The Klezamtics: Brother Moses Smote The Water Program

With Special Guest Joshua Nelson

Artist: The Klezmatics

Title: Brother Moses Smote The Water

Release Date: March 8, 2005

Label: Piranha Musik/Hamonia Mundi

Only in America could Jewish slaves in Egypt inspire White Southern Christians who in turn stirred Black Christians to sing about emancipation who in turn inspired an African-American Jewish gospel singer named Joshua Nelson.

The Klezmatics, known for their unique blend of melodic mysticism and improvisational activism have once again turned their music inside out, exposing the complexity of Jewish identity, Black identity, human identity.

Brother Moses Smote the Water, their March 8, 2005 release on Piranha Musik (distributed by Harmonia Mundi) teams them with Nelson and jazz singer/organist Kathryn Farmer. This first live Klezmatics recording alternates between age-old Hebrew Passover songs, Nelson’s own brand of kosher gospel, and traditional Yiddish Klezmatic anthems. The Brother Moses Smote the Water tour will be presented in select major cities in March and April 2005.

Nelson descends from a long line of Black Jews, their very existence calling into question the dichotomous black/white thinking typically placed on religion, race, and culture in America. He posits that his Jewish heritage may go as far back as the ancient Second Temple of Jerusalem. My great, great grandmother practiced a very primitive Judaism similar to the Jewish Ethiopians and the Lembas of Southern Africa, Nelson explains. For example, to this day we celebrate the New Year during Passover in the spring as the Torah says. Whereas most Western Jews celebrate the New Year during Rosh Hashanah in the fall as the later Rabbinic teachings say. Somehow the line of Judaism I come from didn’t follow Rabbinic Judaism. Regardless, there have been Black Jews for centuries.

But Nelson’s gospel singing only goes as far back as his grandmother’s Mahalia Jackson record, which he listened to at age eight. I make Jewish music and give it a soul sound, he says. They call it the gospel sound. But technically it is soul Jewish music. If you can be Black and put soul in Christian music, you can be Black and put soul in Jewish music!

Soul comes out of a bad experience and being able to sing about it, Nelson continues. You can hear soul in Jewish cantorial chanting; the wailing you hear in a synagogue. That is also identified as soul, because it’s what one moans and groans about a horrible experience. Black people and European Jews have both gone through hell in the last two centuries.

For nearly twenty years, The Klezmatics have been the standard bearers of politically and socially conscious party music for the head, heart, and tuchis. The New York band has been constantly reinventing and stretching the boundaries of the genre while staying rooted to the source. The band recently toured their Holy Ground concert program of Woody Guthrie’s Jewish music with Arlo Guthrie, selling out New York’s Carnegie Hall and Los Angeles’ Disney Hall.

We have a reputation as ‘the klezmer band that sings,’ explains Klezmatics singer Lorin Sklamberg. With Brother Moses we were able to join with additional voices which really gave us an opportunity to do a lot of wonderful singing together. Another exciting thing for me was getting to sing songs I have loved for many years, but never had the chance to sing. The title track was inspired by a version by the Golden Gate Quartet, an African American group that started singing spirituals in the 1920s and is still singing to this day. I knew it from my mom’s record collection when I was a kid. The Brother Moses CD was recorded at a festival in Berlin, but the concept came from an evening of Freedom Songs that took place at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

The concert united songs from Jewish and African-American traditions that spoke to social justice, becoming a multi-cultural soundtrack to Passover’s themes of freedom from bondage. A lot of people sing ‘Let My People Go’ during Passover, says Sklamberg. This project came out of that. We were looking for the Old Testament intersection of these two musical traditions: Jewish music and Black spirituals. Gospel and spirituals are two different things, but musically this just evolved to have more gospel.

The liberation from slavery into freedom in Egypt is the root mythical psychic event that defines Jewish people, says Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London. Nelson adds, Blacks have always paralleled our struggles in America with the time when Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. And in the ’60s Blacks and European Jews marched together in Washington. A lot of this project has that context. These are two communities that have been divided by certain political leaders. From that standpoint, this is really, really great. For both communities to come together.

When we did this program in Berlin and began to restructure the set-list, continues London, we realized that we had the Passover seder encapsulated in our concert, we just needed to re-order the songs! Starting with ‘Go Down, Moses’ through the songs of liberation and welcoming the messiah, and ending with ‘Ki Loy Nue,’ which is at the end of the seder. It’s kind of ironic because the word seder means sequence; it’s a ritual set-list.

Beside the cross-cultural interaction and the Passover-freedom theme, both Nelson and The Klezmatics were struck by the compatibility of what London calls their architecture of building energy.

We get along so well because we all really deal with music from the aspect of energy, says London. That is such a part of gospel: how you build up the energy in a concert or service until you get to the ecstatic point. I love that this is implicit in Joshua’s approach to music and in ours.

The Klezmatics are very flexible on stage, adds Nelson. They can arrange something right in the moment. And that allowed me to add to the fire of creating things.

This project really points to what we love about New York and kind of proves a lot of my points in life, London says. Everyone says these essentialist things about identity, and it’s not that clear. You can’t point to one thing of who you are. Each individual, everything in the world is a complex mix.

This final point was really driven home when gospel singer/organist Amina Claudine Myers, who performed at the New York premiere, could not make it to the Berlin shows and recommended her friend Kathryn Farmer, who grew up around her father’s jazz bar. My dad liked the really soul part of jazz; the one-foot-in-the-gutter kind of music, Farmer explains. That’s what I was raised on. During rehearsals with The Klezmatics, it came to light that she had been adopted and her birth mother was Jewish. Though she was not raised Jewish (her parents were African-American Methodists), in recent years she has studied the Torah with other Jewish musicians and artists. It’s funny. We hired an African-American gospel singer and we found even she has a Jewish connection that she’s still exploring, concludes London.