Rabbi Tuvia Bolton is a fascinating person; not your typical artist, by any means. A Rosh Yeshiva and Maggid Shiur for many years at the Ohr Temimim yeshiva for Baalei Teshuva in Kfar Chabad, he has also released 3 solid albums (Behind the Castle Wall, Kav Hamashveh, and Moshiach Blues) combining his hometown Chicago blues sound with deep Chassidic messages, alongside some particularly sharp satire. (Nobel Peace Prize is, by far, the best political song in Jewish music.) In a musical shift, he has recently released a new album of contemplative Chabad niggunim, entitled “Gaaguim”. We caught up with the Rabbi recently to hear a bit more about it, and we thought we’d share the entire delightful conversation with you.
Hislahavus: You write in your liner notes that in your previous musician-incarnation, as a secular Jew, you had never come across songs of yearning that had true depth – until you first heard Chabad nigunim. Can you describe your first encounters with niggunim?
Tuvia Bolton: I was a singer in bars. I was pretty good – everybody used to enjoy it, I enjoyed it – but eventually, I got tired of singing songs about girls. Because you know, all the songs about yearning are about girls. So I’d sing those songs, but I would think about G-d. I was totally not religious, but I realized, there must be something more universal here than just singing about girls. But then I had problems with the word “baby”! Cuz you can sing, “Take another little piece of my heart”, and that can be about G-d, but then you say “baby”, and that can’t be about G-d! How can you call G-d “baby”? And how many songs have baby in it?! You can’t get around it! So I wasn’t really at home with the music. But all the time I was there, I had this gnawing feeling that something, really, is wrong over here, and I could never figure out what was wrong with the bars, because it was the ultimate thing – people lived their whole week, their whole lives just to go to the bars!
One night in the bar, I was singing some song, and it came to me – it just snapped: everybody in this bar is depressed! Everybody was rocking out at that moment, they were all smiling; but for a millionth of a second it just became black and white, became like frozen! And I decided, that’s it – I’m getting out. It took me a while, it’s a long story how I got to Chabad, but in short, I heard a professor give a lecture, and he said an anti-Semitic comment. And that drove me to investigate what was Judaism. He said the only thing bad in the world are the Jews, and I didn’t even know what a Jew was! I was wondering, what did the Jews do to him? So I started to learn the books of the Jews.
Eventually, in 1971, I met up with a chassid named R’ Itche Meir Kagan. And he took me to the Rebbe. I lived in Detroit, and we drove 12 hours to New York. I went into the farbrengen, that Shabbos. I heard them sing a niggun when I went in, called the Niggun of R’ Zalman Zlatopolsky. This is not a niggun they usually would sing in farbrengens. So they sang this niggun, and I was totally knocked out. There were not as many people there in 770, maybe only about 500-700 people – it was a third the size of what it is now – and they were all standing on these tiers.
I heard this nigun, and it knocked me out. And then the Rebbe started talking – he spoke for about 2 hours. But afterwards, it was a total metamorphosis. I no longer had any connection with what I was before. I decided that now, it’s beginning: up till now, I don’t know what I was, but now, this is it! This is the man, this is the reason I’m here!
H: So would that be the reason this album is entitled Gaaguim? It has no fast niggunim – just the contemplative type. What made you decide on such a theme for your album? Because this was your journey?
TB: Yes, it was the entrance to my journey. But listen – there are a lot of people who sing niggunim. I’ve been listening to people sing niggunim for the last 43 years. I really enjoyed Nichoach, but the accompaniment was weird: they had this Russian thing going on, and the chords were a little bizarre sometimes, so I got the feeling that the people who were accompanying that weren’t really Chassidim, they were just accomplished musicians. Since then I’ve been listening to people sing these niggunim, but I never really got off on them. And recently there are some people who I think really got the whole thing wrong. They have the whole idea of what Chabad niggunim wrong – they’ve got the melodies, but there’s no kvetch…
So eventually I got to the point that I thought, I have to put these things out the way I feel it. So that at least some will listen to eat and say, there’s some other way. It’s become very commercial. There’s a problem that as a musician, you start worrying about the crowd. You lose the goal – sometimes the goal is to have a big crowd, to please people, and to be popular. Or maybe the goal is for people to see you doing your thing, with the beard, tzitzis, and that’ll impress them. Or maybe the main thing is to do something that is true to you.
So Chabad music, as far as I’m concerned, has to be in the Gaaguim songs, a touch of simcha. And in all the Chabad happy songs, there has to be also a bit of bitterness. Chabadniks feel that way, because they know that to some degree, everyone besides the Rebbe is, to some degree, a faker. There’s the famous story that before the Alter Rebbe was arrested, he asked his chassid, R’ Shmuel Munkes, what he thought. And R’ Shmuel said, “Go – if you’re a Rebbe, they won’t harm you. And if you’re not, you deserve it – because what right did you to wreck the worldly pleasures from your Chassidim?!” Now, what pleasures did R’ Shmuel have? He wanted to go the movies? No! The pleasure the Rebbe negated was the feeling of thinking “I made it!” You have to be happy – there’s a mitzvah to be happy all the time – so in the Gaaguim songs there’s still a sound of happiness, but you have to feel like you still have evil, so there’s a sound of bitterness in the happy songs, too.
So that’s one of the reasons I made this album. It’s a farbrengen of sorts.
H: Your previous 3 albums were a mix of rock, blues, folk and a drop of country. Here, you stuck to a minimalist sound – a number of the songs have a basic chamber music sound; a few have solo piano; one has you in a cappella overdub. Only one or two have a folk feel – can you tell us anything about the reasons for those decisions?
TB: There’s a fellow in Rechovot, Doron Toister. He is supposed to be the best cellist in Israel – He’s 100% a Chabadnik, a Baal Teshuva for like 15 years, all his children are in yeshiva. A very talented guy! If you let him go, he’ll change everything – the rhythm, the harmonies… He did 3 or 4 of the songs, and what he did was fantastic. I think what he did in the Poltova Nigun was genius!
I had four types of songs: 2 are me and guitar; 2 are me and piano; 2 with just vocals, a cappella. I arranged them as it happened. I sat in the studio, and that’s just the way it came out.
H: Obviously, the song selection was based on the feeling of yearning – Gaaguim. One of them, the Alter Rebbe’s Keili Ata, has been performed dozens of times by you-name-it: Avraham Fried, Mordechai ben David, Lipa, and even secular Israeli singer Shlomo Gronich. What do you think is the magnetic appeal to this particular song, and what have you added with your version?
TB: I think that song is a song that really lends itself to harmony. Not only that, it’s a very simple song. It’s got just 3, 4, chords in it. So on one hand it’s very deep, but on the other hand, it’s very easy to sing. Most people in Israel have no idea that it was written by the Alter Rebbe! It’s very popular, and very available. These are the type of songs that even a non-religious person who remembers his grandfather singing it, it’ll make him start crying in middle of the bar, wanting to do Teshuva!
H: What about another of the Alter Rebbe’s niggunim that you recorded here, Kol Dodi?
TB: The meaning of the niggun is that Hashem is knocking on everybody’s door, and saying, “Open up!” On one hand, it’s a sad thing that Hashem has to come knock on your door; on the other hand, it’s a happy thing that Hashem cares about you enough to come knock on his door! So that’s the feeling of that song.
H: The Lubavitcher Rebbes’ niggunim are described as “Niggunim Mechuvanim”, meaning “exact niggunim”. What would you say that means?
TB: That’s sort of a loaded question. It’s sort of like trying to explain what a Rebbe is. A Rebbe has eyes, a mouth, a nose like everyone else, but somehow, through the body, comes out something completely different. The same thing with the niggun. The niggun has notes, he puts them in an order like every other song. But it seems that these songs have 4 levels: The simple music, the emotions – the feeling that you get from the song, the intellectual – the message of the song, and then there’s the essence level. The Rebbe’s niggunim have some sort of G-dliness to it, on that fourth level. It’s totally not understandable – it becomes a vehicle for the G-dliness. It’s like the difference between a dead body and a live body – the dead body is very complex, but it’s not the same as a live body. I think the term “mechuvan” means it has a life to it.
H: Your favorite nigun?
TB: Zalman Zlatopolsky’s nigun.
H: Any future projects your fans would like to be aware of?
TB: I do want to produce another niggunim album, but I want this one to sell first!