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.
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.