Ethnomusicology – the Americanization of Niggunim

November 17, 2009 7 min read

This is the basic script of a lecture that was given recently at the University of Washington school of music, as part of a class in ethnomusicology. The Chabad shliach to the University delivered the lecture, all the while showing the audience clips of the music discussed.

In Chassidic culture, music finds itself in a central position. Every celebration, event and holiday, and even study, is marked with tunes. Today, our discussion brings us to the crossroads – secular American culture, and the devout Jewish piety of Chassidism.

As Chassidism developed over the 18th and 19th centuries, Chassidic dynasties were formed, mostly based on geographical areas. Each Chassidic dynasty focused on a particular aspect of serving G-d. Each also developed their own unique tunes and music, which resonated with their particular style. We’ll focus today most specifically on the interpretations of the music of the Chabad Chassidim, which was started by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who died in 1813. This is both due to my personal allegiance to the Chabad movement, but also, and primarily because the tunes of Chabad in particular, more than virtually any other dynasty, have been interpreted by dozens of artists. This is partially due to the outgoing nature of Chabad, as we’ll see.

Now, a few words on niggunim in general: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi famously described niggunim when he said, “Music is the quill of the soul.” Niggunim are composed with particular spiritual concepts in mind, and as a result, are very exact in their makeup. Songs are sung during prayer services, during celebrations, and especially during informal gatherings called farbrengens, where the participants talk about their spiritual goals and G-dly pursuit, and sing the songs that reflect the mood and atmosphere of the discussion. The tunes sung are used to evoke certain feelings or emotions, and to bring the singers to a spiritual awakening. Some of these songs are quite complicated; others extremely simple.

The more serious and complex niggunim have experienced far less public exposure than the fast, easy to sing niggunim. One of the few artists to experiment with some of these niggunim is Matisyahu, who has interpreted four niggunim, three of which have never been touched by artists before. However, in three of those cases, he did not interpret the entire tune – he only took one stanza in Niggun Dub, two stanzas in Short Niggun, and all but one stanza in Tzamah Lecha Nafshi. Only Father in the Forest is given full treatment.

That was a general introduction to our subject matter – what happens with the marriage of Chassidic music and American culture? Recognizing the holiness that Chassidim ascribe their music, how would American Chassidim combine their cultures?

So let’s take a look at this from a historical perspective. Throughout the 60’s, the closest thing Jewish music had to a star of its own was the famed singing rabbi – Shlomo Carlebach. Carlebach had spent some time in the Chabad movement. However, he sang his own compositions. So in the 60’s, there was no such thing – as of yet – as a Chassid interpreting niggunim. You did have folk singers such as Theodore Bikel and others who took Chabad and other Chassidic melodies and adapted them, but that was mostly for secular audiences. And you did have the Chabad choir, Nichoach. But Nichoach stayed very basic in its arrangements, with little in terms of harmonies and development. It was meant as an introduction to niggunim; not as interpretation of niggunim.

The second major star in the Chassidic world was Mordechai ben David, the son of cantor David Werdyger, who was, incidentally, saved during the Holocaust by his vocal talent, and then later, by Oscar Schindler. MBD produced his first album in 1972, and began his career singing his own compositions. It wasn’t until 1979, with his album “Songs of Rosh Hashana”, that he first began experimenting with older Chassidic classics, mostly in pop format. Throughout his career, he has interpreted many niggunim; both from Chabad and many other Chassidic dynasties, with one collection devoted entirely to niggunim entitled “Once Upon a Niggun”.

So Carlebach and MBD were the first “stars”. But the late sixties and seventies started to see a change in the Jewish world as a whole. Jews who had grown up secular were starting to return to their roots and become more observant. These were Jews, who, like my own parents, grew up in typical American homes with American parents. As a result, the culture to which they affiliated most closely was that of American culture. They grew up listening to Dylan and to Jimi, to the Beatles and to Flatt and Scruggs. And within the tiny Jewish music market, none of that kind of music existed. Musicians who had grown up musically in America now found themselves anxious to recreate the sounds they had grown up with, in the community they now found themselves. While Andy Statman and others were busy with the klezmer revival, these musicians wanted to stay in the genres that they had grown up with.

The first band to do that was the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, a country/western/folk-rock group in the mid seventies, which disbanded in 1983. They only interpreted three niggunim, – some country/western takes on a niggun from the Chassidic dynasty of Modzhitz and two from Breslov.

In 1976, Stan Getz, the legendary sax player, stumbled upon two brothers in Israel – guitarist Yossi and flautist Avi Piamenta. Yossi Piamenta has since been called “The Sefardic Santana and the Hassidic Hendrix”, while Avi can best be described as Ian Anderson with a yarmulke. Getz brought them back to America, and starting in 1981, the brothers produced a few albums of Chassidic wedding music, as well as Jewish music’s first true rock album. On each of their wedding albums, they experimented with lightly interpreting niggunim based on their calling – good ol’ rock ‘n roll. The Piamentas later produced an album of only niggunim called “Songs of the Rebbes”, but they also interpreted a handful of niggunim on their regular albums. Incidentally, some of their best interpretations are of Sefardi zemirot – the Jewish music of the Arab lands.

In 1980, a completely innovative album was released by an arm of the Chabad movement itself, called Chassidance. This would be Jewish music’s first all-electronic album, as well as the very first instrumental album of Chabad niggunim. In all honesty, it reeks of the eighties! The artist is Israeli pianist Yaron Gershovsky, who, while not a religious Jew himself, was pulled into the job by an American chassid named Shmuel Goldman. On this album, Chassidic niggunim first began to really match up with the sound of the time. Gershovsky later came out with three more albums of niggunim; two in classical and jazz solo piano style, and one klezmer album with Chillik Frank, a Chassidic clarinetist.

One might think, based on stereotypes of the Chassidim as sheltered, old-world Jews, that the Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, would not be interested in these “modern” adaptations. To the contrary; the Rebbe embraced adaptations, and encouraged musicians who consulted with him to explore their heritage through their personal medium. Within the Rebbe’s weltanschauung, the idea is simple – music is by itself, neither holy nor mundane. The job of the musician is to elevate the music by using it for good purposes.

As a result, many musicians began experimenting with Chassidic music. Also in the early eighties – a rock band was formed by returnees to Judaism, including the drummer and lead vocalist for the French Moroccan rock band “Les Variations”, Isaac Bitton. The first incarnation of the band was called “The Baal Shem Tov Band”, and later, Bitton reformed it as “Raaya Mehemna”, and produced two albums. The Rebbe not only encouraged his work, but even added lyrics to a song, and suggested a slight revision of the name of the band to “Raava Mehemna”.

The Rebbe also encouraged the introduction of the first English songs into the Chabad music repertoire. Most were songs that had been written in Chabad summer camps that became popular, particularly through the 1981 release of an album by the Tzlil V’zemer Boys Choir, called “Wake Up Yidden”.

Throughout the eighties, a few more albums of Chabad niggunim were released, including Moshe Laufer’s “Music of the Lubavitcher Chassidim”, which is a standard Jewish album, and Mona Rosenblum’s two volumes of “Chabad Melodies”, which have a few songs interpreted with a distinctive late-eighties classical pop feel.

Another important development in the eighties was Jewish music’s next pop star, Avraham Fried. Fried – who is actually a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement – was born to an American Chabad family, and was heavily involved with choirs and such as a child. In 1981 he released his first solo album, and on it was his interpretation of the classic niggun Ani Maamin, a song that was composed by a Modzhitzer chassid named Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on the way to Auschwitz, and is now sung by Jews the world over. Over the next decade, Fried developed a number of niggunim, and beginning in 1994, began a series of full length albums of Chabad niggunim. As of today he has released four of those albums, utilizing various genres in portraying the niggunim – including pop, rock, and jazz. His most recent niggunim release, called “Yankel, Yankel”, was published just a few months ago.

The 90’s brought along with it a shift. Whereas until that point niggunim were produced with only slight variations, at this point the Jewish music world began to mature. Clarinetist and mandolin player Andy Statman, in particular, released his critically acclaimed collection of niggunim “Between Heaven and Earth”, which is an open-ended improv jazz/klezmer album, and possibly the most emotional Chassidic album in existence. His other productions brought depth and maturity to the adaptations, as well as brilliant virtuosity and collaborations with major world artists such as Bela Fleck, David Grisman and others. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, David Lazzar produced three heavy metal albums, with a hardcore interpretation of the niggun Tzoma, Tzoma on his album Judah’s Fill. Whatever the case, niggunim were being married to different genres in very creative ways.

Over the past ten years, we’ve witnessed a golden age in terms of the Americanization of niggunim. The fusion band Groyse Metsie, the classic rock band Yood, Chassidic rappers Ta Shma, New Orleans funky jamband Merkavah, the trip-hop electronica Kabbalah Dream Orchestra, and most famously, reggae artist Matisyahu, have all taken and developed niggunim, using the latest in technology and oftentimes high levels of skill and creativity.

In summary, being that essentially we’re talking about soul music, it was only natural for Chassidic-American musicians to combine both sides of their culture. At the same time, adaptations of niggunim took time to really develop to a high standard. While there are certainly purists who reject these adaptations, there is room to suggest that Chassidic theology and philosophy supports it, and the Rebbe himself encouraged a number of musicians to explore it.