Musician Jeremiah Lockwood revives cantorial music with new album: NPR

Musician Jeremiah Lockwood revives cantorial music with new album: NPR


Jeremiah Lockwood and Joel Cohn, perform at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland.

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Jeremiah Lockwood and Joel Cohn, perform at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland.

John Kalish

Jeremiah Lockwood comes from a family of cantors, spiritual leaders who lead Jewish congregations in prayer and song. His grandfather, the late Jakob Königsberg, served as a cantor in several cities and performed in concerts outside religious services, always hoping to inspire people with liturgical music.

It’s no surprise that Lockwood incorporated cantorial music into his band, The Sway Machinery, and wrote his dissertation on Hasidic cantors in Brooklyn who sing in a manner reminiscent of the golden age of cantorial music, which began in the 1920s. The virtuosos of that era sometimes sounded like they were singing opera, but also improvised during solos.

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Cantor Moshe Kusevicki sings Velierushalaim Ircho.

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The same could be said for those in present-day Brooklyn.

“It’s astonishing,” Lockwood said of the Brooklyn cantors’ ability to master the vocal techniques of the early 20th century. “Forget questions about creativity versus imitation, the fact that they are physically able to do this is astounding.”

“They are self-taught artists,” he said. “It’s like there was a scene of musicians who didn’t go to conservatory or jazz school and learned how to play Charlie Parker just fiddling with the saxophone alone in their rooms at night.”

While in graduate school, Lockwood came across a YouTube video of a singer performing an informal Hasidic chant known as kumzita kind of cantor jam session where solos are delivered with the tip of the finger.

The video inspired Lockwood to produce a new album The Golden Age: Brooklyn Hasidic Cantorial Revival Todaywhich was recorded at Daptone Records, an analog record label known for soul music.

Three of the six singers featured on the album went with Lockwood to perform at the Jewish Culture Festival in Poland in late June, an important annual Jewish music event that has been going on for nearly 30 years. They were given the opportunity to perform accompanied by a string quartet arranged by Lockwood, who occasionally accompanied the cantors with his electric guitar.

One of the cantors performing in Krakow, Yanky Lemer, explained that as a child and teenager growing up in a Hasidic community, he didn’t have much fun outside of what was considered “kosher.” Such households often do not have televisions or Internet connections for children.

“Cantorial music is one of them [kosher] things,” he said. “Oh, let me get into it. It’s interesting, it’s different.”

Lemaire said that when he improvises during the service, it is “one of the most special feelings in the world.”

“When you start improvising and it works, there’s that feeling of, ‘Wow, this is something that goes through me.’ I’m not even doing this,’ Lemaire said.

Lemaire, one of the most famous cantors in the world, leads services at Manhattan’s prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue and has ministered everywhere from the Catskills to Australia. He credits YouTube with putting him on the map. After posting the first video of his performance online, his email inbox was flooded the next morning.

“The emails said, ‘You have to do this for a living. You have to do this,'” he told NPR.


Shimmy Miller during a recording session for The Golden Age: Brooklyn’s Hashish Cantorial Revival Today.

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Shimmy Miller during a recording session for The Golden Age: Brooklyn’s Hashish Cantorial Revival Today.

Tatiana McCabe

One of the other cantors involved in the project, Shimi Miller, is the son of Bension Miller, who leads services at the Borough Park congregation one Saturday a month. This service runs for three to four hours and everything is improvised on the spot. Lockwood, who participates in the choir, called the experience “musically challenging.”

“After one of those services, I’m always ready to fail,” Lockwood said.

The claim that the revival of cantor music is underway is not accepted by all the cantors on the new album.

“This is not really a revival, so much as a dying breath,” said Yoel Cohn, a former member of the Satmar Hasidic community. “Whether there will be enough interest to keep this going indefinitely as some obscure genre of music like baroque music, I don’t know.”


Cantor Joel Cohn.

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Cantor Joel Cohn.

Tatiana McCabe

But Hankus Necki, a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, believes what’s happening with Brooklyn cantors may be both a passing and a rebirth of the genre.

“I think Jeremiah Lockwood is the arbiter between the generation that sees cantorial music dying in the congregation and the younger generation that sees the potential of cantorial music to be rediscovered,” Necki said.

Lockwood fervently believes that these “young” cantors (the oldest is 46) deserve to be exposed.

“These guys are brilliant singers, great artists and they’re so underground that nobody’s heard of them,” he said. “I wanted to create an opportunity for them to do what they do best in the world and I wasn’t sure who that audience would be or if there would be an audience for it.”

The The Golden Age the album is available as both a digital download and vinyl LP.

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