Jewish New Year Brings New Music

As Rosh Hashanah begins Wednesday night, The Afro-Semitic Experience brings a twist to traditional music associated with the holiday. The band's latest album, Further Definitions of the Days of Awe, fuses Jewish liturgical music with jazz and Afro-centric rhythms. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks with founder, composer and bassist David Chevan, as well as drummer Alvin Carter Junior.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The holiday is celebrated with many traditions, including eating apples and honey for a sweet year to come, the blowing of a ram's horn as a kind of spiritual awakening. And there are the sacred melodies Jews use on High Holy Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASHREI")

JACK MENDELSON: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: Jews call the days leading up to and just after the New Year the Days of Awe, a time of renewal and refreshment.

This is music from the new album called "Further Definitions of the Days of Awe" from the group known as the Afro-Semitic Experience. The band is made up of Jewish and African-American members and features Jewish liturgical music infused with jazz and the Afro-beat.

And joining us to talk about this is the band's founder, composer and bassist, David Chevan, and the group's drummer, Alvin Carter Junior. Welcome to the program, both of you.

ALVIN CARTER JUNIOR: Thank you.

DAVID CHEVAN: Thank you.

LYDEN: This is a fusion that I would not have suspected. David, tell us a little bit about what we're hearing. What is this album?

CHEVAN: Well, this is a collaboration between the band and four Jewish cantors and it comes out of the fact that we spent quite a bit of time at the synagogue of Cantor Jack Mendelson in White Plains, New York, playing with him for the S'lihot service, for the midnight service that comes just before Rosh Hashanah.

LYDEN: So this is who we hear singing is Cantor Jack Mendelson?

CHEVAN: That's right. That's Jack on the vocals on that piece, "Ashrei."

LYDEN: And Alvin, where is the African rhythm in here?

JUNIOR: Well, it's more the African influence. You hear the funk background between the bass and the drums.

LYDEN: So tell me a little bit, both of you. How did you guys all decide to come together? I understand you gave several concerts in different cities. How did that develop?

CHEVAN: Well, that was...

JUNIOR: How much time we got?

CHEVAN: Yeah, really.

LYDEN: We got a little.

CHEVAN: This particular project really was a chance for us to give three concerts of this particular High Holy Day material with the cantors. It was almost a warm-up for them to get ready for the services at their synagogues and it also gave us a chance to essentially get three opportunities to do takes of each of the pieces because we recorded all three concerts and just picked the best performances from each of the three concerts.

LYDEN: You're not Jewish, Alvin, but you're enthusiastic about this work. What made you decide to be a part of the collaboration?

JUNIOR: Well, the collaboration began because of a performance we had at a casino in Connecticut. The cofounder, Mr. Warren Byrd, and David and I as a jazz trio actually had a gig at a casino and David happened to be a few minutes late this particular time. And as kind of a tongue in cheek, we played a song called "Soon and Very Soon," which is a contemporary gospel song, and we had just basically said, you know, we should add some of our liturgical music to our jazz repertoire.

And, because I'm not the type to only play one type of music, when David presented me some examples of some klezmer and some nigunim and, you know, just other types of Eastern European-influenced music, I jumped at the opportunity to infuse what it is I already knew with what it was I wanted to learn.

LYDEN: Let's listen to another clip of music from the album. This is called "Sh'ma Koleinu," which I understand means, hear our voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SH'MA KOLEINU")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: David, tell us what this prayer is about.

CHEVAN: The cantor is just begging God to listen to our voices as we atone for our sins and reflect on the year that has been and it's a real plaintive cry and so much of what's going on in the singing that you hear there has that mixture of hope and mournfulness in it.

LYDEN: You referred before to this concept of hazanut. Is that a Yiddish word?

CHEVAN: Yeah. I think, actually, it is a Yiddish word. Of course, somebody's going to call NPR and tell you what it really is, because some folks say hazanut and some people say hozonas(ph). I think hozonas is the more Yiddish form and hazanut is the Hebrew form, but either way, it refers to a whole singing style that you're hearing these cantors use throughout the recordings where they put all kinds of improvised trills and turns into their singing.

The hazanut, to me, is the jazz of Jewish prayer.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking about an album of Jewish liturgical music as played by both Jews and African-American musicians called the "Afro-Semitic Experience." And here with us is the band's founder, David Chevan, and drummer, Alvin Carter Junior.

Alvin, you're a Christian. Do you see commonalities between Jewish liturgical music and, let's say, the kind of excitement and fury that we see sometimes in African-American gospel music, for example?

JUNIOR: A resounding yes, since believe in making a joyful noise unto the Lord. It's after that where things kind of part company. You can have this instrument. You can't have that instrument. But we leave that to the folks who worry about that.

As far as I'm concerned, eighth notes don't care who plays them. They just want to be played well, and Jewish traditions and the African-American traditions have that in common in a really big way.

LYDEN: Here's a song used in many Jewish services. It's called, in English, "Our Father, Our King."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR FATHER, OUR KING")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: It works really, really well, these sorts of clever notes almost and this African lilt. I really would not have expected that it could.

CHEVAN: Thank you.

LYDEN: What else are you two going to be doing with reshaping these traditional songs? Do you have other plans for them?

CHEVAN: Well, we're hoping that we're going to get some concerts with Cantor Mendelson and maybe some of the other cantors from those performances and our next project, which we're already hard at work on, is going to involve us doing some of our own singing. Our very own Warren Byrd is a gifted singer and we're hoping to do some of the spiritual songs of Leon Thomas, among others in forthcoming projects.

LYDEN: But you set a high bar here because, Alvin, you are not going to be singing the cantantorial(ph) line - the cantorial(ph) line for the High Holy Days today with us. No?

JUNIOR: No. You guys couldn't afford me.

CHEVAN: You should hear Alvin sing, though. Oh my gosh, that baritone is so beautiful.

JUNIOR: As a singer, I make an excellent drummer. Another thing that we're going to be doing is we're going to be reshaping some compositions that are of a spiritual nature by some jazz composers and reshaping them and putting the Afro-Semitic Experience stamp on them, as well as writing some of our own.

But David refers to it as our bar mitzvah. We just had our bar mitzvah. We just celebrated 13 years together and this particular album, "Further Definitions of the Days of Awe," is really - it shows how far we've come as a group. We're just a butt-kicking band and that when it's time to play, we can get it done.

LYDEN: Well, I wish you both a very, very happy Rosh Hashanah.

CHEVAN: Thank you and shana tava to you, too.

JUNIOR: Thank you.

LYDEN: That was David Chevan, founder, composer and bassist of the Afro-Semitic Experience and he joined us from member station WNPR in New Haven, Connecticut. And also with us was drummer Alvin Carter Junior. He joined us from member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut.

Thank you both very much.

CHEVAN: Thank you.

JUNIOR: Thank you.

LYDEN: Let's go out on a song, "Adosham, Adosham."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADOSHAM, ADOSHAM")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

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