The nigun, a wordless spiritual folk melody, is one of the great achievements of Jewish aesthetic expression. I grew up hearing nigunim at the family table on the Sabbath and holidays with my grandfather and my cousins. We sang a continuous stream of melodies, one flowing into the next, for what felt like hours. As I started developing as a musician, I would often think about those experiences and marvel at their natural flow of feeling and energy. These group sessions brought me a pleasure in music making that, as a professional musician, took me many years to revisit.
Over the course of 2010, I had the remarkable opportunity to revisit the realm of the nigun, this time with a string of new collaborators with whom I could delve into this gorgeous and mystical realm of music. As the Forward’s Artist in Residence, I undertook The Nigun Project, a series of recordings based on historic nigunim. Each month, I met with a new collaborator — often an artist with no prior knowledge of Jewish music — to create and record a new piece of music based on an old Hasidic melody. This element of collective music making was an essential part of the project, as performing nigunim is, at heart, a communal and community-building activity.
I first pursued the project in the dusty stacks of the reading room at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where I sought inspiration from obscure and beautiful melodies in old manuscripts. After collecting a large number of melodies that I felt accurately represented the power of the genre, I set to work with my collaborators. Each installment of the project — from the first, with Sahr Ngaujah from “Fela!” through ones with Brian Chase, Basya Schechter and Felonious, among others — offered unique challenges and pleasures. Now that this stage of the project has been completed, I am excited to see what life the music will have in the future as more people begin to hear what we have made.
The first album is recorded and available, but the Forward and I intend to continue to record more nigun collaborations in the future. I am thrilled at the prospect of continuing this exciting project.
Jeremiah Lockwood, among other projects, leads The Sway Machinery.
MEMORABLE MOMENTS FROM ‘THE NIGUN PROJECT’
The most important session in creating the *nigun* with Sahr Ngaujah, who played the lead in “Fela!” on Broadway, took place at a bar near the Forward offices. Sahr, who grew up as part of a Christian missionary family in Sierra Leone, sat down with me, and we convened a lengthy discussion about Hasidic theology and fairy tales.
The session, with drummer Brian Chase, was a 14-hour marathon. Chase spent hours grappling with his computer, which kept crashing. Thankfully, the recording was not lost
A near calamity in a music session was averted by Forward web producer Nadja Spiegelman. Spiegelman was at my session with DROID at the band’s loft, filming footage for a web feature on the project, when the computer took umbrage and deleted drummer Amir Ziv’s flawless first take. Ziv was utterly flummoxed, but Spiegelman stepped in to calmly find the lost file in some hidden recess of the hard drive.
I was expecting to record a duet with Malian singer Khaira Arby — the nightingale of the desert. Instead, Arby showed up with her entire 10-piece band. We took the furniture out of the room, and we all managed to squeeze into the tiny recording studio I had booked for the session.
For the limited edition CD that the Forward has created of The Nigun Project, I asked the accomplished London-based artist Jacqueline Nicholls to contribute a piece of her work. The image we used is a palimpsest, an abstract image achieved through layerings of text upon text. This powerful piece speaks to me of the same world beyond words that the *nigun* represents.