If Bono Were a Cantor

Hillel Tigay Displays a Wealth of Influences

Beyond Genesis: Hillel Tigay’s music evokes the mystery of the desert.
Courtesy of Deborah Radel Public Relations
Beyond Genesis: Hillel Tigay’s music evokes the mystery of the desert.

By Matthew Kassel

Published January 07, 2013, issue of January 04, 2013.
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Tigay, who is 43 and sings with a slightly nasal voice that evokes Elvis Costello, seems to have grown up a lot since then. “Judeo,” released through the IKAR Music Lab, is so earnest that it’s hard to dislike. The songs feel triumphant: Most of them build gradually to climactic endings with a lot of voices rising above an immense mesh of percussion and strings.

It makes good sense that this is the case. Because Tigay wrote these songs for the synagogue — a potentially soporific environment — one could imagine he wanted to use them to keep his congregation engaged, to bring the service up and not down.

Standout tracks include an affable and folk-inflected “Hineh Mah Tov,” an incantational “Kaddish” and “Shema,” played in waltz time. At first I had trouble with an altered Sh’ma; Tigay’s take doesn’t have the potency of Salomon Sulzer’s famous melody, which feels almost sacrosanct by comparison. But it grew on me. By far, though, the best song on this album is “Hallelujah,” a bright, soaring, seven-minute rendition of Psalm 150 featuring the IKAR choir, which has a couple of other cameos on the record Herb Alpert, of Tijuana Brass fame, plays trumpet on this track. It’s a simple song with a short, uplifting melodic pattern that gets repeated over and over again.

Tigay writes in the liner notes to “Judeo” that he introduced “Hallelujah” to the IKAR congregation last year, during the High Holy Days, “After a few minutes,” Tigay recounts, “we tried to wrap it up so we could leave and break the fast. But we couldn’t. People kept singing. The song went on for 40 minutes after the fast had ended; people were caught up in the power of this moment. I will never forget that.”

I can only imagine how invigorating that experience must have been. And even if “Judeo” doesn’t make it in the world music arena, it seems to me that Tigay’s music has already succeeded where it counts the most.

Matthew Kassel has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice and The Paris Review Daily, among other publications.


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