Music: Further Definitions of the Days of Awe

Forgiveness, atonement, family. joy, connection and reconnection: these are themes which run through the holy days marked in the calendar of Judaism this time of year, holy days which include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, two of the most sacred during the year. They are themes, in fact which you may find in the stories of Judaism all through the year.

Take a listen to a recording from the Afro- Semitic Experience called Further Definitions of the Days of Awe. On it, a cross cultural band of musicians whose backgrounds range from classical to gospel to jazz and whose religions range from Judaism to Yoruba, join up with top notch cantors, respected song leaders in Judaism, to create new settings for the midnight prayers of Selichot, the service that marks the beginning of the most holy time of the liturgical year in Judaism.

Do you have to be Jewish to appreciate what they are doing with this music? No. If you are, will this reimagining sit well with you? Quite likely.

There are elements of blues, jazz, southern gospel, and melismatic middle eastern sounds all wrapped in a music which, whether you know the service or not, comes across as spirit reaching for and connecting with the divine. “Prayer and study are a major tenet of all three Abrahamic faiths. That’s great,” says group founder, bassist, and composer David Chevan. “But we need the dancing at the temple, those ecstatic moments. That’s really where we’re coming from.”

Cantor Jack Mendelson was impressed by the group’s abilities to handle complexity and spontaneity in the context of tradition. He began meeting with Chevan, singing him lines he had learned through decades of training and study and and teaching others, among them his son Daniel. Daniel sings with his father on several tracks on the album, and other cantors appear as guests as well.

Members of the Afro-Semitic Experience include bassist Chevan, Baba David Coleman, an African drummer and drum builder, who is also a Yoruba priest, Will Bartlett, who plays woodwinds, who teaches jazz saxophone and klezmer workshops, Babafemi Alvin Carter, Afro-Cuban and West African percussion and Klezmer drummer, Warren Byrd, pianist, composer, and teacher of gospel arranging, and Stacy Phillips, steel guitarist and violinist. Guests including trumpet masters Frank London and Saskia Laroo join in

The music they offer on Further Definitions of the Days of Awe. is soulful, whether that soul hearkens to the sounds of Otis Redding or an prayer for forgiveness in temple. There are jazz horn intros and rocking jazzy breaks in some of the pieces, and then other which invoke the sound of lament and longing for healing and home. Latin rhythms find their way in, as do beats of African percussion.

It sounds as though there is a lot going on here, and there is. Through it all the cantorial presence offers a clear strand connecting the heart of tradition with this new way of enhancing its sound. What track appeal to you most will vary according to your taste. Three you may want to check out especially are Shomer Israel, Viddui, and Adoshem, Part I.

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