It has been said that you can tell a lot about a culture by its music. The history, the people, and the culture's stories are all revealed in some way or another by the types of music the people play and listen to. Most cultures have evolved a unique music based on their language and the cadences that develop from its sounds.
So what does that say about a culture that has a music sung in a multitude of languages with a variety of musical styles? Hungarian, Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, and Romanian are all languages of Eastern Europe, and Jews have lived in all those countries and many more besides.
The songs of the Jewish people from the time of the Romans forward have come to take on the flavours of the countries that would have them for any extended time. Even those songs that are sung in Yiddish or Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jews of Spain before they were expelled in the 16th century) bear resemblances to the music of the countries they were written in.
Given all of that, one could be forgiven for thinking that Jewish music would be more indicative of its country of origin, rather than being unique to the Jewish people. While it is true that some of their music is sung in the language of the native country, they have a flavour that sets them apart from other songs originating in those countries.
This becomes very apparent when you listen to and watch the DVD made from the PBS television program Kitka & Davka In Concert: Old and New World Jewish Music. This is a recording of a concert that was given by the two groups and their special guest, trumpeter and vocalist Steve Saxon, at the Temple Sinai in Oakland, California.
Kitka is an all-female vocal ensemble made up of women from all ethnic backgrounds who share an interest in the music of Eastern Europe. Kitka, a Bulgarian and Macedonian word meaning bouquet, was formed in 1979 as an amateur choir. Over the years they evolved into a professional ensemble with an international reputation for their performances of traditional Jewish songs from Eastern Europe and Spain.
The songs they sing have subject matter ranging from memorials written in Yiddish for garment workers who died in a sweatshop fire in New York City in the nineteenth century to traditional love songs from the small villages and ghettos of Europe. The fact that the songs are sung in languages I don't know cannot hide the passion that the group is able to invest the material with.
Their ability to harmonize and carry the different parts of the music is a wonder unto itself, but being given the added bonus of watching them perform makes the music doubly enjoyable. Watching them sing gives one a true idea of the emotional power of the music and the effect it can have on people.
No matter the language the songs are being sung in, the emotional impact is the same. One can hear the bitter sweetness of the life of permanent exile imbued in the sounds no matter what the subject matter. Perhaps that's reading something into the music due to knowledge of the history of the Jewish people, but I dare anyone to listen to these women and not be moved in some manner by the tones and quality of their voices.
While the women of Kitka explore the music of the past in song, Davka is an instrumental group that uses the sounds of traditional Jewish music like klezmer and Middle Eastern/Sephardic songs mixed with Western classical, pop, and jazz influences to create a sound that is rooted in the Jewish tradition, but otherwise defies classification.
With titles like "Rhapsody For A Rhino" making up their repertoire, they are obviously not wedded to any traditional themes or topics. But weaving throughout their music like a drunken bumble bee are the familiar strains of what we associate with both the music that Kitka had been singing and the wild cadences of klezmer.
But living up to the English translation of their name, "contrary to expectations," they defy ours by introducing new elements into the mix. Although to be honest the first time you see them on stage you'll be forgiven for not having any expectations whatsoever. How many other musical quartets do you know that are composed of violin, cello, percussion, and bassoon?
Normally only the violin is known as a lead instrument, carrying the melody of the song. But in this instance they all become the focal point at one time or another. The combination of sounds that are produced with the different instruments enables them to create the different feelings required to give the music a unique flavour. Who knew that the bassoon could emit sounds that are what we in the west would refer to as "Middle Eastern"?
For the final third of the concert the two groups join each other on stage and are accompanied by singer/trumpet player Steven Saxon. Not only is Mr. Saxon conversant with modern music but he is also a cantor, the man who sings the songs during the service in a synagogue. In an interview clip he refers to himself as being the bridge between the two groups, and when they all appear on stage together he is planted between them.
It is truly remarkable to listen to the two groups come together. With Mr. Saxon acting as a balance point on which the plank of the teeter totter rests, the sounds tilt back and forth between the traditional and the modern, finding their meeting point in the voice and trumpet of Mr. Saxon. As a cantor he has a voice that is used to singing in a very formal style that suits the manner in which Kitka performs. But as a jazz trumpeter he also knows how to improvise.
After listening to both groups perform individually it was hard to see how they were going to find enough common ground to allow them to work together readily. But in reality the two groups were not that far apart emotionally or thematically. They both are drawing upon the same cultural history to create their music and through that bond are able to find a way to meet in the middle at Steven Saxon's voice and trumpet.
My review copy contained excerpts from the final version of the DVD, as in the promotional material it said the final version would be in 5.1 surround sound, with interviews and more songs. But even in the two channel stereo that I was listening to, the music was inspirational in the truest sense of the word.
When I listen to religious or culture-based music and the language or the ideas expressed are foreign to me, I tend to try and listen for the intent and spirit behind the music. How well does the group, or groups in this case, transmit the spirit and the emotion behind what they are doing? Does it sound contrived and manipulative, or is it a genuine outpouring of emotion based on a belief or a connection with the music that goes beyond the intellectual.
In the case of Kitka & Davka In Concert: Old and New World Jewish Music there is such a genuine passion on display the only way you could not be moved is if you were made of plastic or another inorganic material. This music could make stones weep, it is so deeply felt and performed with such genuine passion and feeling.
For anybody who is interested in learning more about another culture, two of the best places to begin are the stories and the music of the people. This disc is as fine an introduction to the music of the Jewish people in exile as you'll ever want to hear, with a large dollop of where that sound is being taken today by contemporary musicians.
If you want to buy a copy of this wonderful DVD you will have to do so through the website of the producers, Forest Creatures. It will cost you $19.95 (US) plus shipping.