Jewish Music Festival Asks: What Exactly is Jewish Music? | music | DW

Over a pulsing beat, Ramona Kozma (pictured above center) melancholy sings of a worthless life that a pair of dark eyes give meaning to. The rhythm is pure tango. But the language is Yiddish.

Kozma is the accordionist and vocalist of the Trio Picon, a German ensemble performing Yiddish tango, and the trio is one of many musical groups performing at the first Shalom Music Cologne Festival (Shalom-Musik.Köln). The week-long event, an offshoot of the 2021 city celebration of 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany, is dedicated to the presentation of Jewish music.

Yiddish tango was a popular genre in the 1920s and 1930s, with composers from Latin America, the United States and Eastern Europe writing words in the language of Ashkenazi Jews to the emotionally intense Argentine music. But it’s not a style of music that people typically think of when they hear the word “Jewish music.”

“I noticed that there is a relatively large knowledge gap,” says Kozma. “For example, Balkan music or Romanian music … is often associated with Jewish music. But that’s just not right.”

Yiddish tango is one of many genres included in the festival program. The others range from classical art song to contemporary jazz and club music to synagogue organ works. The musical diversity reflects the diversity of Jewish experience in history and in the present, and at the same time raises the question: what exactly falls under the umbrella term “Jewish music”?

The Shalom Music Festival is organized by the Cologne Forum Dialogkultur and the Cologne Synagogue Community

Jewish music? Depends on how you define it

Jean Goldenbaum, researcher and professor at the European Center for Jewish Music in Hanover, is very familiar with this question – it is usually the first person to deal with the topic.

“The first thing I explain is that there is no definitive answer. And there is no concrete answer,” says Goldenbaum.

There is no overarching factor that unites Jewish music, he explains. Instead, it refers to what parameters are set and what elements are present accordingly. Or, as Goldenbaum puts it: “Does it bring something or some things that show us or locate us in it [Jewish] cultural universe?”

A very restrictive interpretation might define Jewish music as liturgical music in Hebrew intended for the synagogue, while a broader definition might include non-religious music with lyrics in Hebrew or other Jewish languages; Texts in a non-Jewish language that nonetheless refer to Jewish texts or themes; or the use of musical motifs and stylistic features common in the Jewish musical tradition, such as specific keys or melodic patterns and flourishes.

In Yiddish Tango, the elements transcend language.

“The Yiddish tango is definitely written in the – shall I call it – tonality that is typical of synagogue music, which also shares klezmer music… the vocal part is also influenced by synagogue singing and a particular way of creating certain sound effects or raw wine noises that voice,” says Kozma.

Compositions by non-Jewish composers who used Jewish elements can also fall into the category of Jewish music. The opening night of the Shalom Music Festival included a well-known example: “Kol Nidrei” by Max Bruch. The Protestant composer wrote the piece to Jewish melodies in the early 1880s for Liverpool’s Jewish community. The name comes from the declaration recited during Yom Kippur services.

The sensitive issue of identity

The reverse scenario – a composition by a composer of Jewish origin that contains no obvious elements that orient it within the Jewish musical tradition – is perhaps the most controversial when it comes to definitions of Jewish music.

“Another very, very big question is whether the piece has no Jewish musical elements and no Jewish lyrics, but the composer is Jewish. What do we do about it?” Goldenbaum postulates.

Categorization is difficult in this case because it boils down to identity, an issue that is never clear-cut.

“This question and this answer will ultimately be greater than the composer’s imagination,” says Goldenbaum. There will be disagreements, he adds, which is fine: “Because it’s all about perspectives. It’s all about concepts. How do you decide to understand music. And it’s all about identity.”

Trumpeter Avishai Cohen

Israeli jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen, headliner of the festival, presented his new album “Naked Truth”

A prominent example of the difficulty associated with identity is the music of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. As a Jew, he converted to Catholicism to secure a prestigious post at the Habsburg court, and his compositions do not overtly refer to Jewish elements. The opening concert of the Shalom Music Festival presented classical songs in which Mahler used traditional German folk poetry.

Festival co-director Thomas Höft emphasizes that there is more than one lens through which Mahler’s music can be viewed.

“This repertoire has many more characteristics,” he says. “But is there anything specifically Jewish about Gustav Mahler? does it exist Is that denied? Did he suppress that himself? What is there? Can we judge? Or is that a wrong assumption? This is an experimental categorization put on glasses influenced by different experiences and use them to look at a very broad repertoire.”

Contemporary American composer Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” is another example of an ambiguous composition. While other works draw on his Jewish heritage, this electric guitar loop piece and recorded samples, performed at the festival by Cologne-based Israeli guitarist Tal Botvinik, uses Central African horn themes.

Guitarist Tal Botvinik plays Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint at the Shalom-Musik.Köln Festival

In addition to Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint”, Tal Botvinik also played Hebrew and Latino songs on the acoustic guitar

“It’s all about the question”

Then there’s the self-proclaimed “sexually charged freak party” that is The White Screen.

The duo’s music isn’t particularly “Jewish”, says Höft, which fuses art rock, gospel punk and psych pop. But as with any identity, the outsider’s perspective plays a role here too.

“They come from Israel and are ‘read’ by them People who don’t want them to perform. And that’s how they perform, and we look at them through these glasses and ask ourselves: ‘Is that Jewish, Israeli or even totally colorful world music? Is this queer music from a dancefloor context?’ It all boils down to the question.”

Taking a broad, inclusive approach, the Shalom Music Festival has created a lineup that spans the Middle Ages to the present day, spanning myriad styles of music and encouraging audiences to reflect on their own idea of ​​what Jewish music can be.

So what finally unites the musical panorama of the festival? It’s very simple for Höft: “Just the title. Just the perspective.”

Edited by Brenda Haas

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