UCLA to Host First-Ever American Jewish Music Festival

January 22, 2020
Chloe Pourmorady Ensemble; Photo by Shoshana Kozaski

The Jewish Bluegrass of Nefesh Mountain, Syrian Jewish music from Asher Shasho Levy, a selection of show tunes that reflects the influence Jewish composers continue to have on Broadway, klezmer music, and even the UCLA marching band are just some of the musical stylings that will be on display at UCLA’s first-ever American Jewish Music Festival on March 1, under the banner “Music Crossing Boundaries.”

The event is funded by UCLA together with the Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, with additional support from Marilyn Ziering, Elaine and David Gill and the Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music. It is co-sponsored by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.

Festival programmer Lorry Black, who also is the associate director of UCLA’s Lowell Milken American Jewish Music Center, told the Journal the aim of the festival is to highlight the diversity in Jewish music and show Los Angeles “what there is globally in terms of Jewish music and Jewish music innovation.”

He added, “There’s this idea of any genre being a monolith but anyone who’s dug into Jewish music realizes that’s just a term of convenience. There’s just so much out there and there are so many ways to look at it.”

Black said he chose to call the festival “Music Crossing Boundaries” because it offers the opportunity to look at the “different hybridites that exist in Jewish music and how the intersection of Jewish culture and identity with different types of American culture and identity can create something beautiful.”

He cited Nefesh Mountain as one example of that boundary-hopping, saying  the group represents “the meeting of one of the most traditional American music styles with the music of the synagogue, the music in the Jewish community. [The group  combines] traditional melodies with new texts [and] they can add new melodies to traditional texts.”

He highlighted a spiritual by the band, “Down to the River to Pray,” as an example of this, noting that in every sense of the word, it’s a Christian piece complete with an allusion to Jesus’ thorny crown. However, Nefesh Mountain reworked the lyrics to refer to Moses’ sister, Miriam.

Black said the new version not only “reorients the song toward Jewish values and identity, but to a modern Jewish identity. I think that’s pretty amazing.”

“There’s this idea of any genre being a monolith but anyone who’s dug into Jewish music realizes that’s just a term of convenience. There’s just so much out there and there are so many ways to look at it.” — Lorry Black

Pianist Inna Faliks will perform the world premiere of a new work by Russian American composer Lev Zhurbin, better known as Ljova. Black described it as “a new Jewish concert work for piano and pre-recorded tapes. That’s not something you’d see in the Jewish concert world very often.”

Also participating in the festival is Los Angeles native Chloe Pourmorady, whose family is from Iran yet she composes music that draws on Persian, Hebrew, Arabic and Indian styles. However, Black notes that she “brings her Jewish identity and values to it.”
In a separate phone interview, Pourmorady told the Journal, “I don’t think that we, as a Jewish people, have just one way of expressing our traditions and our culture and our spirituality. As a composer, I don’t see any separation in music or in language.”

Pourmorady will share the stage with Shasho Levy. Each will lead their ensemble in separate sets, then will perform together, showing the connections and differences between Persian and Syrian music.

South African-born rock musician and renowned fiddle player Craig Judelman, Latvian-born Yiddish singer Sasha Lurje and Lorin Sklamberg, a founding member of the Klezmatics, will showcase the way Jewish music and composers have helped inspire social change. These artists, Black said, “are pushing the envelope but keeping this tradition of offering different Jewish music alive.”

Leading up to the festival, Black has put together a series of four shows that he calls a “pre-festival.” All feature ensembles that freely mix genres.

The first show on Jan. 30 will be “Klezfarad,” a new show by the Argentinian group the Lerner-Moguilevsky Duo, which melds Ashkenazi and Sephardic musical traditions using flutes, piano, African balafon and hang drums, gongs, duduk woodwind instruments, Persian flute, clarinet, accordion, harmonica, mouth harps, bass drum, electronic media, loops and their own voices. The concert will be held at UCLA and is free.

The second show by Mostly Kosher on Feb. 9 also is free and will be held at UCLA. Mostly Kosher calls its music “Jewish roots rock.” It also will hold a workshop that shows how its members integrate traditional and modern sounds.

The third show will be by Toronto-based Beyond the Pale at the Skirball Cultural
Center on Feb. 27. Tickets are $15. The band is inspired by Klezmer and Balkan music, Black said.

The fourth and final “pre-concert” show will by Nefesh Mountain at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Feb. 29. Tickets range from $10-$25.

As for the upcoming March 1 concert, Black said he hopes the audience comes away thinking, “Jewish music is incredibly diverse, alive and a mirror of the American Jewish experience.”

For more information and tickets to the festival, visit the website.

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