Pioneer Songs, Revisited

Musicians Give New Life to Old Israeli Tunes

Growing the State: An armed man stands guard at a meeting of young pioneers in Palestine (1938).
FORWARD ASSOCIATION
Growing the State: An armed man stands guard at a meeting of young pioneers in Palestine (1938).

By Jon Kalish

Published June 24, 2009, issue of July 03, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Over the past year, a who’s who of Jewish performers has made a pilgrimage to Livingston, N.J., a well-to-do suburb of New York City, to record interpretations of old Israeli pioneer songs.

They sang and played in an unoccupied three-story home, where a drum kit was often set up in the 18-foot octagonal foyer inside the front door. Musicians helped themselves to bagels and coffee laid out on a marble bathroom counter. And in a bedroom upstairs, used as the control room for this odd recording venue, sessions were presided over by an Orthodox rabbi who happens to blow a mean saxophone. The mission? Raise funds for cancer charities.

This Pioneers for a Cure project is the brainchild of a Manhattan-based Jewish not-for-profit called Joodayoh Arts. After a year of recording and mixing, digital downloads of the pioneer songs are being sold on the Web, at http://www.pioneersforacure.org. The project just may revive a piece of music history that began in the 1920s with the Keren Kayemet, known in English as Jewish National Fund, commissioning the composition of folk songs that could be sung by all the Jews who immigrated to Palestine.

It is a rich musical tradition, according to Marsha Bryan Edelman, an authority on Israeli folk music and a professor at Gratz College in Pennsylvania.

“In the early years, there were a lot of songs, ‘We will be the first, we will be the pioneers,’” Edelman said. But by the third and fourth aliyot, when the hora had become popular, many songs trumpeted the notion of “work all day and dance all night.”

Rabbi Greg Wall, a respected sax player who leads the band Hasidic New Wave, has served as the producer of the Pioneers for a Cure project. Wall found a treasure trove of sheet music for the pioneer songs in the archives of Brandeis University.

“He started unearthing compositions and developed this Indiana Jones attitude about rescuing these tunes from obscurity,” said Ricky Orbach, founder of Joodayoh and front man for the alternative rock band Kohane of Newark, which recorded one of the pioneer tunes.

When the first batch of pioneer songs was recorded in the 1920s, the Keren Kayemet sent out hundreds of thousands of postcards with the melodies and lyrics of the songs to Jews all over the world. And in the 1930s, a German-Jewish ethno-musicologist sent postcards of some songs to prominent Jewish composers in the hopes that they would compose new works based on the original pioneer melodies. Darius Milhaud, Kurt Weill, Aaron Copland, Ernst Toch and Stephan Wolpe agreed to do so.

Wall said that when it was time to reach out to contemporary Jewish performers, he simply e-mailed them a scan of one of the original postcards.

“They would get the music on a virtual postcard, not learning from another recording, not basing it on anyone else’s version, just getting the DNA of the music: a melody and a text,” Wall said.

Among the Jewish artists who recorded pioneer songs are David Broza, the Sway Machinery, Neshama Carlebach, Dudu Fisher, members of the Klezmatics, Noah Solomon, Dov Rosenblatt, Tovah Feldshuh, and hip-hoppers Diwon and Y-Love, who rapped over samples of old field recordings of Yemenite chanting.

“When I heard that I could sing to help, that was healing for me,” said Karen Rosen, a Scottish-born New Jersey rocker who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. Rosen sings “Yeled Kat” (“Little Child”) in Hebrew, with a slight trace of her Scottish accent.

Pharaoh’s Daughter put a Beatlesque instrumental intro onto a pioneer song called “Hinei Achal’la Bachalili” (“Lo, I Play on My Flute”) and proceeded to play the tune with a Brazilian groove. The song was written by Mordechai Zeira, one of the “fathers of Israeli song.” It turns out that Chava Sharlin, the mother of the band’s accordion player, Uri Sharlin, worked with Zeira at Israel’s national electric company when she was a teenager.

Uri grew up on the pioneer songs in Israel.

“They still play in my head,” he said in an interview at his home in the Harlem section of New York. “Even after doing different types of music, I guess there’s still something that I can relate to.”

George Robinson, a music critic for several Jewish newspapers and magazines, called the Pioneers for a Cure recordings “a great sampler of what’s going on in Jewish music right now.” He noted that the project’s anthem, “Am Yisroel Chai,” is a “great jamming track. It works really well as a place for singers and instrumentalists to stretch out.” Made from more than 90 instrumental and vocal tracks laid down by all the participating performers, the seven-minute anthem was mixed by legendary West Coast engineer Bob Clearmountain, who counts major albums by Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones among his credits.

“Am Yisroel Chai” is one of some 30 songs currently offered online for a minimum of $1.99. Contributions of $9.99 or $99.99 per song are encouraged. Proceeds from each song are directed to a specific cancer charity selected by the artist who recorded it. Pioneers for a Cure is being touted as a green project. No manufacture of CDs or their plastic cases is involved.

Work is already under way on a series of American pioneer songs, also to benefit cancer research and care.


Below, listen to “Am Yisroel Chai” which is also available as a free download at http://www.pioneersforacure.org.


Jon Kalish is a New York-based radio reporter and podcast producer.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.