Some historians say that traditional Jewish music was part of the genesis of American jazz. Louis Armstrong spent part of his childhood working for a Russian-Jewish family who taught him Yiddish and helped him buy his first cornet. Other early-20th-century big band leaders were known for using klezmer influences, gleaned from the many Jewish musicians who wound up in show business during that era. Those influences got diluted over time, but klezmer remained relevant to the lineage of American music. Today, Jewish music has bled into gospel, hip-hop, and punk rock. Nowhere is that vast diaspora more apparent than in the Jewish Music Festival put on every year by the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay (1414 Walnut St., Berkeley). Now 23 years old, it's the longest-running event of its kind in the United States.
The 24th Jewish Music Festival will bring together a panoply of forms and traditions. It kicks off Saturday, Mar. 21, with a gospel performance at First Congregational Church (2501 Harrison St., Oakland), featuring singer Joshua Nelson and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. A disciple of Mahalia Jackson, Nelson sings Jewish prayers in a soulful style, using the same instrumentation you'd find at any Southern Baptist church: piano, drums, bass, and a chorus of big-voiced background singers. On Sunday, Mar. 22, the Young People's Symphony Orchestra performs music by local composer Ernest Bloch, who directed the San Francisco Conservatory of Music during the 1920s. Cellist Bonnie Hampton will play Bloch's Schelomo, a rhapsody for solo violin, while violinist Jeremy Cohen will perform a klezmer concerto by local composer Arkadi Serper. Yiddish singer Flory Jagoda, who stars in the Mar. 25 matinee, comes from a Ladino community in Sarajevo. Her ancestors were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and dispersed to various parts of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. Jagoda sings a mix of traditional Sephardic music and original compositions that reflect her Judeo-Spanish roots. Many of her songs are mistaken for folk music, said festival director Eleanor Shapiro.
In fact, the protean quality of Jewish music is a major theme of this year's festival. Other highlights include Yiddish "folk punk" outfit Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird, who perform Mar. 26 at the Rickshaw Stop with beatbox harmonica player Yuri Lane (who really can vocalize a drum beat and play a harmonica at the same time), and a Mar. 28 concert at JCC East Bay starring two unusual groups, the Gypsy swing band Gaucho and the Barry Sisters-inspired vocal quartet Sisters of Synville. It closes with family day: a beatboxing workshop for teens, an instrument "petting zoo" for kids, and a dance party for everyone with klezmer brass band Brass Menazeri. For a full schedule, visit JewishMusicFestival.org.
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