Sacred sounds CD

In his new CD, “Life of the Worlds,” Cantor Richard Kaplan goes around the Jewish world in 80 minutes, showcasing the amazing variety of the Jewish musical ecosystem.

Subtitled “Journeys in Jewish Sacred Music,” the new disc indeed conveys intense spirituality, not only in the selected material but in the vocal performances as well, sung in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. Drawn from musical traditions born in such far-flung locales as Morocco, Yemen, Salonica and Afghanistan, the CD is itself a form of hallel, or praise

Some tracks blend multiple traditions, but Kaplan — a globetrotting ethnomusicologist (and cantor at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham) — is ever respectful and knows how to cobble. Moreover, with his soothingly golden voice, he conveys the appropriate prayerful solemnity. The dude sings with kavanah — soul.

The disc kicks off with a Yemeni song, “Ha’Aderet Veha’emunah.” For the uninitiated, the exotic tone of Jewish music from Arab lands seems utterly different from the familiar Ashkenazi melodic minor scale, but it is certainly beautiful.

Other North African tracks, like “Hayoshet Baganim,” “Eyn Keloheynu,” and the frenzied “Eli Shema Koli,” feature Kaplan accompanied by all kinds of instruments you probably have never heard of, but the spirit translates into any language of the heart.

“Le’El Adir Neranenah” and “Navah Tehilah,” with their syncopated rhythms and vocal peculiarities must have been difficult to sing, but Kaplan makes it seem easy. It’s certainly easy on the ears.

Some are sung a cappella or nearly so. “Bati Legani” is a Chassidic melody charmingly arranged for voice and piano. “Reb Nachman’s Niggun” and “Niggun of the Alter Rebbe” are a nod to Ashkenazi tradition, which, as is made clear from this album, grew out of deeper African roots.

One track, an Iberian-flavored Sephardic rendition of the Chatzi Kaddish, coveys the feeling of a hot sirocco blowing in from Africa through the synagogue doors. “Kinah Lekhurban Gan Eden” is a wistful song based on melodies sung on Tisha B’Av. Kaplan’s original lyrics are affecting, but sung in English, they lose the air of sanctity.

Two tracks are particularly ambitious. “El Mistater” is a seven-minute musical triptych into the Kaballah, complete with the chanting of the sefirot and, in the CD’s 32-page booklet, a cogent explanation. It’s not the most tuneful track, but it says something about his command of Judaic idioms that he could put the piece together so seamlessly.

Most impressive is the final track, “Grandfather Sang a Song,” a multiethnic suite that unites the many strands that came before into a striking musical tableau. Alternating from chazzan to jazz singer, Kaplan runs the gamut of his grandfather’s world, riffing in Hebrew, English, Yiddish and Spanish. The jazz piano trio section echoes the soul and R&B music world Kaplan inhabited as a young man long ago, but he’s still got the chops.

Clocking in at nearly 77 minutes, the CD could have benefited with some editing. But it is the kind of CD to play when you deliberately want to shut the door, kill the lights and journey to interior worlds. Richard Kaplan is the perfect tour guide.

Life of the Worlds” by Cantor Richard Kaplan, Five Souls Music, $21.95. Available online at cdbaby.com, or at Afikomen Books, 3042 Claremont, Berkeley.

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.