Jaffa Road crosses cultures to reinvent Jewish music



World music band Jaffa Road has a sound as interesting and culturally rich as its namesake, the Jerusalem thoroughfare that is at once ancient and modern. The Toronto-based group is “interested in composing new music for old melodies,” founding member and oud player Aaron Lightstone said.

He will be joined by bandmates Aviva Chernick, Chris Gartner, Jeff Rode, Liam Smith and Sundar Viswanathan for a performance at Yoshi’s San Francisco on Sunday, July 13.

Jaffa Road oud player Aaron Lightstone (left) and lead singer Aviva Chernick (center) will perform with the band at Yoshi’s San Francisco. photo/steve carty

With its music largely inspired by ancient liturgy and a blending of cultures, Jaffa Road’s sound has strong Jewish, Arabic and Indian influences and reflects an array of musical traditions — Sephardic and Arabic folk music, modern Afro-pop, jazz, blues, electronica, pop, dub and reggae. Songs are performed in Hebrew, Arabic and Ladino.

No less influential are the different religious and cultural traditions of the band members themselves. For example, lead vocalist Chernick is also a cantorial soloist who won an international songwriting prize for the peace prayer “Lo Yisa Goy,” while Viswanathan was born in South India and is primarily a jazz musician. Together these influences create intriguing musical tiles that fit into Jaffa Road’s aesthetic mosaic.

Though deeply rooted in liturgy, the music is meant to create a spiritual rather than a religious experience, according to Lightstone — to facilitate for fans “some kind of spiritual expression, whether it’s religious, or secular, or none of the above,” he said in an interview.

With two albums to date, the 2009 debut “Sunplace” and 2012’s “Where the Light Gets In,” the musicians have found Toronto to be an ideal host for their style of music, allowing them to draw inspiration from the city’s many cultures. And Canada has been receiving the band well: Jaffa Road won the 2013 Canadian Folk Music Awards’ World Music Group of the Year and was nominated for Juno Awards in 2010 and 2013, among other honors. The band has also gained wider notice, performing at the Jewish music festival in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival and, this weekend, at the California Worldfest in Grass Valley.

The band’s name comes from the road that runs through the heart of Jerusalem, connecting the Old City to the Jaffa port. It was the ancient city’s first modern highway. When one band member suggested naming the group after the thoroughfare, noting how it represents a blending of the old with the new, there was instant acceptance.

The thruway “has a reputation for being multicultural and facilitating coexistence in a way more so than other places. It represents something in line with what the band is about,” said Lightstone. By taking ancient scriptures and reviving them, the band creates a multicultural rebirth — much like the road.

Jaffa Road, 7 p.m. Sunday, July 13 at Yoshi’s San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore St. $22 in advance, $25 day of show. www.yoshis.com/sanfrancisco