Jeremiah Lockwood comes from a family of cantors, the spiritual leaders who lead Jewish communities in prayer and song. His grandfather, the late Jacob Königsberg, worked as a cantor in several cities and performed in concerts outside of church services, always hoping to inspire people with liturgical music.
It’s no surprise that Lockwood incorporated cantoral music into his own band, The Sway Machinery, and wrote his dissertation on Hasidic cantors in Brooklyn singing in a manner reminiscent of the golden age of cantoral music that began in the 1920s. The virtuosos of that time sounded like opera singers at times, but also improvised on solos.
The same goes for those in modern-day Brooklyn.
“It’s amazing,” Lockwood said of the Brooklyn cantors’ ability to master early 20th-century singing techniques. “Forget the questions about creativity versus imitation, the fact that they are physically capable of doing it is just mind-blowing.”
“They’re trained artists themselves,” he said. “It’s like there’s a scene of musicians who didn’t go to conservatory or jazz music school and learned to play Charlie Parker by playing around on a saxophone alone in their rooms at night.”
During his school days, Lockwood stumbled upon a YouTube video of cantors performing an informal Hasidic sing-along known as a kumzita kind of cantorial jam session where solos are passed by finger pointing.
The video inspired Lockwood to produce the new album Golden Age: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Todaywhich was recorded on Daptone Records, an analog recording facility known for soul music.
Three of the six cantors on the album performed with Lockwood at the Jewish Culture Festival in Poland in late June, a major annual Jewish music event that has been held for nearly 30 years. They were given the opportunity to perform with the support of a string quartet arranged by Lockwood, who at times accompanied the cantors on his electric guitar.
One of the cantors performing in Kraków, Yanky Lemmer, explained that as a child and teenager growing up in the Hasidic community, he didn’t have much entertainment other than what was considered “kosher.” Such households often have no television or internet access for children.
“Cantorial music is one of them [kosher] things,” he said. “Ooh, let me get into that. That’s interesting, that’s different.”
Lemmer said when he improvised during the service it was “one of the special feelings in the world”.
“When you start improvising and it works, you have this feeling, ‘Wow, this is something that’s coming through me. I don’t even do it,’ said Lemmer.
One of the world’s best-known cantors, Lemmer leads services at Manhattan’s renowned Lincoln Square Synagogue and has officiated everywhere from the Catskills to Australia. He credits YouTube for putting him on the map. After uploading the first video of himself online, his email inbox was flooded the next morning.
“The emails said, ‘You have to do this for a living. You have to do this,'” he told NPR.
One of the other cantors involved in the project, Shimmy Miller, is the son of Benzion Miller, who leads services one Sabbath a month at a Borough Park neighborhood church. This service takes three to four hours and everything is improvised on site. Lockwood, who participates in the choir, called the experience “musically challenging.”
“I’m always ready to break down after one of these services,” Lockwood said.
The claim that a revival of cantor music is underway is not made by all the cantors on the new album.
“This is not really an awakening, more like a dying gasp,” said Yoel Kohn, a former member of the Hasidic Satmar community. “Whether there will be enough interest to keep this going as an obscure music genre like baroque music indefinitely, I don’t know.”
But Hankus Netsky, a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, believes what’s happening with the Brooklyn Cantors could be both a temporary and a rebirth of the genre.
“I think Jeremiah Lockwood is a mediator between the generation that is seeing cantoral music dying in the community and the younger generation that is seeing the potential of cantoral music being rediscovered,” Netsky said.
Lockwood firmly believes that these “young” cantors (the oldest is 46) deserve to be discovered.
“These guys are brilliant singers, brilliant artists and they’re so underground that no one has heard of them,” he said. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to do what they do best and I wasn’t sure who the audience would be for that or if there would be an audience for it.”
That Golden Age Album is available as both digital download and vinyl LP.