Sunday, March 22, 2009

Joshua Nelson and Kosher Gospel: Concert Review

If you are not a religious person, but feel drawn to African American gospel music, raise your hand. (I know this is the internet, but do it anyway. Unless you are in public, then spare yourself.)

If you are not Christian and are still drawn to gospel music, raise your hand.

If you are not Christian and are drawn to gospel music but get a little (or very) uncomfortable with the lyrics, raise your hand. 

Still have your hand raised? Thought so. Okay, you can put it down now.

I LOVE African American gospel music. I have been drawn to it for as long as I can remember. I even wrote a one-hundred page master's report on it in graduate school.

I am an agnostic Jew, and I love music written with the love of Jesus Christ in mind. What's up with that?  

People have described the concept in many ways, but it usually gets back to something like: it's not the words that matter, it's the conviction, the emotion and the excitement of the music behind the words. And most of the people that sing gospel, can really SING.

I learned about Joshua Nelson years ago when a friend who knew that I was researching gospel music sent me a newspaper clipping.  The Grammy-nominated singer grew up as a Black Orthodox Jew in South Orange, New Jersey. His grandmother introduced him to Mahalia Jackson and he fell in love. Nelson wanted to be a gospel singer, but he couldn't realistically sing about Jesus now, could he?

"All I can do is be who I am," said Nelson at the sold-out opening night of the Jewish Music Festival at the First Congregational Church in Oakland, California. Really all Nelson has done is replaced hebrew lyrics over the gospel style of singing, accompaniment and harmony.  Similar, and yet very different, to what Ray Charles did with gospel music and secular lyrics years before.

To me personally, it's theoretically the perfect blend.  It actually it sounded a little cheesy to me at first, but then I experienced it in person this evening, and I got it.  Let me explain:

The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir took the stage first. The choir is a professional group that is unaffiliated with any church and has singers of all backgrounds and creeds.   They started off with a handful of gorgeously arranged spirituals like "Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit" and "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel." 

"Good start," I thought, "stick to the old testament and songs that tell about the glory of god. The Jewish people can get that, definitely."

Then came a more contemporary style gospel. I heard the word "Christ" once and at that moment wondered what every person in the sanctuary was thinking, I mean, we were in a church, but as part of the Jewish Music Festival.  I kinda thought my brain would explode for a second there, too many layers to think about.

The audience was into it, heads were bobbing. Things were going well.  Terrance Kelly, conductor of the Interfaith Choir, gave the audience a gospel 101 lesson, "don't wait for the song to end to clap!" People laughed.

But then after the intermission, Nelson and his band took the stage, and people couldn't stay in their seats. They went nuts. The difference was like night and day.  

In addition to singing Jewish traditionals like "Hineh Ma Tov" and "Mi Chamocha" he referred to and sang the songs of Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Louie Armstrong and Harry Belafonte. He riffed off of Benny Goodman's (a fellow member of the tribe) "Sing Sing Sing" and Ray Charles' "Hit the Road" Jack. Music that was familiar to everyone in the room.

I spoke to an older couple on my way out who said that that was some of the best music they had heard in a long time. 

As a Jew, I get it: this guy is literally speaking my language. He's singing words that I recognize. And words that I, even as an agnostic, am emotionally attached to.  And it's to the music that I know and love.  I don't have to distance myself from the music just because I can't relate to the words.

Oh, and Nelson can sing too...



Here's another one of the tune Adon Olam with his backup singers.

This picture from 2004 cracks me up.  You know if Oprah says someone is the "next big thing," it's gonna be true. 


I will be attending most of this weeks Jewish Music Festival's shows, so please check back for bloggings.  It's going to be fun!

Here's a the schedule. Tickets are available for all shows:

Young People's Symphony Orchestra: Special guest cellist Bonnie Hampton sits in with California's oldest youth orchestra in a concert that is part of "Bloch Party - A Celebration of the Life and Music of Ernest Bloch." 2 p.m. today. $15-$20. Castro Valley Center for the Arts, 19501 Redwood Road, Castro Valley. (510) 889-8961.

Andy Statman Trio: A master of blurring genres, this clarinet and mandolin virtuoso shuffles through bluegrass, American roots, and avant-garde jazz with klezmer and Hasidic nigunim. 8 and 10 p.m. Monday. $20. Yoshi's, 1330 Fillmore St., San Francisco, (415) 655-5600.

Flory Jagoda and Friends: Born 84 years ago into a singing family in the Sephardic community of Sarajevo, this Jewish singer and composer is one of the primary ambassadors for Ladino culture. This program finds her sharing stories and songs. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. $16-$20. Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley.

Di Goldene Pave: The Toronto-based Yiddish singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Lenka Lichtenberg duets with clarinetist Kinneret Sageet. 1 p.m. Thursday. $12-$16. Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Also 6 p.m. Thursday. Free. San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., San Francisco.

Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird: Mixing klezmer and politics with elements of punk and folk on its new album, "Partisans and Parasites," this Berlin cabaret group will be joined by beatboxer Yuri Lane. 8 p.m. Thursday. $12-$14. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St. Also, 8 p.m. April 2 (without Lane). $12-14. Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills.

The Sisters of Sheynville and Gaucho: The all-female Canadian folk vocal group headlines with its three- and four-part harmonies in the style of the Barry Sisters. Gaucho plays seductive gypsy swing with a detectable Django Reinhardt influence. 8 p.m. Saturday. $18-$28. Jewish Community Center San Francisco, 3200 California St., San Francisco.

Elana Jagoda, Yuri Lane and guests: A program directed at children as part of family music day, featuring folk-rocker Elana Jagoda, beatboxer Yuri Lane, workshops and performances by other festival artists. 11 a.m. Next Sunday. $7-$20. Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley.

Finale Dance Party with Brass Menazeri: The festival closes out with a lively set by a horn-driven Bay Area soul and Klez-Balkan outfit. 4 p.m. next Sunday. $10-$25. Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley.

6 comments:

sherril said...

I so believe in synchronicity. I recently attended a Martin Luther King Day event at our synagogue, Ahavat Shalom in Newark, NJ, which as you may or may not know is a city of primarily African Americans. The president of the synagogue is heavily into reaching out to the Newark community. Anyway, the main speaker at this event was Rabbi Capers Funnye (Michelle Obama's first cousin once removed). The audience was a mix of Blacks and Whites and the program included a few black women who sang. I liked the entire event, but I LOVED the singing. I thought to myself, if Shabbat services could sound like this, I would be a regular synagogue attendee, but they don't and I'm not. I am, in fact, like you, an agnostic Jew, but still Judaism is central to my life. I remember hearing about Joshua Nelson years ago and probably if I searched long enough, I would find that I bookmarkeded an article about him or perhaps an upcoming concert. I am about to look him up again, but I had to make this connection first, as I so related to your response to his singing. I even think that joining Gospel with Jewish Prayers, could make a "believer" out of me.


Sherril

Jamie: said...

Hey Sherril! Thank you so much for your comment! I'm so glad that you've found Joshua. My mom recently did as well and can't stop raving about him.

Since writing this blog, I've been to Rabbi Capers synagogue in Chicago and that was also a really interesting experience. I'm really fascinated by the African American Jewish experience, it's such an amazing situation worlds-colliding, at least for me, and I love it.

Mel said...

Hello,

I found your blog subject very interesting. I don't even know if you still check your comments after 2 years...

As a Christian, this whole sentiment about connecting to the emotion and not the words of Gospel music bothers me. I'm sure that's not surprising. I have no problem with your appreciation for good music (as I am a HUGE music fan). However, your post immediately put me in mind of the scripture in the Gospel of Matthew that referred to the book of Isaiah. "You hypocrites, Isaiah rightly prophesied of you: The Lord says, "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught."
Matt 15:8, Isaiah 29:13
My intent is not to be offensive, but we are hypocritical, if we sing or listen to Gospel, or any music for that matter, and essentially ignore its words. Lyrics have a purpose. Consider the person who listens to offensive rap or rock lyrics and says "I just like the music or the beat."
I think it's great you enjoy the music, and my prayer is that one day the words will pierce your heart to belief and confession in Christ. Blessings!
Mel

Jamie: said...

Hi Mel, I appreciate your comment and I do indeed get notices two years later!

I think you might have missed the key aspect of this post about Joshua Nelson, he is a Jew and so am I. The music is based on the Christian Gospel Music tradition. The lyrics are in Hebrew and are are based in the Jewish tradition.

So, I'm not sure how to address your comment. As someone who studied Gospel Music in Graduate School, I am well aware that I personally am not practicing as the Bible commands (is anyone really? Selling your daughter into slavery is in the Bible and so is the freedom to stone people). I was even reminded that according to the Bible that as a Jew, I am not going to Heaven. I'm okay with that.

But again, thank you for your comment. I love this music, and will always. It fills me with so much Joy!

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