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.
* * *
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.
Israeli artists Yair Levi and Shai Sol sing Moses’s prayer to heal his sister Miriam of leprosy. The song, “Refa Na,” has resonated with people during the pandemic.
The song “Refa Na” (“Heal Her Now’”) by Israeli composer Yair Levi, together with vocalist Shai Sol, has become a global hit during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Based on Moses’s prayer to heal his sister Miriam after she contracted leprosy, the song was released on Levi’s Facebook page April 6. The lyrics include the words, “O Lord, heal her now. O Lord, I beseech thee. Then we will be strengthened and healed” (Numbers 12:13) and Levi’s original is in multiple languages: Hebrew, as well as English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Hindi and Swahili. The song has been picked up in dozens of covers, from Lebanon to Argentina.
When Levi’s grandmother fell ill, he composed a tune incorporating Moses’s prayer for his sister’s wellbeing. The song has resonated throughout the world during the current pandemic, garnering hundreds of thousands of views and shares.
“My grandmother had an illness unrelated to coronavirus, but the pandemic obviously affected everyone, myself included,” Levi, 31, told Ynet news portal. “Due to the epidemic, I received the names of people in need of prayer and a list of about 20 names accumulated on my fridge. Every day, I would say a prayer for the sick, and I searched for words and a tune related to medicine.”
Then Levi remembered the “Al na refa la” prayer in Numbers.
“I took my guitar and composed the music for it on the spot and, since I have a recording studio in my home, I recorded the song within a week.”
Levi then approached Sol, a vocalist with Miqedem, a band that composes and sings Psalms all around the world.
“In quarantine and with no way to actually meet, she recorded herself,” Levi said.
After posting the song on social media, he said, “It was amazing. We received many responses and translations. Immediately after we released the song, it was shared online by evangelist Christians, Jewish communities, and even the Friends of the IDF organization.”
But not only the obvious audiences were enthusiastic.
“We have received cover versions from all over the world, including from a Lebanese singer, and, on Saturday evening, I received three new covers from Namibia … India and a Brazilian singer, Fortunee Joyce Safdie, who performed the song live on her Instagram page,” he said.
“Getting so many messages from people all around the world is incredible,” he added. “If I have the privilege to spread prayer around the world, to me, it’s just crazy. When people from all over the world translate and sing a prayer for health, it feels like it is literally the End of Times.”
During his three-year service in the Israel Defence Forces, Levi – who grew up in Israel’s secular mainstream – became intrigued by traditional Judaism. A turning point in his life came on May 31, 2010. Serving as a naval commando, his elite unit stormed the MV Mavi Marmara, one of six ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla attempting to breach Israel’s blockade of the coastal enclave. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the incident, while 10 IDF soldiers from Levi’s unit were wounded. After the sea battle, Levi was determined to join an IDF officer course. But, at the age of 26, he decided to pursue a musical rather than military career.
“I spoke with my commander, who told me people often regret what they had not done,” Levi said. “It opened my eyes and I realized that the flotilla incident pushed me in the direction of the course, but my real dream was to make music and become a singer.”
Levi has released two albums, Breathing Again (2016) and Let Go (2017).
“People see me as a religious person but I don’t like labels,” he said of his oeuvre.
The Burying Ground core duo is Woody Forster and Devora Laye, centre. On their newest album, they are joined by, left to right, Clara Rose, Joshua Doherty and Wynston Minckler. (photo by Mary Matheson)
The Burying Ground had a busy spring and summer planned, with dozens of performances scheduled around the release of their new album, A Look Back, this month. Then COVID-19 arrived and all those shows had to be canceled. Nonetheless, the band has carried on, releasing two singles already, and the full album comes out today, May 15.
“It was hard to let go of all the plans we’d been looking forward to but there’s not much we can do about that part so we haven’t let it get us too down (yet),” Jewish community member Devora Laye told the Independent. Laye, who is part of the core duo of the band, with partner Woody Forster, was philosophical.
“I do think it is important to recognize that we are all grieving in different ways and having to accept the disappointment that comes with all plans changed, canceled or on hold,” she said. “I also want to acknowledge that these plans feel small and that is why I think for me, personally, I haven’t gotten too down about my/our situation. It is a small struggle in the overall picture. We are OK. We are grateful to have what we need, to have each other and to be in this beautiful place by ocean and forest. I feel very sad for people who are suffering the most from this pandemic.”
While yet to live stream a concert, Laye and Forster are making plans for online shows. In the meantime, they are working on new material, which Forster said they “are hoping to iron out in the coming months.”
“I’ve been playing some guitar and Woody has been playing mandolin, which has been really fun!” said Laye, who does washboard, saw and vocals. “We have also been spending more time working on harmonies … [and] finishing up some original songs…. We’re thinking we’ll have enough material for another album later this year or by early next year.”
Their new release, A Look Back, was recorded in January. Forster said the band – he and Laye, plus Wynston Minckler (upright bass), Clara Rose (fiddle and harmonies) and Joshua Doherty (harmonica and harmonies), who have been accompanying the duo on the road for the last couple of years – were planning to be touring with hard copies of it, starting in the spring, to help fund its creation.
“The plan was to hit the road with our new CD on May 1st to play a handful of gigs on Vancouver Island and release the album to those audiences first,” said Laye, who had spent hundreds of hours booking the album shows. “We were looking forward to a 10-day tour to California, starting May 15th, including Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle. June 5th, we were scheduled to play our local album release show at the Rogue Folk Club at James Hall in Vancouver; we were over the moon to play our album release at one of the best venues around.
“Anyhow, to sum it up – we were expecting to raise enough to press the physical album through our March and early April shows, however, because those didn’t happen, we didn’t have the funds to press the album just yet.”
Hence, releasing the two singles in advance, as well as allowing people to pre-order the album. But pragmatism wasn’t the only deciding factor.
“We really miss playing with the band and playing for crowds and, to be honest, as soon as the final masters came in, I was very eager to share at least some of the music with our family, friends and fans ASAP!” said Laye. “It’s a way to connect with people during the quarantine – I miss the in-person connections and energy from live shows but, for now, we will hope that our songs and the songs we’ve chosen to cover will be a little taste of that connection. I like to imagine that people who are listening to our music are also dancing in their kitchens – or wherever else they like to dance, in a socially distant way.”
The first single released, on April 17, was “How Long.” On the band’s Facebook page, Laye notes that it “is the very first song that we wrote for the Burying Ground. It’s a song about waiting for hard times to pass and better days to come.”
“‘How long ’til my luck’s gonna change’ is the chorus,” she told the Independent. “We typically play this one with crowd participation, which always puts a smile on our faces and helps us connect with the audience. It’s a relatable song about hard times and ‘bad luck.’ It’s a song that deals with struggle, not knowing when the struggle will end. We felt like it’s relatable to our times right now. When I chatted to our recording engineer, Marc L’Esperance, about our release plan/idea, he mentioned that ‘How Long’ is his favourite song off the album and thought it would be an appropriate song to release first.”
“How Long” was first recorded in 2014 and it appears on the Burying Ground first album, Big City Blues. Country Blues & Rags was their next recording, followed by The Burying Ground. (For more on the Burying Ground, see jewishindependent.ca/reinventing-old-time-music.)
On May 1, the band released the second single from A Look Back. Called “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” Laye said she first heard the song on a Washboard Rhythm Kings recording made circa 1930. “I love it,” she said. “The music and the words. A couple years back, we heard Leon Redbone’s version (who happens to be one of Woody’s favourites). Redbone’s take on the song struck a chord with us and the rendition we’ve recorded is more in that vein.”
“Our music is and always has had a deep connection to older traditional styles that we love to pay homage to,” Forster added. He said the leading song on the new album, “Diving Duck,” was one of the first blues songs he ever learned, “so it felt like a fitting tune to kick the album off with. The recording I first heard of this song was with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell, two great early blues musicians whose guitar and mandolin playing left an early mark for me musically.”
“Behind These Eyes” also has personal meaning for Forster and was one of the early songs that he wrote for the Burying Ground. “It stems from a story my grandfather had told me about his father and his two uncles, who went overseas to fight in the First World War in 1914,” explained Forster. “The war left one of his uncles unable to mentally deal with the things he had seen upon returning home. It was a powerful conversation for me and I feel like, with the current awareness now of PTSD that did not exist at that time, it made me really think about what he may have gone through.”
About the song “C Rag,” Forster said, “All of us being big fans of the guitar virtuosity of Gary Davis and his contribution to fingerstyle guitar, we felt that this instrumental number fit perfectly into the record.” And the Burying Ground pays tribute to another great American blues and ragtime musician on A Look Back, Arthur (“Blind”) Blake, doing their interpretation of Blake’s “Hey Hey Daddy Blues.”
The new album also includes the song “You Gotta Live So God Can Use You.”
“Early gospel music played such an important role in all of the music that we love from the early 20th century and we wanted to have this represented on our record,” said Forster. “The song may date back to the late 1800s, though I am not sure, but it is definitely the oldest tune we play.”
Rounding out the album is the Burying Ground’s take on “My Blue Heaven.”
“In the last couple years,” said Forster, “the band has been experimenting more with including early jazz songs into our repertoire and ‘My Blue Heaven’ instantly sat really well with the band. Devora’s saw playing gives it a dream-like quality, which seemed to suit the song so well and made it a fitting number to close the album with.”
In addition to A Look Back, Forster and Laye have put online for purchase the album Dire Wolves by the Dire Wolves.
“We’ve been wanting to put the album up online for awhile but, as we haven’t been a real band for some years now, it’s slipped our minds,” explained Laye. “When the quarantine time began and we had all this unexpected time on our hands, we figured it’d be a good time to get it up online. We love the album!”
The album was recorded in 2010, said Laye, but released in 2012. She, Forster, Doherty (who has been a member of the Burying Ground since the beginning) and Blake Bamford (lead vocals, guitar) comprised the group.
“Those boys played music together pre-Dire Wolves, in a group called the Whiskey Jacks (2004- 2007). I sat in on washboard for a handful of Whiskey Jacks gigs!” said Laye. “We also played with Joseph Lubinsky-Mast, who has become one of Vancouver’s finest and most in-demand upright bass players; he toured and recorded with the Burying Ground until the end of 2018. We’ve all been friends for a long time and, back then, we didn’t really know anyone else playing traditional styles of folk (blues, stringband) music.
“When Blake Bamford, aka Big Fancy, moved up north to a rural farm in Fort Fraser, B.C., the Dire Wolves split ways,” she said. “Woody and I were left without a band, without a guitar player and lead singer and wanted to continue playing music in a similar vein. That’s when he started learning guitar – and it became his main instrument. I got more serious about percussion and I started to sing (in public)!” Thus, the Burying Ground came into being.
While grateful for their relatively good situation, Laye admitted, “The uncertainty is tricky. Do we continue booking tours? Do we wait it out? All events have been canceled for the summertime. Will September be different? Woody and I are booked for a two-week tour (as a duo) in October. Will that happen? I would normally be contacting venues on our route to book, I haven’t. Artists are at a loss as to how to go forward…. So many venues don’t even know how they’ll make it through this.”
She concluded, “I hope we can come out of this to a better, more connected, world. A world where we take care of each other: humans, plants, animals and the planet that sustains us.
“We miss playing shows and connecting with people all over,” she said, “and really look forward to whenever it is that we can do that again.”
Haley K. Turner’s in from the dark comes out May 29. (photo from Haley K. Turner)
Vancouver singer-songwriter Haley K. Turner will release her first full-length album on May 29.
“I have gone back and forth questioning whether now is the right time to release a new album,” she told the Independent. “But here’s the thing. Long before our lives were turned upside down, I titled my album in from the dark and, if right now is not the time to bring each other back in from the dark, I don’t know when is. This record was written with the intention of leaving people feeling a little more understood and a little less alone, myself included. So, while it feels like I am taking a huge leap of faith, releasing it while people may be too overwhelmed to notice, it also feels like I don’t have much of a choice. We don’t know what the future holds, and I happen to be fortunate to have completed the recording back in January. I want to share it with anyone who might find it comforting right now.”
A couple of singles from the album will be released earlier in May. Notably, “Loved You Perfectly” will come out May 8 for Mother’s Day that weekend. For the song video, Turner asked people to send in a short recording about their mom.
“Being privy to the sweet messages people have sent in for their moms is such a wonderful feeling,” she said. “I’m pretty sentimental, and it’s more of the thought about the moms’ reactions than the video itself that gives me little heart flutters.
“‘Loved You Perfectly,’” she explained, “is a song about motherhood, or at least my experience with it. With all the doubts and worries and mistakes, there is just as much love and growth and connection. I know I can’t be the only one who feels like I mess up all the time. And this song is my way of acknowledging that we can’t get it all right all of the time, but, even though we aren’t perfect, we love our kids perfectly. It felt like a good song to release around Mother’s Day.”
Speaking of motherhood, the Independent last spoke with Turner when she entered that phase of her life. “I went into labour with my son at 4:45 a.m. the same morning you interviewed me [by email] for my debut EP,” she said. “A couple years later, my daughter was born.” Her son is now 8, her daughter, almost 6. (For the article about the EP Ready or Not, see jewishindependent.ca/oldsite/archives/april12/archives12april06-29.html.)
“Making music and writing has always been a part of how I process emotions,” said Turner. “If I am not writing, I am usually bubbling up inside with some uncomfortable feeling and that never ends well. While it took me awhile to pick up the guitar and really get back into preparing for an album after starting a family, I was always writing in my head, even if it never made it onto a piece of paper.”
Having kids has changed her approach to life. “Well, I have a deeper admiration for my own mom now,” she said. “Yes, Mom, you! I have a greater understanding of the complexity of a mother and child relationship. I have spent the last couple of years processing who I was before kids and who I am now (hint, I’m still figuring that out) but, while a lot has changed, the really neat thing I have discovered is that, when it comes to making art, my intentions are still pretty much the same. Having little ones reinforced my ideas about media and made me more determined to create content that, hopefully, leaves this world better and not more wounded.”
The album in from the dark is more edgy than the EP Ready or Not. Last fall on Facebook, Turner posted what she described as a more cheery song than she had in awhile, but “Hey You” didn’t make the cut to the album.
“In order for me to commit to recording a song, I need to feel really connected to it,” she explained. “When I am writing, I often get emotional during the beginning of the songwriting process and that’s how I know it’s something I can stand behind. The lyrics mean everything to me, and it’s something I spend a ridiculous amount of time agonizing over.
“If I could have, I would have made a 20-song record because I have so many more songs I wish I could have included…. This album was about artistic exploration for me and testing out a few new sounds, stepping out of my comfort zone and letting my curiosity be the driving force even when my self-doubt wanted to weigh in. ‘Hey You’ felt like it would fit better on a different album, perhaps a future collection of songs for my kids, as a way to share with them all the emotions that come with parenting, along with my hope for them in this world. It felt comfortable to sing and play and I wanted to choose things that felt a bit more unsafe.
“Also,” she added, “in this recording process, my producer, Tom Dobrzanski, listened to all my demos and we chose songs that we both connected to. I believe that people have to be into what they are working on or it will be forced. So, we selected songs that felt right to both of us.”
In addition to Dobrzanski – who has worked with Said the Whale, and who used to be in the Zolas as a musician – on keyboards, Turner worked with several other notable musicians on in from the dark: Marcus Ambramzik, bass (the Belle Game, the Matinee); Brian Chan, cello (Jordan Klassen, Heis, Zaac Pick); Niko Friesen, drums (Hannah Georgas, Jane Siberry); Stephanie Chatman, violin; Julien Amar, piano on “For the Win”; and Adrian Glynn, vocals (solo artist as well as his band, the Fugitives). Turner is the lead singer and plays the acoustic guitar.
“I am beyond lucky to have had so many wonderful humans on this project,” said Turner, who reached out to Glynn a couple of years ago at an open mic.
“At the time,” she said, “I didn’t have any actual plans in the works to record, but I asked him if he would be up for singing on a song in the future. I have always loved male and female vocals together and it was on my bucket list.”
Through Glynn, she connected to Dobrzanski, who owns Monarch Studios, and, she said, “before I was even ready, I had committed to making an album!” She credits Dobrzanski for bringing “in an amazing team of Vancouver-based musicians who he had worked with before.”
Most of songs on in from the dark were written over the past few years, “and some even within the weeks leading up to recording,” said Turner. “‘Better’ is an older one of mine and it surprises me how relevant it still is. ‘Better’ is my way of processing how deeply women are affected by the expectations we have of them, specifically in our appearances. It’s about how we show up for each other, and expresses my desire to help create a world where we aren’t so hard on each other and hard on ourselves. I wrote it in my early 20s, before kids, and I am furious that it feels like it is taking forever to make these positive shifts.
“I have a background in TV and film and the constant critiques on my image and weight were damaging to say the least,” she explained. “When I released my debut EP, I had just stepped back from pursuing my career in acting because I wanted to be in creative control of the image and content I was putting out. I was so upset that I couldn’t do that as a 20-year-old actress – that it was always about looks and physique and never about my work – and so I decided to rebel by not putting my face on my album. I didn’t want that to weigh into whether people listened or not.”
Of all the songs on the album, Turner said, “‘Stay With Me (Jacob’s Song)’ holds a special place in my heart. It is dedicated to someone I loved dearly who passed away unexpectedly at the age of 8. It was the hardest song to record on the album because its essence is out of my control. I don’t think it will ever be good enough in my eyes, but I sure tried. I know that talking about people who are no longer here often brings pain and sadness to the surface. It was my hope to make a song that created space to honour and reflect and remember.”
Amid the pandemic, Turner is trying “to stay hopeful and focus on the blessings that will come out of this,” she said. “I’m processing the experiences slowly and watching for the creation and innovation that will help us heal.
“Prior to COVID-19, I was trying to engage in conversations with people, many of whom were women, about isolation, although I wasn’t phrasing it like that. Motherhood can be terribly isolating – beautiful and wondrous and lonely. Pretty much anyone anywhere can feel alone even with people swarming around them. I have been mulling over that thought for quite some time, so I ask myself, what’s different now?
“What’s different is that almost everyone is experiencing it in some form now, and perhaps it won’t be so hard to talk about it after things settle and people are able to integrate themselves back into their communities. I don’t think this feeling of isolation is new, I just think there is less to distract us right now. I really believe that, if we can be more transparent as humans, we will feel more connected. So, that’s what keeps me positive, I guess. If we felt alone before all these unexpected changes, the blessing is that we will come out with a stronger sense of what was missing and how to fulfil that for ourselves and others.”
She added, “I also have a greater appreciation for those who have shown up and worked hard to bring people together, like our teachers and artists everywhere and people in all types of service industries. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you rely on someone or something until it’s not accessible anymore. I have a better understanding of the different skill sets people have, and how I value them will be forever changed.”
For more information on Turner and her music, visit her website, haleykturner.com.