27th annual Jewish Music Festival stretches boundaries of Jewish music, culture

Don’t expect any golden oldies at this year’s Jewish Music Festival. The event — which runs from March 1 to 25 — is all about new and original music, promises festival executive director Ellie Shapiro.

The 27th annual festival takes place at several East Bay locations, primarily in Berkeley, plus a full afternoon and evening of music on March 25 in San Francisco.

The opening night headliner is the Israeli group Hadag Nahash. With its hybrid of rock and hip-hop, Hadag Nahash has been one of Israel’s most original bands since its 2000 debut. Co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Israel Center and the Taube Koret Initiative on Jewish Peoplehood, the concert takes place March 1 at Oakland club New Parish.

Israeli rock/hip-hop group Hadag Nahash opens the Jewish Music Festival. photo/courtesy of jewish music festival

Every year since 2006, the festival has commissioned a new piece of music. This year, that honor fell to clarinetist and New Klezmer Trio founder Ben Goldberg. He will give the world premiere of his song cycle, “Orphic Machine,” in a March 4 concert at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffee House.

“We’re very excited,” Shapiro says of the premiere. “[Goldberg] started in the klezmer scene and now is avant-garde jazz.”

Also premiering his latest music is fellow clarinetist Michael Winograd, an undisputed rising star in the realm of neo-klezmer. His six-piece band, including the award-winning vocalist Judith Berkson, will perform March 3, also at Freight & Salvage.

Hadag Nahash isn’t the only Israeli band in the line-up. Shapiro is thrilled she managed to book the Bustan Quartet, a group made up of Jewish and Muslim musicians including Taiseer Elias, one of the world’s great oud players.

Their March 22 concert is co-sponsored by the Magnes Museum and U.C. Berkeley’s Music Department.

“This is our most important collaboration with U.C. Berkeley,” Shapiro notes.  “[Music Department chair] Benjamin Brinner wrote a book that prominently features the Bustan Quartet. This is a band that brought Israeli music to the world stage.”

Shapiro is especially excited to present singer and songwriter Basya Schechter, who will present a new series of compositions based on the Yiddish poetry of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Basya is fascinating,” Shapiro says. “She grew up in ultra-Orthodox Borough Park [Brooklyn], and came to the conclusion she wanted to be part of the wider world. She started a band 10 years ago and has blossomed.”

And if the notion of a Jewish liturgical mash-up sounds appealing, Shapiro has one ready to go.

A March 25 concert by Klezmatics trumpet player Frank London and Israeli oud master Yair Dalal will blend the wordless nigunnim melodies from the Ashkenazi tradition with the piyyutim melodies of Middle Eastern Jews.

“I came up with the idea 10 years ago to bring these together,” Shapiro recalls. “Both speak to the same part of the soul, expressing liturgical yearnings from Eastern and Western Jewish traditions.”

For the kids, the festival brings back the popular Instrument Petting Zoo, on March 4 at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay in Berkeley. On display and available for blowing, plucking and banging will be all kinds of musical instruments, along with experienced players to offer tips.

Though sustaining the Jewish Musical Festival for 27 years is not easy, especially in a down economy, Shapiro takes pride in the festival’s daring aesthetic.

“We’re really taking risks,” she says. “[The festival] is not nostalgia, not chestnuts, not comfortable. It’s music that stretches conceptions of what is Jewish music and culture. We never know who the audience will be for this. Everything we’re doing is musically exciting.”

Jewish Music Festival (510) 848-023 or www.jewishmusicfestival.org.

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.