Sexy Shabbat at synagogue Blame it on the bossa nova

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The sanctuary at Temple Sinai in Oakland is not the first place you would expect to hear the tropical Latin beats of bossa nova wading through the room.

But with a sensual melody coming from the choir up on the bimah, and the rhythm of the saxophonist, bassist and drummer playing below, the shul’s composer-in-residence Robert Schoen plans to transform the 100-year-old sanctuary’s traditional Friday night service into a sultry musical rendition next week.

Temple Sinai composer-in-residence Robert Schoen, at piano, rehearses with musicians, choir members and music leaders for Bossa Shabbat service. photo/abra cohen

“I feel good, very good,” says Schoen about the project.

The musical Shabbat service, which has been two years in the making, will take place Jan. 24 at Temple Sinai.

Composed of 15 Hebrew prayers from the Friday night liturgy, the service has been set to bossa nova rhythms. Schoen has brought in professional musicians to accompany the choir for the upcoming premiere of Bossa Shabbat.

Describing it as an intersection of music and Judaism, Schoen wanted to find a niche in the Jewish music scene, which is how he had the idea to write a Friday night service. From the Mishebeirach to Lecha Dodi, his customized nigguns are sung in Hebrew, a decision the 67-year-old composer says he chose because it felt the most authentic.

“I have to break down the text so that it makes sense in song format,” he says, “what part of this will be considered a chorus or verse, what will be repeated and whether the prayer itself is too long.” 

With a growing trend of contemporary Jewish composers writing Friday night services to music across the spectrum — from jazz to rock to hip-hop — Schoen says bossa nova was a natural progression for him because he came of age when it hit the American musical landscape in the late 1950s. Bossa nova is a style of Brazilian music that combines samba and jazz, and is usually sung in Portuguese.

Schoen, an Oakland resident who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., used to listen to all types of music. But it was bossa nova greats like João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz who inspired him to write the Shabbat service for the Oakland Reform congregation.

“When I write music like this, I am channeling the words of King David, the prophets, whoever put together these prayers,” Schoen explains. “It doesn’t make any difference if it was 500 or 1,200 years ago — language has a rhythm, a tone and a life.”

Schoen has worn many professional hats: He is a jazz musician and optometrist, and authored a book a decade ago, “What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew About Judaism.” In 2000 he decided to go back to school for music composition and earned a degree from Cal State East Bay in 2004, which is when he and Temple Sinai Cantor Ilene Keys started working together. Schoen does the work as a mitzvah.

“I was very excited about this project because it’s new, creative and it was homegrown from our own congregation,” said Keys, “and I knew it would be a great opportunity for our community and choir to be exposed to this style.

“It’s been a joy working with Bob. He [composes] for the love of the music and the art.” She describes their work as a “collaboration,” adding that when she commissions Schoen to write a piece, he “wants to know what I want down to every detail of the music.”

As Sinai’s composer-in-residence, Schoen has written concert band and string orchestra music for Keys, but was looking for an opportunity to combine bossa nova with Jewish music.

There’s a “sexiness” about Portuguese, Schoen says, explaining that he sees it as a very magical language and one that he was able to experience firsthand when he traveled to Rio de Janiero 12 years ago.

“As much as I loved the music before, I slept with it in Rio,” he jokes, describing Rio as a seminal experience in his life.

Back at Sinai during rehearsal last week, the 40-member temple choir, which will rehearse a total of 15 times prior to their debut performance on Jan. 24, warms up with Schoen on piano and Bruce Barrett on bass.

“You’ve got to sing this type of music with your hips,” says choir director George Anton Emblom, who leads the predominantly female chorus through a series of exercises in preparation.

Meanwhile, Keys is quick to jump in to correct Hebrew pronunciation and timing.

The contemporary Latin beat that Schoen infuses into Shabbat spices up the traditional Friday night service and brings a beat fit for the congregation’s yearlong centennial celebration. “Music is beautiful, but sometimes can be predictable,” he says. “I like to be creative and try something new.”

Bossa Shabbat will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland.