A few weeks ago, I sat through my first Friday night service at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The cantor, Daniel Singer, led the congregation through an hour’s worth of song and prayer, accompanied, to my surprise, by a quaint rock group. At one point, he sang the Psalm Shir Chadash to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” It was trite but fun, and I walked home that night feeling kind of refreshed, which isn’t usually how I feel after a service.
Hillel Tigay, the hazan at IKAR — the progressive Los Angeles synagogue founded by Rabbi Sharon Brous in 2004 — is onto something musically similar but more profound. He thinks up his own distinct melodies and fits them to ancient Hebrew and Aramaic texts used in prayer. Then he takes his songs into the synagogue, where he has worked for the past seven years, and tries them out on his congregants.
“Judeo,” Tigay’s ambitious, powerful and ecumenical new CD, is a collection of 10 songs he wrote for IKAR. In it, Tigay incorporates instruments that sound ancient — the duduk, the ney, the santur, the djembe — to evoke the mystery of the desert, which is pictured on the album’s cover. He’s trying to imagine what music might have sounded like before the destruction of the Second Temple, after which instruments were forbidden from worship. This is, of course, impossible. But he’s also doing his own thing — singing his tunes and playing guitar, bass, lute, oud and other instruments. He’s filtering what he imagines through a rock context, with moody keyboards and big, heaving drum beats, drawing on sounds from Peter Gabriel and U2 and the Beach Boys.
“I want this to be the first time a Jewish CD is perceived as a player on that team, the world music team of spiritual music,” Tigay says in his “Judeo” Kickstarter video, through which he raised more than $20,000 to fund the record, “not just as something that’s of the Jewish people, for the Jewish people.”
We’ll have to wait to find out if that happens, but I don’t see why it won’t. Despite its religious underpinnings, “Judeo” is much less ghetto minded than the music of M.O.T. (short for Members of the Tribe), a hip-hop duo from the late 1990s in which Tigay sang as Dr. Dreidel. With his accomplice, Ice Berg, they laced their songs with self-consciously Jewish puns, mostly sounding like the Beastie Boys, but more nebbishy. The music is constantly winking — and whining — at you, and it can get tiring.