much – or staring at a computer screen.

This morning, as promised on facebook, I woke up and played the second “side” of the White Album, because it opens with the song … Birthday! Take a chan-, chan-, chan- chance! I always sing some crusty version of the song into my friends’ voicemails on their birthday, so why not the real thing on mine?

I have been having a bit of Beatles resurgence of late. This is thanks to my friend Cameron Afzal, who is a professor of religion at Sarah Lawrence College. Last I visited him and his family, he turned me on to the recently recently re-mastered and re-released original mono versions of the Beatles’ earlier CDs. I highly recommend checking these recordings out, because, though subtly so, they are different than the stereo recordings with which we all grew up. Apparently, when the Beatles were first recording, there was no stereo yet in Great Britain, so they mixed in mono. Then, because the US was switching over to stereo, these recordings had to be converted almost immediately to stereo.

But here’s the catch: The mono recordings represent the sessions where the Beatles themselves were in the studio providing their artistic input. The stereo mixes were then turned over to the “pros,” who had to remix them. In the course of doing so, they made some changes. For example, there are instances where, say, John wanted a truck to drive right through the recording loud and clear. The professional engineers, hearing this (and needing to mix and pan the sounds), must have thought:  “Why is that truck so loud there? Let’s move it back.” So, the truck is still in the recording, but it no longer reflects the intentions of John and the others who did the original mono mix.

Those of you who have worked in the studio know how important things like this can be. I’ll share with you what was absolutely the toughest moment in the recording of the most recent Kirtan Rabbi CD, Achat Sha’alti (one thing I seek). It had been tough going getting some good vocal takes to make a lead track for one of the tunes. During one of the best takes I felt I had done, Frank went out to have a cigarette. I heard the door sliding sound as I was singing. Quite clearly. We got in an argument. I was saying we needed to do this or that or the other thing, and, by the way, right in the middle of my best take, you went and slid the door and ruined the whole thing! He literally responded by saying: “This is my house. This is my studio. When we are in this room, we do it my way!” Obviously, the toughest moment in a nine month process. By the end of the day, we were chummy again as usual. I eventually realized that I was being a bit uptight and – not used to the studio process –I was getting too attached. I had calmed down. Frank, smiling reassuringly, said, “Listen. You need to relax more about this.” (This was my first time ever in the studio.) “You need to know that if there is a sound in the recording which we don’t want, I will fix it.” And then he said the thing which is the main point of this digression: “Besides. You never know. When we’re mixing, we might hear that door sliding sound and say, ‘Wow! That was cool.’ We might decide to isolate the door sliding sound and loop it through the track and it’ll become the distinguishing feature of the tune.” He paused. “In this process, you just never know. So you have to let go and trust.”

My point here is that the professional engineers who converted the Beatles mono recording to stereo also didn’t trust. They couldn’t believe that John wanted a truck sound so prominent and upfront. They couldn’t believe that there should be this scratching sound or that siren so dominant. So they moved all of that back. Check out the mono recordings. They are a new experience.

Recently, a new friend of mine asked me what I thought of the Beatles. She felt she had detected some Beatles influence on Achat Sha’alti. It was sychronistic that she said that, because I had also been thinking about the Beatles and just how up their music was. I, too, felt that my new CD – precisely because it is such an uplifting album – was influenced by the magic four. So, when she asked me that, a bell went off. I remembered a moment, not too long before, when I had asked my percussionist, Shoshana Jedwab, why she thought people were flocking to Kirtan Rabbi events. I was a bit mystified. Shoshana’s answer came without hesitation, and it was quite simple: “It’s because we make people feel happy. These are hard times, and people want to have the opportunity simply to feel happy.”

Precisely what the Beatles did – and still – do. My thought for the day, then? Kirtan which is not as uplifting as the Beatles’ music is not good kirtan. They say it’s your birthday? Gonna have a good time!