Musician Jeremiah Lockwood revives cantorial music with a new album Musician Jeremiah Lockwood hopes to introduce the world to a new music scene bubbling in Brooklyn.

A group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn is reviving the golden age of cantorial music

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When cantors lead Jewish congregations in prayer and song, they hope to inspire people spiritually. Sometimes that involves improvisation. That's what happened in the golden age of cantorial music back in the 1920s, when such virtuosos began to make records. Now a small group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn are reviving the tradition with a new album. Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Jeremiah Lockwood comes from a family of cantors. He wrote his doctoral dissertation about Orthodox Jewish cantors in Brooklyn today, singing pieces made famous on recordings from the 1920s.

JEREMIAH LOCKWOOD: They're young artists who have mastered the vocal techniques of the great cantors of the early 20th century. And it's astounding. Forget questions about creativity versus imitation. The fact that they're physically able to do it is just mind-blowing.


UNIDENTIFIED CANTORS: (Singing in non-English language).

KALISH: This is an informal Chasidic singalong recorded in 2018, a kind of cantorial jam session where solos are handed off with the point of a finger. Some of the cantors who appeared at this gathering were recorded on the new album "Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today."


YOEL KOHN: (Singing in non-English language).

KALISH: This is Yoel Kohn singing a prayer that deals with the fleeting nature of human life. He also performed it at the Jewish Culture Festival in Poland in late June, an important Jewish musical event.


KOHN: (Singing in non-English language).

YANKY LEMMER: When you start improvising and it works, there's that feeling of, wow, this is something coming through me. I'm not even doing this. That is the most special feeling in the world, and that's really what any decent cantor aims to achieve.

KALISH: Yanky Lemmer is one of the best-known cantors in the world. He credits YouTube with putting him on the map and the recent spread of cantorial music.


MOSHE KOUSSEVITSKY: (Singing in non-English language).

KALISH: That's Moshe Koussevitsky, one of the golden-age cantors. Yoel Kohn, who appears on the new album, disputes the notion that a resurgence of the genre is underway.

KOHN: This is not really a revival as much as a dying gasp. Whether there will be enough interest left to keep this going indefinitely as some obscure genre of music, like baroque music, that I don't know.

KALISH: But Hankus Netsky, a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, says what's happening may be both a passing and a rebirth. In any event, Netsky says he's been waiting for someone like Lockwood to come along.

HANKUS NETSKY: I think Jeremiah Lockwood is an arbitrator between the generation that is seeing cantorial music die in the congregation and the younger generation that's seeing the potential of cantorial music to be rediscovered.


UNIDENTIFIED CANTOR: (Singing in non-English language).

LOCKWOOD: I see these guys as being brilliant singers, brilliant artists. And they're so underground nobody's heard of them.

KALISH: Once again, Jeremiah Lockwood.

LOCKWOOD: I wanted to create a possibility for them to be able to do what they're greatest at out in the world, and I wasn't sure who the audience for that would be or if there would be an audience for it.

KALISH: The "Golden Ages" album is available as both a digital download and a vinyl LP.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.


UNIDENTIFIED CANTOR: (Singing in non-English language).

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