THEY’RE AN AMERICAN BAND: Encounters with Jewish African-American gospel singer Joshua Nelson and Woody Guthrie have changed how the Klezmatics see themselves.
Defining "Jewish" music is pretty much a fool's task — not much easier than defining jazz. You can narrow it down to a particular strain of Jewish culture — as klezmer musicians do, or followers of liturgical cantorial singing. Or you can go the John Zorn route with his "Radical Jewish Culture" series on his Tzadik label, in which any music performed and/or composed by Jews seems to qualify, from avant-klezmer to Burt Bacharach and Steve Lacy.
The organizers of the first annual Boston Jewish Music Festival (March 6-14) are taking in the "broadest possible definition," says executive director Joey Baron (not to be confused with the jazz drummer of the same name). "To us, it's any musical expression of Jewish experience and values." Uh, so what's that? "In my mind, Randy Newman writing songs about God is . . . you know, the original Jews questioned God, why can't Randy Newman? It's so part of our tradition. When you hear it, if you're not Jewish, does it strike you as a Jewish song? Probably not. But an argument can be made that it's part of a centuries-old tradition."
In that spirit, the festival is taking in everything from Brooklyn rockers Electro Morocco (March 10 at T.T. the Bear's Place, Cambridge) to the Borromeo String Quartet playing the music of Argentine-born Newton resident Osvaldo Golijov (March 8 at Temple Israel, Boston) to post–Gogol Bordello klezmer punks Golem opening for the granddaddies of the klezmer revival, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, who are celebrating their 30th anniversary (March 6 at Berklee Performance Center, Boston). In that concert, the KCB welcome back former members Don Byron and Judy Bressler. The gamut runs from the religious to the secular, Israeli to American, international to local.
"Golijov," says Baron, "clearly has Jewish roots in his music, just as he has Argentinean roots — that's what makes his music exciting." The piece being performed by the Borromeo, Tenebrae, was composed after a trip to Israel. "I don't think there's religious tonality per se, but there's clearly something very spiritual about it that reflects his experience in Israel."
Baron and BJMF co-founder Jim Ball came together at the suggestion of Joshua Jacobson, director of the Zamir Chorale of Boston. Baron — a former advertising copywriter — had been producing annual Jewish-music events at various temples and community centers. Ball — a freelance PR and marketing consultant — had been thinking about starting a festival for a while, having been inspired in part by the success of the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
"Almost every American city Boston's size has a Jewish-music festival," Ball tells me in a separate conversation, "and some [cities] that are smaller. San Francisco has had a festival for 20 years." Baron and Ball began to call in various connections they'd made over the years, and soon other organizations were asking to be part of it.