January 26, 2020

IKAR’s Rock ’n’ Roll Cantor Has A New Album

Hillel Tigay with IKAR members at Santa Monica beach. Photo by Len Muroff

When IKAR Cantor Hillel Tigay was first approached to join the progressive Los Angeles congregation 13 years ago, he wasn’t sure he wanted the job. He saw himself more as a musician. And sitting in a café opposite IKAR’s offices in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, the lanky 50-year-old sporting shoulder-length hair and rimless glasses certainly looks the part.  

In fact, in the 1990s, Tigay was signed to A&M Records as a solo act and to Sire/Warner Bros. as Dr. Dreidel, half of the Jewish hip-hop duo MOT. 

As the son of a rabbi, Tigay said becoming a cantor felt too much like “going into the family business.” But after speaking with IKAR founding Rabbi Sharon Brous, he was convinced, explaining that IKAR was “founded to approach things from a different angle: What’s the best thing we can do to move people and not the traditional thing only?” Brous, Tigay said, wanted him to “create a service that we would want to attend.” And that, he said, was a revelation for him. 

The music he creates for IKAR is a mixture of both Eastern and Western styles. He looks to Middle East and Sephardic sounds for rhythms. “They’re hypnotic and circular,” he said. “It’s very chanty. It’s short, it’s terse, it’s repetitive. It’s very hard to listen to and not move to it. It hits in a way that creates meditation.” 

On the flip side, Western music has “incredible harmonies that can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but the rhythm’s aren’t terribly conducive to meditation,” he said. It has to be catchy, he said, “but be deep catchy — make people feel there’s something out there I’m reaching for.” He cites the chant at the end of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and the music of Coldplay and British rocker Peter Gabriel as examples. “You feel like you’ve been taken somewhere, like your soul just got out of a mikveh,” he said, explaining that they’re songs that “make people feel they’re changed after listening to them. They want to be a better person.”

From the outset, Tigay was impressed with how readily the IKAR community embraced his music. “I’m not trained as a cantor; this isn’t what I set out to do. I was convinced I’d be found out immediately,” he said. Early on, he tried to imitate Reb Shlomo Carlebach but confessed he wasn’t happy with the result. “That wasn’t where my musical instincts took me.” 

Following his instincts, though, created a huge following at IKAR, but he does draw the line at certain things. “Techno and hip-hop will not be making any appearances at IKAR,” he said. “It’s not enough to be just good music. It has to feel authentically Jewish on some level, and spiritual. The sine qua non is that it’s got to be art and great music, then it has to pass the test. I want people to be saying, ‘Is this an ancient chant arranged with some progressive harmonies or is this a modern song with some ancient rhythms? I don’t know.’ That’s a good place to be. It should feel like it’s both. I want to straddle both worlds.”

Writing music for IKAR, Tigay explained, is like writing a movie score. “The rabbi already gives a brilliant story with her sermon and the general ethos of what this community is all about: social action mixed with spirituality. Meaningful, but like any good movie, when you’ve got powerful music to underscore that, the music makes the words more resonant.” 

The music Tigay creates is “soulful and creative spiritual explorations that are unmatched,” Brous told the Journal. “He’s incredibly adept in the traditional liturgy, but his training is not in classic hazzanut.”

 “I want people to be saying, ‘Is this an ancient chant arranged with some progressive harmonies or is this a modern song with some ancient rhythms? I don’t know.’ That’s a good place to be. It should feel like it’s both. I want to straddle both worlds.” — Hillel Tigay

She added that Tigay brings an an interesting array of musical influences together and when he does, “something extraordinary happens and elevates our community.”

Indeed, the IKAR community has been so moved by Tigay’s music that it has supported him and helped him produce two albums. The first, “Judeo,” was released in 2012. A recent Kickstarter campaign for his second album, “Judeo Volume II: Alive,” exceeded its goal of over $35,000.

Tigay’s unique combination of melodies is heavily influenced by the eclectic musical tastes of his youth. At 11, he heard the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album and decided he was going to be a guitarist. He bought a guitar, learned how to play and a month later played “Across the Universe” from “Let It Be” at his school’s talent contest. 

From that point on, “It was music, 24/7. Guitar, guitar guitar, music, music, music, and I never looked back. I get obsessive compulsive about things,” he explained. “I get on jags and throw myself into them totally.” 

After immersing himself in the Beatles, Tigay started listening to the Rolling Stones, then the Who, then Led Zeppelin. “I was a purist,” he said. “I wouldn’t listen to anything current until late in high school.” By then, he was listening to progressive and alternative rock including The Cure, Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears. That’s when he began writing his own songs. 

However, he was simultaneously absorbing world music. “As a kid, I spent some time in Israel and was captivated by Sephardic music and Middle Eastern music,” he said. “I’ve always had a fertile imagination [and I’m] attracted to anything sensual. So walking through the shuk, smelling the smells, hearing that music made me want to know and listen to it and do it.”  

In college, Tigay studied the sitar and played in a Russian balalaika orchestra. He also studied Renaissaince lute and was in a Renaissance troupe. Then the classical guitar became an obsession and he studied in Spain before he went on to teach himself bass and keyboards. “I started out as a rock guitarist and I just keep expanding,” he said.

Part of that expansion is recognizable in “Judeo Volume II: Alive,” which is more pop influenced than the original “Judeo,” where he set prayers to his own music. 

As for the future, Tigay said he’s “doing what I love doing. I’m excited to wake up every morning.” 

He’s been so prolific lately that he currently has a backlog of songs he wants to record. His song “Alive” has already been heard on the NBC-TV show “Manifest,” and he hopes more will follow. 

“I tend to be an artist who doesn’t set out by saying, ‘Here’s my plan,’ ” he said. “I tend to let my subconscious dictate things, then figure out what works.”

“Judeo Volume II: Alive” will be released in early 2020. 

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Tigay studied Renaissance lute.