Around the world with Jewish music

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

abra cohen   |   j. staff

From an Israeli superstar straight from a gig at South by Southwest to a one-woman show that carves up Bernie Madoff, the 29th annual Jewish Music Festival has peppered its program with diverse artists from multiple genres.

Andrew Muchin, the festival’s interim executive director, uses words like “deeply personal” and “artistically compelling” to describe the music in this year’s lineup.

“It’s all passionately Jewish in a unique way,” says Muchin, who began organizing this year’s festival after longtime director Ellie Shapiro took a leave of absence to study in Poland.

The eclectic spring festival includes six events, starting with a March 20 performance at a new venue for the festival — Yoshi’s in San Francisco — and ending with Ben Sidran’s “Jews and the Great American Songbook” concert on March 30 in Berkeley.

Afro-Semitic Experience

Opening night honors went to Dudu Tassa, a major figure on the Israeli rock scene, and his six-member band, who were coming off quite a busy week: gigs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, at the Boston Jewish Music Festival and at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in a span of four days.

What everybody got to hear was music from Tassa’s eighth album, “Dudu Tassa and the Kuwaitis,” on which he digs deep into his musical roots, playing Arab songs that his grandfather and great-uncle made popular in Iraq in the 1930s and ’40s.

A project of the JCC of the East Bay, the festival will continue to pick up steam over the weekend with two shows in Berkeley: the Afro-Semitic Experience on Saturday, March 22 and a show called “Convergence” that mixes black spirituals, Yiddish and Jewish liturgical songs on Sunday, March 23.

While previous festivals have had themes — such as 2013’s Polish focus and a 2009 lineup that celebrated American music — this year’s lineup is simply eclectic, as it draws music from around the globe.

Dudu Tassa

A great example is the Afro-Semitic Experience, a seven-piece percussive jazz and world music group that is interfaith and multiracial. Similar to the Idan Raichel Project, the Afro-Semitic Experience mines the musical relationship between African American and Jewish music. The band has collaborated with famous cantors such as Alberto Mizrahi and Jack Mendelson, and also has worked with Frank London of the Klezmatics.

Bringing a soulful twist to the music, the Afro-Semitic Experience features the occasional electric keyboard and creates what Muchin says is “swinging Jewish music that doesn’t lose a sense of sacredness.” The band will perform at 8 p.m. March 22 at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.

The next night, at 7 p.m. at the JCC in Berkeley, Anthony (Mordechai-Tzvi) Russell’s “Convergence” will make its world premiere. Russell is teaming up with Veretski Pass, a Bay Area trio that plays music from the Old Country, to combine diverse strains of traditional Jewish and African American music.

Russell, who is black, has a background in opera, but in recent years he has been devoting himself to cantorial music, Hassidic nigguns, klezmer and Yiddish. The journey has taken him to some very interesting places musically, and has landed him on stages from Montreal to Manhattan to San Francisco.

Another experimental piece will be Torah

scholar Alicia Jo Rabins’ one-woman rock opera “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff.” She will perform it at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 27 at the JCC East Bay, then will return to the same stage two nights later to perform with her indie folk band Girls in Trouble.

Anthony Russell

The festival will conclude on Sunday, March 30 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, where Sidran will present a concert and a talk based on his book “There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream.” Sidran is a songwriter, music historian, singer and pianist.

Though that event will mark the end of the festival — passes will no longer be good after March 30 — the curtain won’t be coming down until the end of May.

The Jewish Music Festival is presenting three more shows: “Yiddish Spring,” a concert in honor of Yom HaShoah, on April 24 and 27 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco; “Lilith, the Night Demon, in One Lewd Act,” the world premiere of a composition that will be performed by Veretski Pass and the 24-voice S.F. Choral Artists on May 3 at the JCC East Bay; and a concert at a private residence in Berkeley by noted Bay Area musicians Stephen Saxon and Gordon Lustig on May 31.

Jewish Music Festival, through March 30. $22-$32; festival pass $125-$140.

Straight from the temple of bebop

dan pine   |   j. staff

Since every show is different, Ben Sidran can’t promise what songs he’ll perform at this year’s Jewish Music Festival. But he does make one promise.

“I’ll make new mistakes,” says the famed jazz pianist, former NPR radio host, author and Jewish music raconteur. “I always make mistakes.”

Hey, it’s jazz. That’s how it goes when riffing on Gershwin, Berlin and Bob Dylan — some of the artists Sidran analyzes in his show, “Jews and the Great American Songbook.” Part concert, part lecture, it blends Sidran’s talents for playing and storytelling.

Ben Sidran is bringing “Jews and the Great American Songbook” to the festival.

Tabbed “the original Jewish hipster” by Tablet magazine, he will make his debut in the festival on March 30 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

For decades, Sidran, 70, has studied Jewish American music, seeking common threads between, say, cantorial trope and a Rodgers and Hammerstein score. He even wrote a book on the subject, “There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream.”

In his show, Sidran reveals his conclusions about what makes a work quintessentially Jewish. And it has little to do with playing in a minor key.

“The minor mode exists all over the world,” Sidran says by phone from his home in Madison, Wis. “There’s nothing specifically Jewish about it. What Gershwin and his compatriots did is find a way to contextualize the major scale and the minor mode. It’s what [Russian composer] Dmitri Shostakovich referred to as the Jewish penchant for smiling through the tears.”

As much an educator as an entertainer, Sidran spins a few juicy tales in his show and plays a few musical mashups, such as morphing “Oseh Shalom” into Ray Charles’ classic “What’d I Say?” or the melody of the Torah blessing into George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

As for the latter, he doubts Gershwin deliberately borrowed the cadence of the Torah blessing chanted when someone is called up to the bimah for an aliyah. That’s because the emphasis of all the great Jewish American composers was to assimilate, Sidran says.

“Irving Berlin was asked what being a Jew had to do with his success,” Sidran says. “He said absolutely nothing. As I was writing my book, I asked well-known Jews in music [the same question] and they all said the same thing. It dawned on me that’s a very Jewish thing to say in America in the 20th century.”

That doesn’t mean the great Jewish American composers did not elevate music to a higher plane. Sidran thinks the credit goes all the way back to the Torah and its emphasis on both narrative and social justice.

“These things are deeply embedded in the Jewish experience,” he says. “One of the contributions of Jewish composers in the 20th century is bringing this elevated history into pop culture. It was not trivial; it was profound.”

Since the 1960s, Sidran has been contributing to that culture, first as a rock songwriter and performer, then as a jazz musician and recording artist. The native of Racine, Wis., grew up in a secular Jewish home, but remembers well the Old Country melodies of his father’s generation.

During the High Holy Days, he would find himself “in synagogue with maybe 75 Yiddish-speaking refugees from the Pale of Settlement. I heard that music.”

It seeped deep into his bones, but after bar mitzvah age, Sidran began attending “the temple of bebop,” having fallen in love with jazz. While still in the Midwest, he started collaborating with future rock stars Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs (he co-wrote Miller’s  classic hit “Space Cowboy”).

He moved to the West Coast at the height of the ’60s rock scene, but ended up moving back to Wisconsin because his wife hated Los Angeles. After that, he earned a doctorate in American studies, produced such artists as Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones, and became a solo artist. He has 30 albums to his credit.

But despite his love of rock and jazz, something haunted him. The Jewish musical influences of youth could not be denied.

“You can run,” he says, “but you can’t hide. Your best shot is to reach inside yourself and use that in your creative work.”

He recorded one album of Jewish music, and also delved into researching the subject, even as he was hosting “Jazz Alive” — and interviewing stars such as Miles Davis — on NPR from 1981 to 1983.

Sidran still makes music, and still finds connections between Jewish culture and the rest of the world.

“I’m at the point where I think the Jewish experience is a meme,” he says, “meaning an idea that runs through the culture like a virus. I think in many ways the meme lives on through the way we respond to life.”

“Jews and the Great American Songbook,” 7 p.m. March 30 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave., Berkeley. $22-$25.

A night at the opera: ‘Kaddish for Bernie Madoff’

abra cohen   |   j. staff

“Mourner’s Kaddish” is not something you’d expect to hear in the same sentence as “rock opera,” but singer-songwriter, poet and Torah scholar Alicia Jo Rabins has figured out a way to intertwine the two in “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff.”

Rabins will be performing her one-woman show on Thursday, March 27 as part of this year’s Jewish Music Festival. Her piece uses the Madoff scandal to explore the intersection of spirituality, finance and responsibility.

Two nights later, Rabins will be back onstage with the indie rock band she leads, Girls in Trouble, which also features her husband, Aaron Hartman, on bass. Both performances will take place at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley.

Alicia Jo Rabins

Raised in suburban Baltimore, the 37-year-old Portlander got the idea for what she calls an “experimental rock opera” when she and more than a dozen other artists were sharing a Lower Manhattan workspace in an old building.

“I’d lived in Brooklyn for a decade, but had spent almost no time in the financial district,” she says. “Suddenly I found myself commuting to Wall Street to write songs in this empty office.”

Sitting in the wake of the Wall Street crisis of 2007-08, Rabins says she began to think of the 2008 Madoff scandal as a modern Greek tragedy. So she decided to combine her musical background with her deep interest in Jewish texts and traditions.

Musically, Rabins is a songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist. She is a classically trained violinist, having played the instrument since the age of 3, but as a teenager, she began sneaking out of her house to attend Baltimore punk shows. In Girls in Trouble, she fiddles, plays the guitar and sings.

Religiously, though she was raised secular, Rabins tapped into an undiscovered love of Jewish texts when she attended a Torah study session in college. She went on to study for two years at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, an independent coed yeshiva in Jerusalem, and then got her master’s in women’s studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

To get material for her project, she began interviewing people involved in the Madoff scandal: victims, co-workers, people familiar with the Wall Street world. All of them helped give her a better idea of what Madoff was like.

She also buried herself in Securities and Exchange Commission reports. “I was blown away by the fact that his [investment] returns were mathematically impossible, yet no one stopped him for 40 years,” she says.

But, she is quick to point out, her rock opera “is not just about Madoff.” Instead, she says, it is about “the American relationship to money, survival and finance” and how that relates to “the idea of being responsible for one another.”

Rabins says while putting this piece together, she had a hard time dealing with the fact that Madoff is a Jew — because, she explains, “he fit into some of the worst Jewish stereotypes, and his actions reflected horribly on the community as a whole.”

Rabins’ piece, which will be making its California premiere, is a song cycle that includes setting the Mourner’s Kaddish to music. There is also storytelling, instrumentals and projected animation. All of it — the words and images — help examine whether Madoff should be dead to the Jewish community.

“I wanted to ask the question: Should Madoff, a modern, mostly secular Jew, warrant a modern, secular excommunication? Should we say the Kaddish for him?”

Rabins stresses that the rock opera does not answer that question explicitly. Instead, she says, it meditates on the idea of “Where do we draw the line?”

“I think of ‘A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff’ as an exploration of two alternate ways of dealing,” she says. “If this doesn’t warrant excommunication, what does?”

“A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” 8 p.m. March 27. Girls in Trouble, 8 p.m. March 29. Both at JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $22-$25.