Jewish, black ensembles to marry music at festival

Do you like soul music?

Organizers of this year's East Bay Jewish Music Festival are betting the answer is yes.

Later this month, when the popular Jewish a cappella ensemble Vocolot takes the festival's stage with Street Sounds, an equally celebrated African American vocal quintet, cross-cultural fireworks are in the forecast.

Vocolot, a women's ensemble, mixes strains of Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Ladino and other far-flung Jewish musical influences. Street Sounds explores the range of African American musical heritage, from doo-wop and gospel to blues and jazz.

The concert, to be held at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage on Monday, March 24, is set to be one of the festival's high points.

"They do great things with their vocals," says Vocolot founder Linda Hirschhorn of her Street Sounds colleagues. "We have a chazzanut [Jewish liturgical] twist to our thing, but I love their gospel influence."

The admiration swings both ways. "It's fun to mix it up with an all-female group," says Street Sounds leader Louise Robinson. "The evening will be about love and freedom, topics we have in common."

This won't be the first time the two have performed together. Having been grounded in the peace movement, Vocolot and Street Sounds often crossed paths on the social justice circuit.

"The first time was back in 1989 or 1990 at a church in Oakland," recalls Hirschhorn. "Vocolot was often part of peace events. Sharing the stage with others was how we got started."

Hirschhorn loves the common ground she finds between the two groups. "We've shared some of our music," she says. "The Negro spirituals tell some of the same stories we're telling. They've got 'Go Tell It on the Mountain,' and we celebrate coming out of slavery as well. It's about two oppressed peoples identifying with common experience and expressing it musically."

Robinson echoes the sentiment. "It's interesting to find out what we do alike and what we don't do alike," she says. "It's a process when you come together with two musical directors and 10 different heads, 10 different ideas."

For Hirschhorn, finding common purpose is her stock in trade. She grew up in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, the daughter of refugees, singing from the get go.

"We weren't Orthodox," says Hirschhorn, "but I went to an Orthodox shul with my father. The flavor of Orthodoxy was what I knew of Jewish practice."

Spending summers at Zionist camps, Hirschhorn came in contact with a wealth of musical styles. Her influences ran the gamut from the female a cappella vocal group the Pennywhistlers to songs of the labor movement to Bob Dylan (she says she missed out on the Motown revolution).

Hirschhorn later attended New York's prestigious High School of Music and Art, sang with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus under conductor Seiji Ozawa, studied in Jerusalem and lived on a kibbutz for a year.

After earning a master's degree in counseling, Hirschhorn moved to the West Coast, but she ended up becoming a cantor almost by accident. "I was applying for a Sunday school job," says Hirschhorn, "but the congregation was looking for a cantor. I was hired."

She went on to co-found the Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley; then in 1988 Hirschhorn applied for the cantorial position at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. She's been there ever since.

As much as she loved her work at Beth Sholom, Hirschhorn had more music in her than a sanctuary could contain. "I had all this material I'd been writing," she recalls. "So I started singing in a duo, then started writing for several voices."

Soon Vocolot was born, blending Hirschhorn's passions for Jewish music, women's vocal harmony and tikkun olam. "Over the years, we got more sophisticated," she says. "I always saw music as part of my political expression since so much political change comes from cultural expression."

To date, the group has recorded four albums. In addition to Hirschhorn, the members of Vocolot include Ellen Robinson, Jennifer Karno, Judith Kate Friedman, Alison Lewis and Elizabeth Stuart.

Like Hirschhorn, Louise Robinson also attended the High School of Music and Art in her native New York City, and received a bachelor's degree from Howard University. She is a founding member of the internationally acclaimed a cappella quintet Sweet Honey in the Rock. In addition to singing, Louise also enjoyed a fulfilling career producing, directing and acting on and off-Broadway.

Street Sounds also includes singers Michelle Jacques, Steven Thomas, Rhonda Crane and Bryan Dyer. The group has performed with such diverse artists as Manhattan Transfer, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and Pete Seeger.

As for the upcoming concert, the performers are as excited as their fans. "We've been having a great time rehearsing," says Hirschhorn. "We're not just two separate acts. There's definite overlap."

Adds Street Sounds' Robinson: "I've been wondering who the audience will be, but I figure it will be more Jewish than African American. Whatever it is, it's gonna be fun."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.