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A group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn is reviving the golden age of cantorial music

Jeremiah Lockwood and Yoel Kohn, performing at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland.
Jon Kalish
Jeremiah Lockwood and Yoel Kohn, performing at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland.

Jeremiah Lockwood comes from a family of cantors, the spiritual leaders that guide Jewish congregations in prayer and song. His grandfather, the late Jacob Konigsberg, served as a cantor in several cities and performed in concerts outside of religious services, always hoping to inspire people with liturgical music.

It's no surprise that Lockwood would incorporate cantorial music in his own band, The Sway Machinery, and wrote his dissertation about Chasidic cantors in Brooklyn who sing in a way that is reminiscent of the golden age of cantorial music, which began in the 1920s. The virtuosos of that era sounded like they were singing opera at times but also improvised during solos.

The same could be said for those in current-day Brooklyn.

"It's astounding," Lockwood said of the Brooklyn cantors' ability to master the vocal techniques of the early 20th Century. "Forget questions about creativity versus imitation, the fact that they're physically able to do it is just mind-blowing."

"They are self-trained artists," he said. "It's kind of like there was a scene of musicians who didn't go to conservatory or jazz music school and learned how to play Charlie Parker just by fiddling around with a saxophone alone in their rooms at night."

While in grad school, Lockwood stumbled upon a YouTube video of cantors at an informal Chasidic sing-along known as a kumzits, a kind of cantorial jam session where solos are handed off with the point of a finger.

The video inspired Lockwood to produce the new album Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today, which was recorded at Daptone Records, an analog recording facility known for soul music.

Three of the six cantors who are on the album went with Lockwood to perform at the Jewish Culture Festival in Poland in late June, an important annual Jewish musical event that has been going on for nearly 30 years. They got the opportunity to perform with the backing of a string quartet arranged by Lockwood, who at times accompanied the cantors with his electric guitar.

One of the cantors who performed in Krakow, Yanky Lemmer, explained that as a child and teenager growing up in the Chasidic community, he didn't have much entertainment other than what was considered "kosher." Such households often do not have televisions or an Internet connection available to kids.

"Cantorial music is one of those [kosher] things," he said. "Ooh, let me get into that. That's interesting, that's different."

Lemmer said when he improvises during services, it's "one of the most special feelings in the world."

"When you start improvising and it works, there's that feeling of, 'Wow, this is something coming through me. I'm not even doing this,' said Lemmer.

Lemmer, one of the best-known cantors in the world, leads services at the prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and has officiated everywhere from the Catskills to Australia. He credits YouTube with putting him on the map. After uploading the first video of himself performing on-line, his email inbox was flooded the following morning.

"The emails said, 'You have to do this for a living. You have to do this,'" he told NPR.

Shimmy Miller during a recording session for <em>Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today. </em>
/ Tatiana McCabe
/
Tatiana McCabe
Shimmy Miller during a recording session for Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today.

One of the other cantors involved in the project, Shimmy Miller, is the son of Benzion Miller, who leads services one Sabbath a month at a congregation in the Borough Park neighborhood. That service runs for three to four hours and everything is improvised on the spot. Lockwood, who participates in the choir, called the experience "musically challenging."

"After one of those services I'm always ready to collapse," Lockwood said.

The claim that a revival of cantorial music is underway is not embraced by all of the cantors on the new album.

"This is not really a revival, as much as a dying gasp," said Yoel Kohn, a former member of the Satmar Chasidic community. "Whether there will be enough interest left to keep this going indefinitely as some obscure genre of music like baroque music, that I don't know."

But Hankus Netsky, professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, believes what's happening with the Brooklyn cantors may be both a passing and a re-birth of the genre.

"I think Jeremiah Lockwood is an arbitrator between the generation that is seeing cantorial music die in the congregation and the younger generation that's seeing the potential of cantorial music to be re-discovered," Netsky said.

Lockwood fervently believes that these "young" cantors (the oldest is 46) deserve to be discovered.

"These guys are brilliant singers, brilliant artists and they're so underground, nobody's heard of them," he said. "I wanted to create a possibility for them to be able to do what they are greatest at out in the world and I wasn't sure who the audience for that would be or if there would be an audience for it."

The Golden Ages album is available as both a digital download and a vinyl LP.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jon Kalish