Jewish soul singer Neshama Carlebach gives audiences a non-chemical high, achieving that effect with the combination of a rich and smoky voice, meandering stories and spiritual song.
The opening act of the Washington Jewish Music Festival last Thursday, kicked off the 10-day 16th annual event on a literal high.
Joined by a gospel choir, particularly on the uplifting “Higher and Higher,” Carlebach and a half-dozen singers harmonized, “Lord, get me high, get me high, get me higher.” The audience obliged, rising to its feet on more than one occasion.
The daughter of the charismatic guitar-playing and singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who died more than two decades ago, Neshama Carlebach continues to draw on her father’s wellspring of Jewish music, aphorisms and aggadic tales concerning seeking redemption, reaching for God, finding solace or simply discovering a release from the pain and daily grind of everyday life.
There is no question that Carlebach is in many ways her father’s daughter: Soft-spoken, she’s part soothsayer, part motivational life coach, part feminine mystic working in song.
The concert in the DCJCC’s Goldman Theater featured a handful of popular Carlebach melodies from the more than 5,000 the one-time hippie rabbi composed – a number of which have been assimilated into synagogue liturgies spanning Reform to Orthodox. While many of his songs have an Eastern European, folkish or shtetl feel, in his daughter’s able hands, these tuneful songs and niggunim, or wordless melodies and chants, take on a new life with modernized rock and roll or jazzy arrangements.
Her own compositions live in two worlds – her father’s and today’s – fusing contemporary rock, jazz, blues and gospel with ancient stylized chants, prayers and psalms.
The Rev. Milton Vann and members of his The Glory to God Singers, six joyful singers who collaborate with Carlebach, allows a contemporary and wholly American flavor to emerge, paying homage to her father’s earlier gospel collaborations.
Unfortunately, it was hard to ignore the balky sound system in the theater, though the performers did a valiant job working around the problems. These days, with a new partner and musical director, Jewish singer/songwriter Josh Nelson, who performed just a single number Thursday night, Carlebach, poured into an above-the-knee dress and black high-heeled boots, knows how to bring the audience to its feet. From a gospelized version of “Esa Eini” – “I Lift My Eyes Up” – in Hebrew and English to hora-inducing standards like “David Melech Yisroel,” the evening felt transcendent.
Zusha has ‘em dancing in the aisles
On Mother’s Day, another soul-singing trio, Zusha, took to the Goldman Theater stage. Zusha was accompanied by a six-piece complement of New York-based musicians. Zusha – dubbed “neo-Hassidic hipsters” – features Elisha Mendl Mlotek on percussion, Zachariah Goldshmiedt on acoustic guitar and singer and seeming spiritual leader of the group Shlomo Ari Gaisin, who grew up in Kemp Mill.
A 2009 Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy graduate, Gaisin was incongruously clad in high tops, skinny jeans and the long black kapota – or silk dress coat – favored by some chassidic men, bringing a different sort of old-fashioned mysticism to the stage. He concentrated on vocal stylizations with his rangy voice – sometimes deep bass, other times tenor. He also shared just two stories, drawn from what he explained were many from the former chief rabbi of Israel Rav Kook, who spoke and wrote a great deal about music and its ability to bridge great divides, inspire masses and provide a universalizing experience to all those who listen with open hearts and minds.
Standing 6’5” with slender 12-inch snaking peyos – sidecurls – falling past his shoulders, Gaisin said he grew up in a music-filled home, noting that his mother played piano, his father played violin, though neither professionally. Gaisin noted that the late Rav Kook and his parents have been chief inspirations in developing his musical voice.
With few lyrics, most of Zusha’s repertoire featured new niggunim enriched by the top-notch backup band, including a hot horn section that toggled from jazzy riffs to reggae to ska and back again. The tuneful chants meandered from Jewish soul to scatting and bebop.
Gaisin explained after his show, which was Zusha’s Washington premiere and followed a few sold-out gigs in Manhattan and Brooklyn: “I wanted to share some of the niggunim so that young people [my age] can relate to them as well as older people, who were always singing at the Shabbos table.”
Zusha’s niggunim for a new generation captured the imagination and the spirit of the audience, even bringing a few souls to the front where they danced in the aisles then a cadre of hardcore Zusha-ites sang their own encore: Zusha’s harmonic “Tzion” before Gaisin offered a blessing.
Zusha’s forthcoming album is scheduled for release in early fall.
The Washington Jewish Music Festival closes Sunday. Visit wjmf.org.