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Exclusive Q&A: Balkan Beat Box’s Jeremiah Lockwood

Committed to promoting original Jewish music and cross-cultural dialogue, the non-profit JDub Records is hosting a celebration of Rosh Hashanah with the Sway Machinery at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles next week, ringing in the year 5770, featuring Balkan Beat Box‘s Jeremiah Lockwood on lead vocals and guitar, with support from drummer John Bollinger, tenor sax man Matt Bauder, and Colin Stetson, who has toured with Arcade Fire and collaborated with Tom Waits. Flavorpill’s Shana Nys Dambrot caught up with Lockwood on the eve of the New Year, to talk music, mysticism, and mitzvahs.

Flavorpill: Can you talk a little bit about the history of music in Jewish congregations?

Jeremiah Lockwood: Up until the early 20th century, cantorial music was more than just the obligatory chants of synagogue life. It was a dynamic and powerful art form that fulfilled the aesthetic and spiritual need for great music among the Jews of Eastern Europe, and their immigrant cousins in the New World. The great cantors were master vocalists, receivers of an ancient oral tradition of ritual modes, and great creative artists. In the US up until the mid 20th century cantors were almost like rock stars for Jews. People bought Chazzanus 78 rpm records by the hundreds of thousands and lined up around the block to hear their favorite cantors perform. Yossele Rosenblatt, the most famous Cantor of the 20th century, had a recording contract with RCA, the same label as Elvis.

The power of cantorial music lies in its ability to access tradition while at the same time leaving room for individual creative expression for the master cantor. The music drew upon ancient synagogue chants, but was open to outside cultural influences and was constantly evolving under the needs of the times. Cantorial performance was virtuosic, over flowing with animal intensity and dramatic heights of emotion. The responses of Jews hearing their ancient prayers and melodies sung as great art music was rapturous. It is this rapture of emotion and cultural memory that I try to draw on in my work with The Sway Machinery.

FP: Secular Jewish culture has a long history of embracing avant-garde art forms. What kind of reaction have you gotten from more conservative elements in the community?

JL: It’s funny, but some of our strongest response has been from Orthodox Jews. Even though what we are doing does not fall neatly into halachic (Jewish ritual law) practice of Judaism, the respect we convey for the tradition and the knowledge of the authentic craft of Chazzanus that gets across really seems to resound well with Jews from traditional backgrounds, despite the trappings of experimentation that we bring to the music.

FP: Do you consider yourself religious? How much religious education did you receive?

JL: I would say more spiritually inclined than religious, per se. I do not practice traditional Judaism, but both because of my music and my fascination with the past I am drawn to a lot of the lore and ritual of the old ways. I received no formal Jewish education, but my grandparents were Orthodox and because of the closeness of my relationship with them I grew up knowing a lot about traditional Judaism. As I got older, I studied a lot with my grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, both about music and also traditional text study (Mishnayos, Gemorah, etc.) I was also very influenced by my cousin Zachary Konigsberg, who was involved with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his school of thought. Zachary has gone on to carry on the family trade and become a cantor himself.

FP: Can you talk a bit about your personal experience of reconciling your artistic urge to create something new with a respect for the sanctity of Jewish scripture?

JL: I would say that I justify the potentially problematic elements in my tight rope walk between aesthetic and spiritual expression by merit of the fact that my work is born out of a very personal need. I am born of a long lineage of cantors. I feel a palpable and undeniable connection to my ancestors and it is something I would be foolish to try and banish from my work as a musician. We live in a moment in history when traditional cultures no longer exist intact. For many, many people — and I’m not just talking about Jews, of course — there is a strong sense of loss, as though we have been banished from the age when people knew how the world worked and how the stories that explain our universe could be told. The fact that traditional spiritual culture has become largely the province of the right-wing element in society does not help matters at all. Steps need to be taken to reclaim the magical and the mythical for those of us who live in the contemporary age unrepentantly. I have a strong desire to take the great power of Jewish traditions and make it my own. My world would be smaller without it.

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