October 17, 2019

New Album Brings Reggae to Jewish Songs and Prayers

Photo from davidsolidgould.com

How about something different this year for Hanukkah? How about some reggae?

That’s what you’ll get with “Festival of Lights,” the creation of David Solid Gould, a Jewish bassist who recorded it with his own group, The Temple Rockers, as well as with three veteran Jamaican performers who sing in Hebrew and English. 

Gould, 48, told the Journal via telephone from his home near Ithaca, N.Y., that he has spent more than 20 years working on the musical fusion between Jewish and Jamaican music, and that this resolve grew out of two musical epiphanies. When he was 25 and already a professional musician, he saw a live performance of Jamaica-born singer Burning Spear.

“That’s when I first heard reggae,” Gould said. “Feeling the bass in the sound system. The groove feeding back into itself. It was like a spiritual rebirth for me. It really flipped my world.” 

Hooked on the tantalizing sounds of Jamaica, Gould became bassist for John Brown’s Body, a reggae band whose musicians dubbed him “Solid,” as much for what Gould calls his “low-end grooves” on bass as for the wordplay on his last name. 

Gould’s other musical epiphany came a couple of years later when he was touring in California with John Brown’s Body in the late 1990s. Suddenly, he sensed that the reggae music he was playing could be merged with songs and prayers he recalled from childhood. He rushed to a synagogue where he heard “Sim Shalom” chanted by a cantor and congregation. 

“I realized that I could use reggae to play the songs I’d sung at Hebrew school, at shul, at my bar mitzvah, during holidays like Passover and Hanukkah,” he said. 

This second epiphany led directly to his forming The Temple Rockers, a musical group that fuses reggae with Jewish musical traditions. In 2001 they recorded an album called “Adonai and I” — reggae versions of traditional prayers such as “Leha Dodi” and “Adon Olam.” This was followed in 2009 by the “Feast of the Passover,” seder songs and melodies, also in reggae style. 

“I realized that I could use reggae to play the songs I’d sung at Hebrew school, at shul, at my bar mitzvah, during holidays like Passover and Hanukkah.”  

— David Gould

On Oct. 19, the third album of this melding of Jewish and Jamaican musical traditions will be released: “Festival of Lights,” Gould’s reggae versions of Hanukkah songs. Gould said he found the project challenging. “For Hanukkah, I had to do research and seek out music and learn about music that was new to me and choose songs that suited the theme of the collection and also suited reggae music. So it was a fun project for me because I got to learn new music.” 

During the last 20 years, Gould has made several trips to Jamaica, where he’s stayed with reggae musicians who have helped him learn about Rastafarianism, a Jamaican religion. “They taught me about its origins, about their beliefs,” Gould said, “and I saw lots of connection to Judaism. Many of the lyrics in reggae songs refer to stories in the Bible.” 

Indeed they do. Babylon, Exodus, Zion, Egypt, and especially Jah (God). 

In Rasta belief, the late Ethiopian leader, Haile Selassie, was descended from the union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which is why the fence at the Kingston, Jamaica house of the late Bob Marley — a sainted figure in the reggae world — is studded with Stars of David. 

For “Festival of Lights,” Gould felt it was vital for the Jamaican singers to explore the Jewish origins of Rasta traditions, and he made sure they learned some Hebrew, at least enough to sing in the language. “Every Jamaican singer that I worked with on this has loved the music, and they love the connection between Jewish music and Jamaican music,” Gould said. 

When he first started planning “Festival of Lights,” Gould made a list of the Jamaican singers he wanted, and he snagged three who were on his wish list: Linval Thompson, Wayne Jarrett and Ansel Meditations, three singers who have been performing and recording since the 1970s. During that time Bob Marley was an international superstar, and the soundtrack of the Jamaican movie “The Harder They Come” — featuring Jimmy Cliff as well as Toots and the Maytals — became the background music of daily life, not just in Jamaica but in other places, including Israel. 

On “Festival of Lights,” as is usual in record production, the instrumentals were recorded first (at Solid Studios, near Ithaca, where Gould lives); but what is very unusual is that Gould recorded every bit of this record, vocals and instrumentals, on two-inch reel-to-reel tape.

“It’s very rare these days that people record on tape because it’s so expensive. It’s so much easier and cheaper and convenient to record on digital,” Gould said. “But there is a warmth and richness when you record on analog tape. Digital strips away that warmth and richness. It makes everything harsh.”

Having first taped the instrumentals with The Temple Rockers — a large group that includes keyboards, strings, horns, and percussion — Gould traveled to Miami to record Wayne Jarrett.

“I brought my reels with me and they’re heavy,” Gould said. “I had two reels in a bag and it was like a 40-pound bag I was lugging around.” It was the same when Gould went to Kingston to record Thompson. In Jamaica, he had to hunt around for a studio that could handle reel-to-reel tape. Fortunately he didn’t have to travel far to record Ansel Meditations, who lives in New York and recorded his songs at Gould’s house. 

From the way that Gould describes all the hoops he’s jumped through to record this music, it’s clear that it’s a labor of love: for the Jewish and Jamaican parts of his musical soul. 

Maybe because the music is often in a minor key, or maybe because it uses traditional Hanukkah and Biblical tropes, or maybe because of the high quality and professionalism of the musicians, or maybe because of all of the above, the result is an album that grows on you stealthily with each hearing, touching some deep core. Listening to “Days Long Ago” and other songs from the record, you feel you’re listening to a dreadlocked Rasta group from the ’70s and ’80s. It’s easy to get carried away by the soulful Jamaican vocalists whose voices — like Hanukkah itself — embody the unquenchable hope of a miracle in a time of darkness.

For more information on obtaining “Festival of Lights,” visit www.templerockers.com.