Amber Woods and Gary Cohen are the musical duo Kouskous. They were among the speakers in the six-part Journeys in Jewish Music series. (photo from Kouskous)
In ordinary times, the Victoria Jewish Community Choir meets in person at the synagogue building of Congregation Emanu-El. Unable to do so during the pandemic, the choir has instead been offering Zoom presentations on a diverse array of Jewish music.
Throughout the spring, the six-part Journeys in Jewish Music series, funded by the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island, has brought in an audience from around the world. It has featured talks on biblical cantillation by Vancouver’s Moshe Denburg; the songs of Sefarad, with Prof. Judith Cohen of the University of Toronto; Chassidic meditative melodies (niggunim) with Emanu-El’s Rabbi Matt Ponak; and Sing a New Song to G-d: New Prayer Compositions, with Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel, who lives on Hornby Island. The last event in the series, which takes place June 20, will see Denburg return, to speak on the topic The Way of the Klezmer: Klezmer and Yiddish Song.
The Jewish Independent attended the May 23 musical voyage, which was guided by Gary Cohen and Amber Woods, who form the Victoria-based duo Kouskous. It explored Mizrahi music and how it differs from other Jewish musical styles. To demonstrate this, Cohen and Woods took the liturgical song “Lecha Dodi” and sang it with Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi interpretations.
“In general, we see the Mizrahi world being divided into three major geographical blocks: North Africa, Turkey and the Middle Eastern (Arabic) countries,” said Cohen.
Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, Sephardi Jews migrated to many countries in Europe, as well as going to North Africa, Greece, Turkey and Middle Eastern/Arabic countries. “Wherever Jews went, they blended their own musical traditions with those of the countries to which they moved. For example, the Sephardim combined their own musical style with Moroccan rhythms, Arabic instrumentation and Middle Eastern vocal expressions,” he explained.
“The Sephardim in Turkey and Greece often incorporate odd-metered rhythms such as 7/8, 9/8 in their music. In addition to traditional Arabic instruments, Greek instruments like the bouzouki were commonly used,” Cohen said.
Sephardi musicians who moved to Middle Eastern/Arabic countries were heavily influenced by Arabic musical styles, including “a wide melodic range, as well as vocal and instrumental embellishments,” he said. “Lyrics were often in Arabic, Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic.”
Throughout the presentation, Cohen and Woods performed some musical selections – including a few hot and spicy numbers – from the aforementioned genres for the assembled Zoom audience.
Carol Sokoloff, who co-directs the Victoria Jewish Community Choir with Kenny Seidman, is the person who came up with the idea for the lecture series.
“It has been so well-received it seems natural to repeat it and I hope to do that in the fall, going deeper into many of the subjects, as well as exploring new territory, such as Jewish composers of popular songs, Jewish women’s music, the music of the hidden Jews of Spain and Portugal, cantorial traditions and more,” Sokoloff told the Independent.
“Jewish music has so many flavours and is so rich and varied we have only begun to scratch the surface. Through our conversations, we are learning about other people with knowledge to share and, so far, everyone has been very generous in their enthusiasm for this series,” she said.
The shift from live venues to Zoom since the start of the pandemic has allowed the choir to expand its audience outside of Victoria.
“The series has been wonderful in that people who never knew about the Victoria Jewish Community Choir are now aware of us,” said Sokoloff, “and I believe that, when we finally can meet again to sing together, we shall likely attract many new members or new audiences for our performances and concerts. So, the series has allowed the choir to weather this challenging period and likely emerge stronger than ever! I think it has also generally increased interest in Jewish music in our region as well – all very happy outcomes.”
In non-pandemic times, the choir sings a variety of Jewish music: Psalms and prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic, niggunim, Yiddish songs, Sephardi music in Judeo-Spanish, Israeli songs, Broadway tunes, Yemenite music and contemporary compositions. For more information or to support the choir, send an email to [email protected] or visit their Facebook page, where you can also learn how to receive the link for the June 20, 7:30 p.m., talk.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Andrea Superstein performs July 4 from Pyatt Hall during this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which starts June 25. (photo from Wendy D Photography)
Vancouver vocalist, composer and arranger Andrea Superstein has a new song out. It’s cheerful, upbeat. And she will perform “Every Little Step,” which was released in March, live for the first time at this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which starts June 25 and runs to July 4.
“‘Every Little Step’ was my saving grace during the pandemic,” Superstein told the Independent. “I wrote it at a time when I was feeling really overwhelmed by the uncertainty that living through a pandemic brings. I was emotionally exhausted from listening to the daily press conferences and I just needed something good. I received a Digital Originals grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and that was the impetus.
“The song was inspired by the beautiful landscapes of B.C., which I experienced on a family camping trip to Nelson,” she explained. “We live in such a beautiful place and being able to spend so much time in nature really saved me during the pandemic. In a way, it’s my homage to B.C.”
Of course, Superstein couldn’t meet in-person with musicians to workshop the composition, so, she said, “I had this crazy idea to reach out to musicians across Canada (some of whom I’d worked with before and others who to this day I still haven’t met in person) to write, arrange, record and make a music video completely in isolation. It was wild! We didn’t have one rehearsal – we didn’t even have a group Zoom meeting. Elizabeth Shepherd and I wrote and arranged the song together over Zoom and we communicated some ideas to each specific player and they self-recorded (audio and video) from their home studios. And we made a super-fun music video for it, as well.
“The more I think about it, I can’t even believe what we accomplished. I love the song so much! The vibe is a super feel good ’90s groove but, symbolically, it was so meaningful because, despite all being trapped at home, we found a way to be together in this weird virtual way. It was transformative for me.”
On the video, Superstein and Shepherd’s song is performed by them, with Superstein on vocals, Shepherd on keys, Carlie Howell on bass, Isaac Neto on guitar, Colin Kingsmore on drums and Liam MacDonald on percussion. For the jazz festival performance, Superstein will be joined by Chris Gestrin (keys), Nino DiPasquale (drums) and Jodi Proznick (bass).
“I’m so happy to be playing with them,” said Superstein. “They each offer such a unique perspective to the music and they’re all wonderful humans!”
The show is on July 4, 7 p.m., at Pyatt Hall and will be streamed on Coastal Jazz & Blues Society’s YouTube channel, she said. “Regarding a possible audience,” she added, “the festival is closely monitoring all provincial health orders and will make a decision on indoor audiences after the next provincial health update on June 15.”
Superstein is looking forward to being able to perform live again.
“I miss that special relationship that is forged during live performance,” she said. “There is something truly magical about collectively experiencing a moment in time that can never be recreated. That being said, I am blown away by the digital innovation that has emerged during the last year-and-a-half to keep the arts alive, and I attended some amazing concerts and theatre this year.
“As for me, it’s been relatively quiet on the performance front. I did a livestream concert through Or Shalom’s Light in Winter series in early 2021, which was so incredible. Other than a few other small things, I’ve been keeping it pretty low key, slowly working away at composing new music and taking my time with life.”
Playing at the jazz festival, she said, “I think it will be an incredible way to give momentum to many of the creative ideas I’ve been sitting with these past two years and a great chance for music lovers to reconnect, seeing as it’s been some time since my last performance.”
The last time that the Independent interviewed Superstein was in January 2020, just before the pandemic hit in full force. Among other things, she spoke about her then-new album, Worlds Apart, which she had described to CBC as having the themes of “the pain of being in a one-sided relationship, the loneliness of technology, and positivity in times of destruction.”
“As an artist, I like to observe life and then transform those observations into stories. I think this was helpful for me at the beginning of the pandemic because my curiosity was heightened, there was so much unknown,” she explained. “I found that to be both scary and exhilarating. I was also trying to figure out how to homeschool a 5-year-old while teaching full-time online without completely unraveling. So, creativity, flexibility and leaning in helped me survive most of 2020. Those are definitely skills that I use a lot as an artist. Truthfully, though, I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the pandemic.”
In addition to the new song “Every Little Step,” Superstein has started working on a new album, which she is hoping to release in late 2022.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” she shared, “with lots of moving parts, culminating in a multimedia performance. It will showcase collaborations with Elizabeth Shepherd, whom I treasure, and my dear friend Ayelet Rose Gottlieb (who you have featured before), among others. There’s also upcoming opportunities for non-musicians to be involved in the process, so people can stay in touch with me over social media if they want to know when and where that’s happening.”
As for her upcoming performance, she said, “In terms of what people can expect from the show, we’ll be doing some brand-new arrangements and compositions, a few gems from Worlds Apart, as well as a few old favourites. Like a true Superstein show, I’m going to take the audience on a sonic journey, whether that’s direct from Pyatt Hall or from their living rooms, it’s going to be a celebration!
For tickets ($11) to Superstein’s July 4 concert or any of the jazz festival’s more than 100 virtual events, visit coastaljazz.ca. There will be performances by local artists, as well as streams from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Paris; free online workshops; club performances; and a continued partnership with North Shore Jazz. All streams will be available until midnight on July 6.
On May 2, Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria welcomes singer, songwriter, teacher, music producer and cantorial soloist Len Udow to speak on Worship with Joy. Drawing on both secular and cantorial music, Udow will recall his journey from 1960s coffee-house folk singer to cantorial soloist at Temple Shalom, Winnipeg’s Reform congregation, where he helps to officiate and teach.
By sharing both his own story and performing live with vocals and guitar, Udow wants to show how we can “carry our ancient narratives to other hearts and souls … respecting the old traditions while introducing innovation in prayer and spirituality.” As he describes it, “In Judaism, we see ourselves enlivening prayer with breath and melody, revealing the joy, praise and gratitude embedded in our heritage.”
For Udow, the phrase iv’du b’simchah (worship with joy) has been “a call to service, putting this musician on the bimah (altar) of a little prairie shul … where I have been privileged to lead a kahal (assembly) to a closer musical fellowship and learning.”
With humour, Udow quotes his mentor, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom: “When Jews talk they argue; when they sing, they sing together.” To Sacks, “Words are the language of the Jewish mind; music is the language of the Jewish soul.”
Udow has performed on concert stages, at festivals, on radio and television, and on numerous recordings. As well as playing the piano, banjo and guitar, he was a featured vocalist and music producer with fellow Winnipegger, Fred Penner, for more than two decades.
Worship with Joy is the final lecture of Kolot Mayim’s six-part series called Building Bridges: Language, Song and Story. It starts on Zoom at 11 a.m. and registration is via kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Jesse Waldman was inspired by his great-grandmother Adele Waldman to reimagine the Yiddish song “Papirosen.” (photo from Jesse Waldman)
Several weeks ago, I was offered a commission by the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts to do a musical piece for their Covid Chronicles series. A Jewish musician living in Vancouver, I made a video of the classic Yiddish tune “Papirosen.” It has special significance, and it’s something I want to share with others.
As far back as I can remember, my family has been into taking photos, videos and recordings – I have at least three huge albums and a bunch of VHS tapes from birthdays, bar mitzvahs, etc. As well, there was a piano in my grandparents’ living room and music was always part of our lives. Before my grandmother passed away, she gave me a cassette that had been made on a reel-to-reel tape machine in Toronto in 1958. It included my mom at 2-and-a-half-years-old singing nursery rhymes, interviews with other family members, and my great-grandmother, Adele Waldman, singing traditional Yiddish folk songs.
Adele was my grandfather’s mother and she died before I was born. The quality and soul of her voice is absolutely stunning – some of the most moving singing I’ve ever heard, both haunting and soothing at the same time. I could listen to the recordings a million times and still be amazed by the off-the-cuff performances she did in the kitchen of my grandparents’ house.
I recently went through my storage closet and found a binder of sheet music that used to live in my grandparents’ piano bench. It was mostly big band and jazz tunes, but also a handful of Yiddish songs, including “Papirosen,” which was one the songs Adele sang on those tapes. As I put the sheet music on my music stand and began to study it, I was transported back to Eastern Europe in the 1920s.
Written by Herman Yablokoff in that decade, this song has the most dark yet beautiful melody, and I absolutely adore it. I looked up the lyrics (translated into English) and was struck again by the powerful storytelling about a young boy selling cigarettes, or papirosen, on the streets, offering an introspective look at his inner world.
For the Shadbolt-commissioned piece, I combined Adele’s recorded performance of “Papirosen” and a reimagined rendition of the song that I performed on guitar. After trying a few different things, I landed on the idea of sharing the first segment of her performance (her rendition is five minutes long) followed by a one-take performance by myself. The video can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=RWAVr2W0vvo.
Loolwa Khazzoom in Iraqis in Pajamas’ video for their song “Cancer Is My Engine,” to be released on Chanukah. (photo by Ailisa Newhall)
With shared themes of finding light in the darkness, Seattle-area band Iraqis in Pajamas is releasing the video for their song “Cancer Is My Engine” on Chanukah.
Amid the global pandemic, volunteer cast and crew drove in from across Washington state, donning masks and practising social distancing, to film the music video against the backdrop of the Olympic Peninsula forest.
The video tells the story of front woman Loolwa Khazzoom’s choice to reject the conventional thyroidectomy treatment for thyroid cancer, despite medical and financial pressure. Khazzoom instead chose to approach the diagnosis as an opportunity for radically transforming her life, such as by going vegan and practising numerous forms of mind-body medicine. (See jewishindependent.ca/healing-powers-of-song.)
After cold-stopping the growth of the nodules for years, through these measures, Khazzoom moved to Washington state from California, returned to her lost love of music, and launched her band, which combines ancient Iraqi Jewish prayers with original alternative rock. Immediately following, the thyroid nodules began shrinking. Through magical realism and metaphor, the music video reveals how, by listening to her inner voice, Khazzoom self-healed through her actual voice, by singing – the ability to do which may have been destroyed by a thyroidectomy, given the proximity of the thyroid gland and vocal chords.
The video begins with Khazzoom standing at the edge of a cliff, singing the opening line of the song, “Cancer is my engine.” As she sings, a candle is lit by her voice. She is transported to a forest, where she is searching in the dark with the light of that candle. She comes across a stuffed bear – representing Khazzoom’s mother – and picks it up, then continues on her quest.
An insurance agent and doctor appear and begin chasing Khazzoom. As she runs from them, she comes to a fork in the road – with the doctor on one side and the insurance agent on the other. She pauses, then runs forward, where there is no path, heading toward the light. She keeps running until she comes to a cliff and jumps off it.
She lands in the middle of a drumming circle and starts dancing wildly. A few scenes later, she is drumming in the middle of the circle, and everyone else is dancing around her. Both circles represent the pivotal importance of music and dance in Khazzoom’s healing. The video then shifts from magical realism and metaphor to real-life shots, with the band playing music in a vegetable patch in Khazzoom’s garden, representing Khazzoom’s regimen of juicing daily and eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet. The video ends with Khazzoom standing on the edge of the cliff and singing the last words of the song, in the original a cappella Iraqi Jewish prayer that exalts the power of the Divine.
The video was sponsored by nonprofit Healing Journeys and funded by the Lloyd Symington Foundation, both of which offer programs for people living with and healing from cancer.
Studies on the healing possibilities of music are documented in books like The Power of Music by Elena Mannes and The Healing Power of Sound by oncologist Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, and the National Institutes of Health has launched a series of studies on the healing powers of music. Whether singing lullabies or sacred chants, mothers and religious leaders have known for millennia what scientists are only beginning to understand. Singing bypasses our mental process, both awakening and soothing us at the core. Among other benefits, we are able to access, release and heal from the experience of trauma, without having to recount and risk getting triggered by painful memories.
Khazzoom has had a career as an educator, activist, journalist, health coach, and more, all with the central organizing principle of individual and collective healing. Her work has been featured in media including the New York Times and Rolling Stone; she has presented at venues including Harvard University and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre; and she has published two books, which are taught at universities nationwide.
Iraqis in Pajamas comprises Khazzoom on both vocals and bass, Sean Sebastian on guitar and Robbie Morsehead on drums. The trio opens up audiences to contemplation about trauma, healing and transformation, whether addressing domestic violence, cancer, racism, mental illness, street harassment, family caregiving or national exile.
How does a 1940 Yiddish theatre song – probably based on a passage from the Talmud’s Tractate Bava Metzia – end up becoming a popular piece sung around the world?
Over a 75-year period, Aaron Zeitlin’s “Dona Dona” (in Yiddish, “Dos Kelbl,” “The Calf”) has been sung by some of the 20th century’s biggest English-speaking performers, including Joan Baez, Donovan, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Chad & Jeremy, and countless others. It has been sung in Japanese, German, French (in this version, the calf is replaced by a boy trying to figure out his future) Swedish, Hebrew, Russian, Italian, Catalan and Vietnamese. Zeiltin’s original “Dos Kelbl” was put to music by Sholom Secunda; in 1956, Arthur Kevess and Teddi Schwartz translated it into English.
“Dona Dona” was part of Zeiltin’s Yiddish play Esterke, based on the legendary relationship of a Jewish woman named Esther and King Casimir of Poland. Zeitlin first published it in 1932 in Globus, the Yiddish literary journal he edited. The play about Esterke and Kazimierz the Great was a Polish-Jewish mystery in four acts. Male and female actors sang “Dona Dona” as a solo, as a duet and as a chorus with orchestration.
Zeitlin was invited to New York for the performance of Esterke, which is an indication of how influential Yiddish theatre was in the pre-Second World War Jewish cultural world. With the outbreak of the war, however, he was unable to sail back to his family. His wife, two children, father and brother were killed in the Holocaust.
This terrible loss haunted Zeitlin for the rest of his life. Indeed, some maintain that “Dona Dona” represents the tremendous suffering and loss of life Jews experienced in the Holocaust. While Zeitlin – who was living in Poland in the 1930s – was certainly aware of the growing threat of Nazism, he composed the song before the Holocaust began.
Over time, the song has been interpreted in many different ways. In a 2010 article in The Jewish Magazine, Mendel Weinberger understands “Dona Dona” as a reference to the struggle between the physical and the spiritual. The calf represents the body, the seat of desire. The body seeks pleasure, wealth and honour, and is a slave to these desires. The calf on the way to the slaughterer is a metaphor for the body’s journey towards death. The calf (i.e. the body) is mournful because it has become attached to life and fears the unknown of the next world. The swallow, on the other hand, represents the soul, in Weinberger’s interpretation. The Divine Soul is a part of G-d’s Being and is not bound by the material limitations of the physical world; it is free to soar in the spiritual realms high above the earthly one.
Baez, who, probably more than anyone else in North America, was responsible for popularizing the English version of the song, has said she was attracted to the “beauty of the melody.” At the beginning of her long career, she started singing “Dona Dona” as a civil rights protest song. It appeared on her first album and became a “staple” in her performances.
In 1975, Seoul, South Korea, banned the playing of “Dona Dona.” The government considered the song to be leftist and violence-inducing. Two hundred and sixty other songs appeared on this blacklist.
Pointing to how times change or perhaps stay the same, in 2018, Liao Yiwu, a Chinese writer in exile, used “Dona Dona” to boost the morale of someone under long-term house arrest. He had been trying to get permission for poet Liu Xia (widow of Nobel Prize winner, dissident Liu Xiaobo) to immigrate to Germany. In a phone call that year, the severely depressed widow cried continuously, saying, “It is easier to die than to live.” Liao Yiwu played “Dona Dona” for his desperate friend, who has since been released and allowed to leave for Germany.
Given that Zeitlin had religious training, the Gemara of Talmud Bava Metzia 85a is a likely inspiration of “Dona Dona” and, therefore, probably best explains the song’s true meaning. The Gemara tells the story of how Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, came to endure terrible pains. A young calf, destined for the slaughterhouse, met up with the rabbi. The calf placed its head under the rabbi’s coattails and cried. Yehuda HaNasi said to it, “Go! It was for this that you were created.” Because he should have shown greater mercy to the calf, the rabbi was punished for 13 years with great suffering. Only when he expressed pity for some baby weasels did his pains leave him.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
On a wagon bound for market There’s a calf with a mournful eye High above him there’s a swallow Winging swiftly through the sky How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Don Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Don
Stop complaining, said the farmer Who told you a calf to be Why don’t you have wings to fly with Like the swallow so proud and free How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona … Don
Calves are easily bound and slaughtered Never knowing the reason why But whoever treasures freedom Like the swallow has learned to fly How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona … Don
The new Jewish Seniors Alliance Snider Foundation Empowerment Series season began on Oct. 19 with a concert. As usual, the program was co-sponsored by JSA and a community organization; in this case, the Kehila Society of Richmond. Because of the pandemic, the event took place on Zoom.
Last year’s Empowerment theme, “Be Inspired,” was carried forward for this year’s season. Fifty participants tuned in to Music in the Afternoon, which featured pianist Lester Soo and vocalist Maria Cristina Fantini. Soo is an accomplished musician who has taught, adjudicated, accompanied and performed in the world of music for many years, while Fantini – a dramatic soprano, at home in both classical and popular styles – teaches and has established her own vocal studio.
Toby Rubin, coordinator of Kehila Society, welcomed everyone and introduced Soo and Fantini.
JSA’s Gyda Chud spoke about the alliance and recalled that Soo and Fantini had performed in a joint program in the past. This time, the musicians performed from Soo’s home, where he was able to make use of his grand piano.
The audience was entertained by a number of old favourites, starting from the 1930s. Songs included “Unforgettable,” “When I Fall in Love” and “Besame Mucho.” These were followed by works by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, k.d. lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and “Tonight” from West Side Story. The duo then switched to the jazz genre, with “Misty.” Lester played a solo of “Over the Rainbow” and he and Fantini ended with an aria by Puccini, “O, My Beloved Father.”
It was a wonderful concert. The only problem was that the musicians couldn’t hear the applause because the audience was muted for the performance. However, Rubin thanked Soo and Fantini on everyone’s behalf.
Over the last three decades, poet and performer Adeena Karasick and composer and trumpeter Frank London have each transformed the worlds of poetry and music with work that is sensual and political, steeped in Jewish mysticism, exploding notions of high and low culture. Their first collaboration together, Salomé: Woman of Valor, the debut recording of London’s NuJu Music label, was released on Oct. 15.
Karasick and London’s Salomé takes its inspiration from the historical figure, who has become typecast as a lurid femme fatale, especially via Oscar Wilde’s play and Richard Strauss’s opera, which depict Salomé as the seductress who danced the infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils” for her stepfather Herod and had John the Baptist beheaded.
“Salomé: Woman of Valor addresses the social and political necessity to speak the unspoken, resist outdated notions of identity and ethnicity. It critiques a received narrative, historically accepted as truth, and opens up a space where difference and otherness can be celebrated,” said Karasick and London in the press release about the launch.
Karasick’s libretto explores, exalts and reclaims the figure of Salomé in a feminist light to reveal an apocryphal figure who refuses to be locked into a world of subjugation and misrepresentation. London’s Salomé score is drawn from many musical traditions – klezmer, bhangra, Arabic and jazz, with a big nod to Miles Davis’ electric work and to trumpet innovator Jon Hassell.
Featured on the recording are Punjabi percussion virtuoso Deep Singh and Middle-Eastern jazz electronica guru Shai Bachar, with guest appearances by actor, director and ubu god Tony Torn and singer Manu Narayan.
Salomé: Woman of Valor is the culmination of seven years work. Karasick’s text was published in 2017 in English and Italian, and sections have been published in Bengali, Arabic, Czech and Malayalam. In 2018, Salomé: Woman of Valor was performed internationally. For an article published prior to the Vancouver show, see jewishindependent.ca/salomes-rightful-place.
Salomé: Woman of Valor can be heard and bought at AppleMusic, BandCamp or Amazon.
Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making, led by Ruth Howard, is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which starts Oct. 28. (photo by Adrienne Marcus Raja)
Tikkun olam, the imperative to repair the world in which we live, is a core influence of the project Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside: Adventures in Digital Community Art Making. Led by Toronto-based theatre designer and educator Ruth Howard, the residency is part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.
The festival runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 8, and Grounds for Goodness, which “explores why and how people sometimes do good things towards others,” takes place Oct. 30 to Nov. 12. It comprises participant and audience interactive story-sharing, art-making, workshops and an evolving gallery online, as well as Downtown Eastside window displays. The residency is co-produced by Jumblies Theatre and Arts and Vancouver Moving Theatre.
Howard – who has participated in the festival before (jewishindependent.ca/putting-heart-into-city) – is the founder of Jumblies. She said tikkun olam is an underlying motivator in all her work – “and one of this project’s explicit intents is to connect its themes and questions, my Jewish heritage as a second generation Holocaust survivor and my vocation a community-engaged artist.
“Community arts is predicated on the working belief that bringing people together across differences can foster commonality and understanding,” she explained. “And yet, growing up in the 1960s, as the child of a German Jewish refugee (my mother and family escaped to England in 1938) and an experimental psychologist, I was bred on evidence that groups of people tend to do atrocious things towards others, with goodness being individual heroic exceptions. I was told at a young age about [Stanley] Milgram’s electric shock experiments, and understood the link between such cautionary tales and attempts by survivors to explain the Holocaust. My own uncle – Henri Tajfel, both social psychologist and Holocaust survivor – coined the term ‘social identity theory.’
“Therefore, my attention was grabbed a few years ago when I read some books about the saving of Danish and Bulgarian Jewish populations during the Holocaust by citizens of those countries. The Danish story was slightly familiar to me and the Bulgarian one not at all. I have since become quite obsessed by these and other instances (for example, Albania, the Rosenstrasse protests) that run against the grain of my and other people’s common assumptions about human behaviour and ‘nature.’ I felt compelled to tell these stories and learn more about the reasons behind them. I started to investigate the notion of ‘social goodness’ from many angles: history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, memory, folk tale, legend, theory.”
With the help of independent research and creation grants, Howard “gradually brought the project into the work of Jumblies, inviting and including the responses of diverse community participants and groups. Now, we have a broad and growing repertoire of stories with which to play.
“However,” she stressed, “it’s important to me to uphold the project’s origins in Jewish perspectives and histories, and my own Jewishness: a complicated mix of darkness, hope and urgency to understand how to cultivate grounds for goodness through never forgetting what can happen in its absence.”
The Jumblies team in Toronto includes Howard’s daughter, web designer and choir conductor Shifra Cooper, and composer Martin van de Ven, also a member of the Jewish community.
In addition to being a composer for film, television, theatre and dance, van de Ven is a music facilitator and educator. He is also a clarinetist and has performed with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Chutzpah Ensemble, and Beyond the Pale. He has been involved in many Jumblies projects – as musical director, composer and/or performer. “Ruth and I have written several choral works together,” he told the Independent.
“To me, Jumblies is the embodiment of a music and art-making philosophy that believes the arts are there for everyone to create and not just for the well-trained elite,” he said. “Composers such as John Cage and Canada’s R. Murray Schafer talk about this in their writing and both were an early influence on my music education. Jumblies allows me to use my own skills and training to combine the efforts of trained and non-trained performers to create art, and specifically music, that serves the purpose of the moment, whether a stand-alone piece or something that supports a story being told. I think this work is important; it democratizes and decommodifies music-making and breaks down barriers to creation for community members who are otherwise shut out of the creative process. The myth that music-making is the sole purview of the highly skilled, and it is only worthwhile if it is commodified into a product to be consumed, is damaging to the whole idea of ‘homo ludens,’ the idea that a fundamental human attribute is the ability to play, invent and create.”
The community choir that Cooper directs embodies this concept of art being for everyone.
“The Gather Round Singers is an intergenerational community choir, made up of 30-plus mixed-ability, multi-aged singers, from across Toronto and beyond,” she said. “We exist within Jumblies Theatre, and so share their dedication to radical inclusivity and benefit from their experience in creating interdisciplinary work.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the choir has been meeting weekly online since April, said Cooper, “to rehearse and perform new choral works designed or adapted for this new context” – that “[c]horal music is among the more challenging forms to adapt to online gathering, as video calling platforms such as Zoom are designed to reduce vocal overlap, and create latency that makes in-sync singing impossible.”
The Gather Round Singers will perform two new pieces for the opening of the DTES Vancouver residency, said Cooper – “one a world première by Martin van de Ven and one a work-in-progress by Arie Verheul van de Ven, both of which were developed this summer especially to be performed on Zoom. These are both part of Jumblies’ larger Grounds for Goodness project, which continues until a final presentation in June 2021, and will include several other new musical and choral pieces … and other composers (including Andrew Balfour, Christina Volpini and Cheldon Paterson).”
“Grounds for Goodness overall is a multi-year project that includes many partners, places and participants,” explained Howard. “It has been taking place through real-live and virtual activities for almost two years. There have been episodes in Nipissing First Nation (near North Bay, Ont.), Montreal, Brampton, the Ottawa Valley, Algoma Region (northern Ontario), and with various Toronto groups.… We have received funds to tour the project, which have now been adapted to allow for ‘virtual touring.’ The Vancouver iteration is the next big chapter in this project.”
For Grounds for Goodness Downtown Eastside, Martin van de Ven said, “we’ll be premièring a work called ‘Besa.’ ‘Besa’ is an Albanian Islamic concept about hospitality and the need to help and protect guests and those in need within and beyond your community.
“In Albania, during the Second World War (and Italian and then Nazi occupation), this meant that almost all Jewish people living and finding refuge in Albania were sheltered and hidden, and Albania ended up with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning. We created a work based on texts found in writings and interviews with Albanians – from the book Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews During WW II by Norman H. Gershman.
“The COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from developing this piece as we normally would,” he continued, “and so I composed a work that could be performed and rehearsed with everyone being online. It involved researching the technology, experimenting with Zoom meetings and audio programs, as well as writing music that allowed for enough flexibility to deal with internet latency. For our Vancouver residency, we will be presenting this work and sharing our experience of creating an artwork to be performed online with members of the Vancouver art community.”
Those Vancouver artists include Savannah Walling, Olivia C. Davies, Beverly Dobrinsky, Khari Wendell McClelland, Renae Morriseau and Rianne Svelnis, as well as 10 DTES-involved participants.
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Van de Ven started music lessons when he was 6 years old – on recorder. “In elementary school,” he said, “my friends and I decided we wanted to form a circus. As the only one in the group with musical training, I was charged with writing the theme for the circus band. I dutifully started writing down half notes and quarter notes on paper and tried to play them on the recorder. The method worked fine but I soon realized I would need some additional training if I wanted it to sound good.
“I ended up with a musical education partially shaped by my father’s interest and taste for very modern classical and jazz music and eventually formal training at university,” he said. “In my late teens, I realized that my interest in science and engineering paled compared to the excitement I felt for a live performance, whether as an audience member or as a performer.”
In university, in addition to his formal training, van de Ven was involved in various jazz programs and, eventually, studied and performed in free improv ensembles. He also did a short stint in Europe, studying early computer music in electronic sound synthesis.
“Klezmer music has a history deeply rooted in East European and Middle Eastern music traditions. As a clarinetist,” he said, “it provided for me a wonderful vehicle to not only deeply emerge myself into a culture other than my own but also perform a lead role playing in a band.”
For her part, Cooper has loved choral singing her whole life. “And I bring this love to my own work,” she said, “while having always believed that bringing together community arts and choral singing requires a flexibility and a softening of our understanding of the boundaries of what ‘choral music’ can be – this is something that I have always been creatively driven by. In these times, I’m learning a lot more about how far this can go.
“Sometimes, turning things on their head can be revealing of new approaches, considerations or perspectives,” she said. “For example, one young woman who has sung with the choir for many years, said to me the other day: ‘In rehearsal, I always sit in the back row, so I only see the backs of people’s heads. I like on Zoom that I can see the faces of everyone I’m singing and performing with.’ Another choir member told me that she feels more confident and motivated to practise when she has her microphone off and is alone in her room following along – this confidence comes through strikingly in the recordings she shared with me for one of our digital projects. In these ways, sometimes, working online has revealed the limitations of our previously established norms for singing in-person. I think often now about how, whenever we can safely be back together, we might incorporate these learnings.
“Which is not to gloss over any of the challenges of meeting online,” stressed Cooper. “I think I can speak for at least the majority of the choir when I say we all immensely miss singing together – in sync, in harmony, in rhythm. And a digital space, even though full of many possibilities, is also full of boundaries and obstacles to folks joining in, especially those experiencing more precarious housing or financial insecurity. Our team worked closely all summer with members of the choir community to bridge this gap, purchasing and delivering internet-enabled devices to choir members and providing remote and in-person (socially distanced) trainings and trouble-shooting.” They did so with funding from several sources, notably the Toronto Foundation.
“Another part of my work has often included event management and digital design and, in the new reality of virtual art-making, these two often come together in interesting ways,” Cooper added. “I’m delighted to be designing a new interactive website for Grounds for Goodness at the DTES Heart of the City Festival, that will act as an online evolving gallery, showcasing new work created through the community workshops and acting as the container and guide for the culminating virtual event.”
The theme for this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is “This Gives Us Strength.” One of the more than 50 events that will take place over the festival’s 12 days is Spotlight on the East End on Oct. 30, 8:30 p.m. Curated by artist-in-residence Khari Wendell McClelland, the online presentation will feature “the compelling creativity and strength of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside-involved artists and residents who illuminate the vitality, relevance and resilience of our neighbourhood and its rich traditions, cultural roots and music.” Among those artists is klezmer-punk accordionist Geoff Berner, with whom JI readers will be familiar.
JI: You released Welcome to the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis late last year (jewishindependent.ca/honestly-jewish-and-radical) and you also had a new musical, then COVID hit. What have you been doing creatively over this time?
GB: I just finished working on a lovely project for KlezKanada with the great theatre artist Jenny Romaine and a lot of other talented folks. It’s called Vu Bistu Geven? (Where Have You Been?) and it’s about figuring out the history of the land that KlezKanada takes place on. It was commissioned for their 25th anniversary. It felt particularly right to work with Trina Stacey, a Kanien’kéha singer, researcher and teacher. We talked a lot during the making of the piece about the value of recovering our ancestors’ languages, in order to find a way to think outside of capitalism and colonialism.
JI: You were scheduled to perform an outdoors concert in Roberts Creek Sept. 11. Did that happen? In what ways does an in-person audience affect your performance?
GB: Yep, that concert went off nicely. Everyone was outdoors and properly distanced. The folks in Roberts Creek are lovely. I’ve played only two other shows like that since the pandemic, one at a park in Vancouver, for Alan Zisman, and another in Chilliwack at the Tractor Grease. It sure was nice to play live again. It’s been a bit of a strain these past months, not being able to do the thing I’ve devoted my life to doing. I miss that magic human connection that only live music can do.
JI: What inspires you to participate in events like the DTES Heart of the City Festival?
GB: What inspires me is the honour to be invited. I’ve tried to be a friend to folks in the DTES, opposing displacement by City Hall-backed developers, fighting to stop the war on drugs, fighting against legislated poverty, and other stuff. It means a lot that I’m allowed to be part of things.
JI: Chelm is a recurring theme/subject in your work. If you had to offer “advice from Chelm” for people coping right now, what might that be?
GB: Advice from Chelm? Well, Chelm was the “Village of Fools” of Jewish legend, but in fact it was a real place, where the people had to struggle to survive. They weren’t fools at all, just ordinary people trying to live. Several fine Yiddish poets came from Chelm. So the advice from Chelm is, the real fools are people who look down on communities of other human beings.
JI: You helped start the BC Ecosocialist Party. Any opinions on the election you’d like to share?
GB: I have real hopes for the BC Ecosocialists. B.C. voters need to at least have the choice to be able to vote for people who will actually stand up against LNG, Site C, legislated poverty, colonialism and the war on drugs.