Tunes change with times

Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin has his own take on the East Coast-West Coast rivalry.

“When we’re singing ‘Haveinu’ on the West Coast, we always add one or two ‘shooby do wops’ between verses. But, on the East Coast, you leave out the extra ‘doo wops.’ If you put those in, the campers will all say, ‘This guy must be coming from the West Coast.'”

Briskin, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music, is the current cantor at Leo Baeck (Reform) Temple in Los Angeles. He also is the annual cantor-in-residence at Camp Swig in Saratoga.

As a camper, counselor and cantor, Briskin has logged more than a quarter-century in various Jewish summer camps — a vantage point that’s enabled him to track the evolution of the summer camp music “scene.”

“In the 1950s, I think the whole goal of camp music was to sing and have a good time. That changed during the 1960s, when the Free Speech Movement and the civil rights protesters influenced what kind of songs were being played,” said Briskin, who has produced and recorded two CDs of original Jewish compositions.

According to Briskin, the camp music of the 1970s was heavily impacted by the plight of Soviet Jewry. The last two and half decades of camp music are a little more nebulous in terms of their influences.

“I think in some ways, the pendulum has gone back to singing and having a good time, but today there are many more cultural influences.”

Briskin cited the rise of “young, sexy Jewish rock stars” such as Rick Recht and Dan Nichols, and artists who use electronica or house music to put modern riffs on old Jewish summer camp classics such as “David Melech Yisrael” and “Lo Yisa Goi” (“Lay Down Your Arms”). Briskin also alluded to the power of the Internet, which means that new styles are always just click away.

And then, of course, there’s rap — a musical form that long ago made its way from the inner city to become the lingua franca of teens everywhere.

So does Briskin rap?

“Well, I have a little rap that honors Debbie Freidman (the longtime singer/ songwriter at Camp Swig),” Briskin said. “The kids seem to like it.”

When asked to perform a sample of the rap, Briskin demurred, but allowed that he was no threat to the Beastie Boys in the pantheon of Jewish rap stars.

One tradition that seems to have survived through the years is melding popular tunes with traditional songs to establish bragging rights. Briskin noted that rock bands such as Nirvana, Smashmouth and Everclear have been used for this purpose.

And Briskin’s choice, back in 1978 when he was emerging as a musician?

“Well, our group decided on Shaun Cassidy’s ‘Da Do Run Run,'” Briskin said, laughing. “I was 10 years old, and Shaun Cassidy was really big that year.”

The Los Angles resident, who is married and has two children, wrote his master’s thesis on how to sustain the tradition of being a song leader. With his extensive history in Jewish summer camps, (and being a father himself), the subject is something Briskin has continued exploring extensively.

“There are songs I sing in 2005 that I learned when I was a kid — both Jewish and secular,” said Briskin. “Maybe it’s a James Taylor song, or a Joni Mitchell song, or a Jewish classic like ‘Shalom Chaverim.’

“What’s really important is the continuity,” he said. “When you have an older sibling or a parent singing the same songs as their kids or younger siblings, it’s as if they’re speaking the same language. All that shared history is wonderful.”