Songs in the key of Jewish

The 21st annual Jewish Music Festival opens March 4 and for three weeks the region will rattle and hum with an array of global talent. But festival director Ellie Shapiro predicts nothing will rock the house like opening night’s headliners, the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars.

The Allstars blend traditional klezmer melodies with a touch of rock ‘n’ roll and New Orleans funk. They had become one of the city’s most popular bands, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the sextet scattered to the four winds.

“It took over a month to even get access to their Web site,” says Shapiro. “I’d given up. A month later I get this email from them saying, ‘We’re dying to work, we’d love to come.'”

Come they will, right after a return to New Orleans to perform during Mardi Gras. Accordionist Glenn Hartman now lives in the Bay Area but his heart remains in the Crescent City. “New Orleans is a wonderful town for playing live music,” he says. “People are open to any kind of style.”

That’s why the Tulane graduate feels his band’s unique approach found quick acceptance. “We became the first klezmer bar band in this country,” adds Hartman. “We did shows with Blues Traveler, Cake, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The band’s on fire with energy.”

While emotions may run high during the band’s appearance here, Shapiro hopes the concerts to follow will similarly get the crowds on their feet.

One of those shows teams Havana-born percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez and his septet with Irving Fields, the creator of the 1950 album “Bagels and Bongos,” recently re-released. Fields, 90, was among the first to blend Latin and Jewish music, while Rodriguez, a non-Jew, is among the latest.

“These are different subcultures we never dealt with before,” says Shapiro. “I introduced [Fields] to Roberto and now they get together in New York. That’s what the festival is about: taking these different artists, putting them together and making new things.”

In the Yiddish music sphere, the festival line-up includes the best of the genre, past and present. Award-winning Yiddish songwriter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman will perform her original songs and participate in a conversation with the public.

Raised in Romania, Schaechter-Gottesman came to America in the 1950s and emerged as a highly influential artist. Now in her 80s, she has seen her works performed by artists like Theodore Bikel and Yiddish revivalist Michael Alpert.

The “Three Yiddish Divas” concert features singers Joanne Borts, Adrienne Cooper and Theresa Tova. All three blend jazz, Broadway and pop styles with traditional Yiddish song.

“The divas will knock ’em dead,” predicts Shapiro. “They ham it up just right, they all know each other and each specializes in different aspects of Yiddish music. It’s not nostalgia, it’s contemporary.”

For the Ladino-inclined, the festival presents a concert entitled “Istanbul to Jerusalem,” which pairs Israeli-born singer Hadass Pal-Yarden with Turkish ensemble Yahudice. Pal-Yarden’s concert boasts one of Turkey’s most esteemed musicians, oud player Yurdal Tokcan.

“People who are into world music in the Bay Area can hardly wait [for Pal-Yarden],” says Shapiro. “She goes deep into the tradition.”

The same could be said for Cantors Alberto Mizrahi (of “Three Cantors” fame) and Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson (from the film “A Cantor’s Tale”). Both are old school chazzans and will be performing in “Traditions and Transformations.”

“I grew up in an Orthodox synagogue with male chazzanut. My memory is of wonderful deep rich tenor voices, which are harder to find now. These two are examples of that,” says Shapiro.

Though most years the festival includes an evening of contemporary classical music, Shapiro says this year marks the first time the Jewish Music Festival commissioned new works from prominent Bay Area Jewish composers. In a concert titled “Jewish Fringes,” composers Paul Dresher, Daniel David Feinsmith, Amy X Neuburg and John Schott will present an evening of new works.

Her only guideline for the composers: Create original works rooted in a post-modern Jewish sensibility, then go to town. “Some of them have never done Jewish material before,” she adds. “So it feels like an important contribution to the field.”

Another first for

the festival will be “I-Tal-Ya,” a concert of Italian Jewish music performed by Francesco Spagnolo, Cantor Sharon Bernstein (of S.F.’s Congregation Beth Sholom and Spagnolo’s wife) and Michael Alpert.

“I was at a seder several years ago with Francesco, the leading authority on Italian Jewish music, and Sharon,” recalls Shapiro. “As part of the seder, they sang Italian drinking songs. It went on for hours and was the best seder I’ve ever been to. I wanted the festival audience to experience what I did.”

To that end, the concert will be held at Caffe Venezia in Berkeley, complete with Italian street scene décor.

Wrapping up the festival will be the second annual Community Music Day hosted by monologist and TV talk show host Josh Kornbluth. Held at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, the event features children’s music performances, workshops, a klezmer concert and an instrument “petting zoo,” which allows attendees to pluck and toot to their hearts’ content.

With this year’s expansion into several new Oakland and Berkeley venues, Shapiro says the reach of the festival is greater than ever. Moreover, she’s confident the lineup will draw the most diverse crowd yet. “Any cultural organization, if it wants to live, has to be able to incorporate young energy,” she says.

While all the festival performers this year will be warmly received, Hartman and his New Orleans band mates may find themselves especially welcome. “This is a big gig for us,” he says. “It’s important to have things to look forward to.”

Jewish music fest schedule

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.