Tunes from a multicultural melting pot

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Jewish music is far more than “Hava Nagila,” ubiquitous at weddings and even hockey games, or a cantorial soloist chanting “Kol Nidre” Jewish music is world music, plain and simple: melodies from Eastern Europe and rhythms from North Africa, contemporary fusions of hip hop and klezmer or reggae and rock, liturgical strains from the Mediterranean and soul music with a jazz or blues tinge.

The voice and sound of Jewish music is rich and varied, a multicultural melting pot that represents the Jewish journey from Old World to new, from the shtetl to the modern urban city, from the concert hall to an outdoor park. The 15th-annual Washington Jewish Music Festival brings this captivating mix of old and new, classical and experimental artists to stages around the Washington area beginning Sunday, June 1 through June 14. The programming, which features an eclectic mix of genres, styles, and venues is sponsored by the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center and includes a cohort of home-grown Washington metropolitan-area artists, doing what they do best: sharing their songs, stories, melodies and harmonies.


“It’s always so special when I come back to play in the area,” says Doni Zasloff Thomas, known to her fans, young and old alike, by her stage name Mama Doni. “I look out into the crowd and say, ‘I knew you in fourth grade.’ I see old friends, parents of old friends and friends’ children now.” Thomas grew up in Rockville and credits her music teachers at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, especially Mrs. Parness and Mrs. Newhouse, for instilling in her a love of Jewish music and the spirit, or ruach, it conveys.

Zasloff Thomas and her Mama Doni Band will be playing at the second annual Jewish Music fest concert in the park at Francis Field in the District for families and all-ages audiences on Sunday, June 8. She’ll be joined by the ska/roots/rock mash-up band Josh and the Jamtones and Michael Winograd Klezmer Ensemble. “Our show is going to be really interactive, really fun, with a lot of ruach,” she said from her home base in Montclair, N.J. “It will be spiritual and adventurous.” And, she advised, be ready to dance. “I love the feeling we all get when we go to a Jewish wedding and everyone is so happy and connected, the music is flowing and you feel free. That’s what I try to find and bring into my show: that absolute love of being Jewish – singing and dancing and you feel so happy.”

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JDS alum Daniel Saks will be trying his hand at something new this year at the festival. His concert at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on June 7 will be his first solo foray with an evening entitled “Sephardic Songs and Stories.” Founder and driving force behind the rock band DeLeon, which draws on Sephardic rhythms, melodies and the rich Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, culture, Saks said he has to bring his “a-game” when he performs here, not only because of his many longtime friends and fans who are in the audience, but also because his mom and dad, Loretta and Bob Saks of Hyattsville, have heard everything he’s done.

While much of the music Saks plays is deeply rooted in the Sephardic culture, he doesn’t like to make his shows what he calls “too academic.” He adds, though, “My parents suggested I should talk more about the history of the music, what Ladino is and what Sephardic culture is. Mostly [DeLeon] is just focused on keeping people dancing and having fun. If afterwards they go and check Wikipedia, that’s great.” He was inspired to explore his mother’s Sephardic roots, and this acoustic show, without his band mates, gives him an opportunity to highlight his own stories about the music and its history and his memories of his Italian grandmother.


Also performing Sunday, June 8, is the community-wide Jewish choir Kolot HaLev, directed by Argentinean-born Cantor Ramon Tasat. This year the group presents an eclectic program featuring “Melodies of the Russian Jews.” The 6-year-old, all-volunteer, no-audition group has immersed itself in Russian pronunciations and the varied range of music from Russian Jews, both secular and liturgical. Included is a famous Jewish partisan’s hymn that uses the same melody as a song sung by Russian comrades in the Communist party.

Tasat joined by choir member Izabella Tabarovsky turned to an archive of original Jewish folk melodies and songs preserved by ethnomusicologist and folklorist Moshe Beregovsky. Songs in next week’s program date from before the Russian Revolution, during and immediately after the Holocaust, and those that came from Russian emigres to Israel and the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. “So many [Jews] came from Russian Jewish heritage, but ask them what they know about the music and 95 percent know little or nothing,” Tasat noted. He anticipates this program of choral music as a way to transmit new ideas about a Russian Jewish past.

This year’s festival also features the vibrant local sounds of the Alexandria Kleztet, Sunday, June 1 at the DCJCC, playing for a Klezmer brunch. On June 10 another edition of the Big Broadway Sing-Along will include show tune favorites from Jewish Broadway composers (is there anyone on Broadway who doesn’t have a Jewish connection?).

“For some people,” Daniel Saks said, “Jewish music is something you sing on the holidays with your family. For some people, it’s what you do in a synagogue or dance to at a wedding. And for someone like myself, [Jewish music] is something that can be based in tradition but where you take it is limitless.”

Check out WJMF opening act Matisyahu

For a schedule, tickets or information call 202-777-3251 or visit wjmf.org. 

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