When I first came across this nigun in a mid-century Lubavitch anthology, the string of eighth notes that make up the first theme immediately suggested to me the beat for this arrangement. It sounded like a hip-hop beat to me. Through the happy collaboration with Dan Wolf and Tommy Shepherd, of the hip-hop collective Felonious, this concept for the piece has been realized.
The idea for the Nigun Project was to capture the beauty and power of wordless melodies. Wolf’sand Shepherd’s art as rappers is focused on the use of language, necessitating lyrics being an important part of the song. This piece synthesizes poetry and the wordless nigun in a unique way. I suggested to my collaborators that they build their verses around an old Hasidic story about the Baal Shem Tov. The story is as follows:
When I was a little boy I went out with my father and some of his friends, all of them disciples of the Baal Shem Tov. We were driving through the woods when the rebbe suggested we stop in a tavern for a drink. All of the men’s spirits were high as they sang and danced and drank together. Then a bunch of local toughs came in. The Baal Shem Tov said to me, “Sing boy!” They put me up on the bar and I began to sing a nigun. All of them danced and clapped time. The local thugs joined in with the singing and dancing of the chasids.
Years later, I became a merchant. One night I was traveling between cities with a valuable load of goods. Suddenly my wagon was surrounded by thieves holding me up at gunpoint. They told me to get down from my seat. Their chief, a wizened and terrifying old hoodlum, came up to me and looked me in the eye. He seemed to recognize me. He asked me, “Can you sing?” I said yes. And he said, “So sing, boy!”
And I sang the same nigun that I had sung that night so many years ago when I was a boy with my father and the Baal Shem Tov. Clearly the thief captain had been there and remembered the song. To the shock of all the bandits, their chief commanded them to let me go. I made my way safely through the night.
Listen to Lockwood, Shepherd and Wolf’s musical collaboration:
Dan Wolf on collaborating with Jeremiah Lockwood for The Nigun Project: