Who Infuses Klezmer and Jazz Music With An African Beat?

The e-mail came on a Friday afternoon via my publisher.  It was the cultural attaché for the Israeli Consulate here in Philly and she wanted me to cover the event they were sponsoring at the Art Museum as part of its Art After Five program.  The problem?  The concerts are held on Friday evenings and I observe Shabbat the traditional way.  When I told my family about the prominence of the guest artist, Israeli-born Oran Etkin, they encouraged me to cover the event.  What I ended up doing was to complete my Shabbat preparations by 5, drove down to the Museum in a pouring rain, attended the concert, and was back home and ready for candle-lighting before any other member of my family.  The interview with the soft-spoken artist was conducted the following Monday by Skype.

What excited us was the reputation Oran has as a clarinet player and a teacher, lauded by New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff and PRI‘s internationally syndicated radio show, Afropop Worldwide.  His music fuses traditional West African (Malian), Jewish, and Middle Eastern melodies with modern jazz, creating what The Boston Globe dubbed a “hypnotic balance between straight-ahead jazz and world music.”  He’s performed across the world with musicians ranging from jazz guitarist Mike Stern to rapper Wyclef Jean.  His music has been featured on a Grammy-nominated album, Healthy Food for Thought, alongside tracks by Russell Simmons, Moby, and Sweet Honey In the Rock.

Oran is also an innovative teacher and the creator of the popular Timbalooloo music classes.  His first CD for children, Wake Up, Clarinet!, has won awards from the Parents Choice Foundation, NAPPA (the National Parenting Publications Awards) and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal.  It features Jason Marsalis from New Orleans on drums, Fabian Almazan from Cuba on piano, Curis Fowlkes from Brooklyn on trombone, and Garth Stevenson from Canada on bass.  His debut album, Kelenia,was recognized as the “Best World Beat Album” at the Independent Music Awards.  Oran has performed at the Blue Note, Central Park SummerStage, Joe’s Pub, the United Nations and numerous other venues in the United States, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East with musicians including Jason Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Lionel Loueke, Mandingo Ambassadors, Airto Moreira, Toumani Diabate, and Killah Priest of the Wu-Tang Clan.

How did a Jew, an Israeli, learn to play traditional African music from Mali?  Oran had a teacher in college- his alma mater being Brandeis- whose uncle played the kora, also known as the African harp or lute.  This teacher, Joh Camara, brought Oran to visit his family in Mali and Oran fell in love with the people and their music.  The two African musicians who’d performed at the Art Museum had the same surname, Kouyate.  Did this have a cultural significance, as Cohen connote priestly descent for Jews?  Yes, the West Africans have an oral tradition by a griot or a jeli who relates the history of their people through music and song.  People bearing the Kouyate surname are descendents of the original griot family.  They traditionally perform at milestone ceremonies and Oran has been privileged to participate in some of these festive occasions.  Richard Freedman, professor of music at Haverford College, reminds me that these griot lineages have broken down somewhat in the wake of sound recording (which allows others to copy the style), and of course, of social change in Mali, emigration, etc.  In fact, you can even study kora in the United States!

Two non-Western instruments were performed at the concert– in addition to Oran on the bass clarinet and saxophone and Marcos Verela on the double bass– the balafon and the calabash.  Yes, you read correctly- it was a giant egg-shaped half gourd, measuring almost two feet in diameter with a hardened shell that was about half an inch thick.  The drummer, Makane Kouyate, produced such a diverse blend of sound with his instrument that I was sure he had a steel drum hidden behind it.  No, it was only the calabash with a microphone tucked underneath on a regular table.  When the drummer beats the instrument from the side, it evokes a click sound, and when he bangs it from the top, while standing, it sounds like a bass drum.  Played by Balla Kouyate, the balafon is a percussion idiophone of West Africa and it looks like a wooden xylophone.  It was carefully and lovingly made by its owner, as these musicians take pride in making their own instruments.  The drummer had also stretched goatskin for his other drum, the djembe.  I learned from Wikipedia that according to the Bamana people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying Anke djé, anke bé which translates to “everyone gather together in peace” and defines the drum’s purpose.

The percussionist had his two young children sitting contently up front behind the “stage,” a cleared space at the bottom of the grand staircase inside the Museum, with a huge cloth curtain drawn across the back of where the musicians performed.  Oran confirmed that the balafon player was their father, noting that this was “the natural way of understanding music.”  When children learn at a young age, music comes to them naturally; they do not have to learn the rules as one has to endure learning the grammar of a foreign language.  With his Timbalooloo classes, the next generation is being exposed to world music with “real people playing real music, attending to each other,” and in the process, they learn to appreciate each other through their music.

In the past two years, his touring has increased and been brought to another level.  There is much interest in Europe, where it is said that they appreciate and value jazz music.  Oran says it’s true in certain aspects as a cultural, artistic, and intellectual achievement.  But then, he would hate to generalize, as he only sees a certain subset of a music audience.  He now lives in the United States and he sees people who do not know or value jazz music.  Maybe, it’s because jazz started in this country, mused Oran, “so people here take it for granted and not value it as much.”

For the concert, Oran wore a slim black jacket over a collared white short-sleeved shirt (which was exposed when he took off the jacket when the music got “hot”) and jeans.  The bassist wore black, but each of the two Malian musicians wore a blue or gold flowing wide-sleeved African robe called a boubou or a bubu. Why did Oran not wear something similar?  It would not be authentic.  Oran elaborated thus: they understand and respect each performer’s own identity and integrity.   According to Professor Freedman, “They are mixing the traditions while attempting to preserve the uniqueness of each layer.”  Oran continued, “It adds more value when meeting other musicians when you bring who you are and make something new.” It enables a wider message.

While Oran is not observant of Jewish religious tradition, he is a modern-day Israeli.  Hebrew was his first language and he still speaks it with his family.   In addition to language, he claims an Israeli identity in the way he relates to other people, a more casual way of friendship than is demonstrated by Americans, who do not drop in on their friends un-announced.  He has felt more at home with other immigrants, through their multiple identities.  As with music, so it is with his social life.

Before his maternal grandmother’s death when he was eight, he and his elder brother recorded her memoir.  They made 10 audiocassettes of the family’s oral history about the uncle who left Poland/Russia for Ethiopia (and became close to the Emperor Haile Selassie) and she who’d emigrated alone to Israel in the 1930′s.  The grandmother, Mina Nadel, later earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne and became head of the biology department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.  Oran plans to write music one day based on her stories.

Was there musical talent in his family?  We do not know if it was so further back in time that the Etkin clan was musical, but in his immediate family, there are no professional musicians.  His mother played the piano at home.  His father played no instruments but he was very musical and he sang around the house.  He taught him the importance of melody, said Oran, as “jazz musicians can get so caught up in the notes that they get away from the melodies.”  He was obsessed by Louis Armstrong from the age of nine and he discovered jazz on his own.  His parents then took him to New Orleans to hear the real stuff in his early teens.

Oran also has a sister who’s much younger by 10 years.  In caring for her and teaching her how to read and do math, she taught him how to teach.  His playfulness and inventiveness come across in his children’s CD.  Teaching is in the family: His brother, Amit Etkin, has both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Oran’s goals are to play more and more music.  A bachelor, he likes to wake up and make music with people whom he likes and trusts.  He will continue to tour and meet people who are interesting to him socially as well as musically.  His Timbalooloo ventures will also expand, with more CDs and also children’s books.  Watch for news of his proposed television program and you can check out his websites,  www.oranetkin.com for the jazz and world music (including Kelenia), and www.timbalooloo.com for the program for children.   He has taught other people his pedagogical method and when touring, he also teaches classes on site.  Parents hear by word-of-mouth and they gather their children to meet him around the world, whether it be in Paris or Los Angeles for the Grammy awards ceremony.  My 2-year-old niece and her family will be moving to Edinburgh, Scotland this fall, so I hope that Oran would plan a gig there.

Kelenia, the title of his debut album, means “the love between people who find each other.”  Today is the Fast Day of the 17th of Tammuz and as we Jews begin the Three Weeks of semi-mourning culminating in the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av, the rabbis remind us that the ancient first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by sinat hinam, senseless hatred.  May the trust and acceptance that comes through a love of shared music inspire us for a future of peace.

Farming the Biblical Way

Touted as a “squash rock star” by Laura Matthews on her blog, Punk Rock Gardens, Tom Culton, 30, has not only appeared on the David Letterman show but he has participated in Sotheby’s “The Art of Farming” auction along with the gracious-living guru Martha Stewart.  He has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Bon Appetit magazine.  He supplies his heirloom and other weird-looking vegetables to local upscale restaurants such as  Vetri, Zahav, and The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia (the latter recently garnered a three-bell rating from the Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan) and to celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in New York City.

What the other media interviews do not mention is that Tom is a devoted member of the River Brethen Church, one of only two remaining Old-Order Mennonite communities in Lancaster and in New Paltz in upstate New York.  Members of his family have been living in Lancaster County since 1740, but several generations back they were dissatisfied by the leadership and dropped out.  Tom is the first one in his family to return to his ancestral faith.  According to Wikipedia, the River Brethren oppose war, alcohol, tobacco, and worldly pleasures.  They also observe the Sabbath– on Saturdays, like the Jews–  in which they do not work.  Tom scatters extra grain for his chickens before the Sabbath, just as manna fell in double portion for the Jews in the desert.

Tom grew up farming but it was in his teens that he understood  “it’s one of the most important roles” he could have in the world.  After his mother’s death in 2001, he found solace in farming– nurturing something while Nature nurtures him in return.  ”Growing food is one of the beautiful things in the world, even when it can be a dark place,” said Tom.  His mother bequeathed to him the ancestral home (his father had left them when Tom was only three days old), and Tom ventured to turn his family farm– previous crops had been tobacco and carrots– to a more sustainable future.  His grandfather, now 81, has come to see the folly of his post-war generation relying on chemicals without  regard for the environmental impact.

Faith is a very important factor in Tom’s life.  It gives focus, strength, and understanding.  He “doesn’t look for answers in man-made solutions, but in God’s solutions.”  The farming life is so insecure, affected by unpredictable weather conditions and capricious market prices.  Farmers can easily lose faith in the face of difficulties but Tom turns to prayer during the sad times (deaths and relationship woes), crops failures, and husbandry diseases.

It is in church on the Sabbath that Tom feels embraced as a farmer.  In fact, his fellow church  members are all farmers, but he is the only organic one– and the one with the highest yield from his land.  Once a contractor for a fellow church member ventured to drive his truck through Tom’s land– with its access road that “would have saved him $5 in gasoline” costs– but Tom saw the guy in time and ran to block access, standing him off  “like the student protestors in Tiananmen Square (China).”  He was cursed roundly for his unneighborly action, but the unheeded drips from the guy’s pesticide-laden truck (and the wheels) could have cost Tom his organic certification or at least incur a hefty fine.

Tom has tremendous respect for the elderly and the ways of old.  His grandfather lives with him.  The senior Culton is not enamored of speaking to outsiders but he enjoys puttering on the farm.  He also cultivates his own saffron plot– for his favorite rice dishes– a therapeutic crop requiring a labor-intensive harvest of the stamens.  Respect for the elderly was also demonstrated by his church when their Bishop suffered a stroke.  To maintain his dignity, he and his wife were sent to a remote farm (away from bustling Lancaster) owned by a church member to live out his days in pastoral peace.  Ancestral ties are maintained through family burial plots on his property, a right protected by his church. In another affirmation of tradition, Tom is refurbishing his family’s buggy, which he plans to use on his wedding day when he meets the lucky gal who cherishes a farming life.  The River Brethren were among the last of the Mennonites to give up their buggies.

Organic farming can give comparable or better yields than conventional agriculture but it does demand much more labor.  Tom grows alfalfa, which is dicey to grow without pesticides, as feed for his dairy goats and as a cash commodity as well as a cover crop for fixing nitrogen (a natural alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers).  Every five years (in contrast to the seven years between Shmittah (Hebrew for “release”) years in the Jewish tradition), he takes out his alfalfa and rotates his crops in the fields.  He has located a French company that uses certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn to produce biodegradable plastic for agricultural purposes.  It’s much more expensive, priced at $400 for 5,000 square feet versus $89 for the conventionally produced plastic.  Tom has seen farmers take the lazy way and simply plow the regular plastic under their land, where it doesn’t ever completely degrade but which does chip off and get into our food and water supply.

How did he learn to farm the organic way?  When he began farming seriously, it was already in his DNA.  So, he did not read much, because it was really just common sense.  ”You go with your heart” and do what is only sustainable for your land.  It has become a “very religious experience” to come to realize that modern research has confirmed his wholehearted experience on the farm.  Tom recently got his first computer and was able to search on the Internet for the correct spelling of the Red Piriform tomato (with ribbed shoulders) that was previously thought to only grow in the Ligura region of Italy but which Tom has succeeded in cultivating and supplying to his chef friends. On Tom’s kitchen table is a bobble-head figure of Mark McGwire, the discredited baseball player who admitted to steroid use last year, to remind himself that people still prize natural talent– and by extension,  natural food– without chemical enhancements.

Tom has one high-top (plastic-covered tent) greenhouse without any heating source and one that is heated by waste oil, processed by him (centrifuged to remove impurities) on his land.  He collects the oil from the area restaurants, which pay him to take the waste oil off their hands.

This year, Tom has the assistance of Matthew Yoder, recently returned from a stint in Maine and newly adopted into the River Brethren faith, and Ian Osborne, an “English” young man not of the faith– just as Jews might distinguish between themselves  and the goyim (Gentiles).  Matthew brought his knowledge of crops that thrive in New England and the two of them have planted heavily on the 53 acres of the Culton Organics farm.  What are his favorite crops?  Fava beans– or just about any bean– and artichokes with its purply, thistly flowers.

Tom’s plans for next year comprise of a reduced reliance on produce and the introduction of ducks and geese (for the eggs and meat).  His farm now supports 15 chickens (only two of which are now mature enough to lay eggs daily), a small flock of goats, and one turkey.  Most of the goats are milk-producing animals, but one lone billy goat was allowed to retain his horns and escape castration (which adversely affects the taste of the meat).  Why was this one chosen for the sacrifice (his eventual slaughter)?  He was the mean one of the flock.

Tom and his friend, Michael Solomonov, the chef at Zahav and a recent winner of the prestigious James Beard award, plan to tour Israel together.  Does he wish to see the Christian religious sites?  No, he is willing to follow Michael’s lead; besides he is more interested in seeing the Jewish historical sites.

You could taste the delicious dishes made from the heirloom vegetables from Culton Organics at area restaurants and you may meet Tom and Matt on Sundays at the Headhouse Square Farmers’  Market (open from 10 am to 2 pm at Second and Pine Streets).  Be sure to bring your smile or he’ll charge you double.

What Do We Need from Our Jewish Leaders?

As part of a lecture series at the National Museum of American Jewish History, this past Tuesday evening was a session titled, “Challenges to American Jewish Leaders Today.” The featured panelists were Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and winner of the esteemed Covenant Award for her work in Jewish education, and Dr. Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU.

Brown started the conversation with a quote from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic: “American Jews are the spoiled brats of the 20th century.”  Cohen explained that viewpoint as such: American Jews are ignorant and they don’t even know it.  But he, Cohen, is not as concerned about Jewish literacy–  as defined by the ancient rabbinic texts– but chooses to define and measure Jewish engagement and identity.  Brown declared that American Jews have accomplished a tremendous amount for American culture, but less for the legacy of Judaism.  Once they are finally introduced to their Jewish legacy, they do learn to appreciate the reservoir of Jewish wisdom that is applicable and relevant to their communal roles.  Cohen countered thus: Jewish knowledge comes from being effective.  It’s not essential to know the rabbinic texts.  Furthermore, he said, Jewish knowledge also includes cooking skills.  So, would you come to a program on chicken soup? quipped Brown.  Yes, but only to taste, retorted Cohen, I cannot cook and that makes me a deficient Jew.

Turning to Israel as another indicator of Jewish identity, Brown noted with dismay that American Jews cannot have a civil discourse over issues these days.  Cohen, who’d made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) in 1992, considers  himself  a learned Jew because of his intimate knowledge of Israeli life and politics.  He outlined the two camps of Jews in America thus: one that feels an obligation of loyalty to Israel and the other that is concerned primarily with human rights.  The former is concerned that the human-rights camp undermines the security of Israel while the latter camp is worried that the Zionist hawks undermine the democratic and moral character of Israel.  (Cohen considers himself  a security-driven dove.)  Brown regards incivility as representative of American politics today, as shown in vituperous anonymous exchanges on the Internet and sometimes even in person.  Cohen was more concerned about the lack of knowledge of policies than incivility.  Later, he noted that three comparison groups- American Jews of old (early 20th century), the Orthodox, and Israelis– are all defined by strong passion.  It’s not incivil to be passionate about an issue.

In Cohen’s 2000 book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, he refers to “sheilaism,” a term coined by Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen in their monumental study, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life to encapsulate the egoistic adoption of ritual– Brown called it “the religion of one”– and the resultant breakdown of communal religious life.  Another term they bandied was “journeyism,” to refer to the expectations of the disaffected to be supported in their journeys of spiritual exploration.  They, and we, lose the communal and social reasons for religion.  So, how do we create community for these disaffected youth?  Cohen advocates the growing success the Jewish community has achieved in delivering personal meaning through new venues, such as minyanim and havurot.  Drawing upon semantics, he noted that observant Jews used to greet each other with chag kasher v’sameach for Pesach (Passover), but now we tell each other, “Have a meaningful fast.”  He was wowed by the inclusion of “meaningful” in the Artscroll machzor (High Holiday prayer book) that is widely accepted in the Orthodox community.    According to Cohen, we have moved from the normative system of “This is the right way to live” to an aesthetic system with an enriching culture.

A hot topic is conversion; current debates focus more on who has the right to determine who is a Jew than who is Jewish.  Brown cited Joseph Caro’s 16th century seminal work in traditional Judaism, The Shulhan Aruch, for posing the test question: Are you willing to accept the fate of the Jewish people?  If so, then the proselyte can be taught the mitzvot (commandments).  She claimed  that there is a big price to be paid for taking out the Jewish content.  Cohen said that we should welcome more converts.  He estimated that 10% of intermarried couples will have grandchildren who identify as Jews and only 50% of Gentile inter-married partners do convert.   He proposed cultivating conversionary-minded rabbis.  Brown retorted that a lack of teachers was not the obstruction but communal lack of acceptance.  She taught that the Biblical Ruth was ignored by the women of Bethlehem when she arrived there with her mother-in-law Naomi– and this was after Ruth’s dramatic and poetic declaration of faith.  Cohen agreed that prejudice against converts was morally wrong but its removal would be insufficient to increasing the incentive for conversion.  He thinks there is a sizeable cohort of non-Jews who are connected but would not convert.

Cohen then proposed the radical idea of dropping the God part of Ruth’s oath and calling for Jewish affirmation, not conversion.  Brown protested that this would unfairly narrow the definition of who is a Jew.  Cohen said that it would be gambling a loss of people choosing the cheaper, more accessible product– Birthright, for instance, instead of the more intensive and demanding six-weeks’ stay in Israel– but we’ll be compensated by a wider reach to those who would not have been tempted outright.  Brown quipped that he was offering wholesale instead of retail.  Cohen admitted  it’s a half step toward conversion.  It’s thus not a burden for rabbis and teachers, but we have not yet shown the love to motivate these non-Jewish partners for further engagement.   What is most important is inclusion, to keeping the tent opened wide.  Brown bemoaned the current culture of self-esteem and consumerism, in which our youth do not see themselves as stakeholders, but treat Judaism as “fee for service.”  They will attend High Holiday services but they would not pay dues, which cover the rabbi’s salary and the utility bills.

Regarding Jewish leaders under the age of 40, Cohen noted a major shift from people to purpose, from belonging to judging everything–  family, institutions, Israel–  according to our interests and passions.

What does it mean to be a Jewish leader nowadays?  Without minimizing Jewish literacy, Cohen extorted us to also recognize other forms of Jewish knowledge.  More than the rabbinic texts, there is an additional corpus of knowledge not recognized by our Biblical scholars and seminarians, but is represented within the gallery space of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. That is also Jewish content, Jewish knowledge.

The Philly Pops Will Live On

The Inquirer‘s music critic, Peter Dobrin, reports in Sunday’s paper that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s newly unveiled strategic plan offers a lot of wiggle room for future invitations to visiting artists and different kinds of music repertoire and concert formats.  What neither Dobrin nor Orchestra president, Allison Vulgamore mention is that the Philly Pops is being cut off from the organization and, possibly, permanently demoored.

However, the long-time music director of the Pops, Peter Nero, has vowed to “not go down without a fight.”  So, for his recent birthday celebration, he and a few of his longest-serving musicians had a strategic session of their own.  The Orchestra had not scheduled anything for the Pops for the fall/winter season, so they were in administrative limbo.  They decided to plan, market, and perform on their own.

What kind of  a venue do they need?  Amplification and a stage that can accommodate 61 musicians, including Nero’s grand piano.

The breaking news is that Nero has already secured funds and the space for its first concert without the Orchestra.  It will be on Sunday, July 3rd, at 7 pm at Independence Hall.  It’s being underwritten, so it’s free to the public.  You’re the first to know.