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.
It was bound to be a bizarre experience for me. Instead of rolling through my modest Brooklyn neighborhood, I was going to the fancy Pierre Hotel to sit in a room full of New York City’s elite. If you are not accustomed to the rigors of society life, a tableau of rich folk dolled up for a night out is both intimidating and comic. The fact that the reception on the evening of December 13 was being given by the American Sephardic Foundation in honor of King Mohammed VI of Morocco only added layers to the strangeness of my situation.
In this installment of The Nigun Project, Forward artist-in-residence Jeremiah Lockwood performs with drummer Amir Ziv and trumpeter Jordan McLean of the musical collective Droid.
For the Modzitzer Hasidim, the nigun played so central a role in the spiritual life that it nearly trumped the value of Torah learning in the eyes of the community. The great Modzitzer Rebbes were as much composers of nigunim and philosophers on the poetics of music, as they were men learned in the Talmud. The first Modzitzer Rebbe, Israel Taub (1849-1920), is the composer of the melody on which this recording is based. He referred to some of his nigunim as “operas” because they took the listener on a journey through an entire narrative. Reb Taub taught that the human soul is like the octave. Even as we ascend higher and higher, like the notes of a scale, ultimately we return back to our root.
I met Khaira Arby in January at a rooftop party in Timbuktu, Mali, when my band, The Sway Machinery, was en route to perform at the legendary Festival in the Desert. Arby, known as the “Nightingale of the Desert,” is a mainstay of the festival and has been one of the most popular singers in Timbuktu for decades.
I’ve been spending the morning pacing around the house singing Kol Nidre while my two-year-old son Jacob toddles about playing with his toys. Just like every year, it seems, the High Holidays arrive to find my life in a startling upheaval of activity, with the world swinging back into movement after the sultry months of summer. And it seems that every year I wait until the day before erev Yom Kippur to practice Kol Nidre. I have just a few hours before I will be singing it again for the expectant Jews, their viscera open in that particular way that Yom Kipur operates on the Jewish psyche.
In the seventh installment of The Nigun Project, the Forward’s artist in residence, Jeremiah Lockwood, performs with Khaira Arby and her band, in town from Timbuktu, Mali.
For the latest installment of the Nigun Project, I am indebted to a Forward reader who posted a link in the comments section of a recent piece in the nigun series. The link led me to a website that contains many selections from a wonderful multi-volume series of albums of Chabad nigunim released during the 1960s.
In the fifth installment of The Nigun Project, The Sway Machinery’s Jermiah Lockwood collaborates with rappers Dan Wolf and Tommy Shepherd, of the hip-hop collective Felonious, on a melody inspired by a story about the Baal Shem Tov.
I was pleased to see a profile in the New York Times on July 20 of the unusual cantorial-music-aficionado-turned-audiophile-sound-engineer Mendel Werdyger. Werdyger is the proprietor of Mostly Music, one of the last bastions of old school Jewish culture in New York City. While you can certainly buy the standard schlock recordings of Hasidic boys choirs there, the shop is also rich with reissues of powerful cantorial records and classics of Yiddish theater and Hasidic music.