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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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Festival highlights diverse Jewish music

Tags: Arts
The acclaimed Israeli group Yemen Blues, led by Ravid Kahalani, foreground, plays at the Montreal Jewish Music Festival. [Zohar Ron photo]

MONTREAL — Thanks to some creative co-sponsoring, the third edition of the Montreal Jewish Music Festival (MJMF) will be headlining several internationally renowned performers this year.

Israel’s popular world music group Yemen Blues and Daniel Kahn, a cabaret-style singer and storyteller based in Berlin, are among the acts that will be taking to the stage during the Aug. 26 to 30 festival, which is presented by KlezKanada.

The goal is to expose Montrealers of all persuasions to the diversity of music broadly defined as Jewish.

Most shows take places at the Rialto Theatre on Parc Avenue and La Sala Rossa on St. Laurent Boulevard.

The MJMF, directed by musician Jason Rosenblatt, best known as the harmonica player in the klezmer band Shtreiml, takes place just after KlezKanada’s annual weeklong camp in the Laurentians.

The MJMF, whose main sponsor is the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, is able to bring in these big names and others by teaming up with Toronto’s Ashkenaz, a biennial celebration of Yiddish and Jewish music Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 at Harbourfront Centre.

Some of the performers will also be coming off gigs at KlezKanada.

Both Yemen Blues and Kahn have a following in Montreal. The former, led by Ravid Kahalani, an Israeli of Yemenite origin, was a hit at last year’s Les Francofolies. The six musicians who are coming to the MJMF meld traditional Yemenite and Western African melodies with modern western blues, jazz and funk.

Yemen Blues plays Aug. 30 at the Rialto. Rosenblatt is reserving plenty of space for the unbridled dancing that is sure to break out that night.

Kahn, a Detroit native, last year captivated the audience at his show at Congregation Dorshei Emet (the Reconstructionist Synagogue). Rosenblatt describes his act as “cabaret noir,” a combination of edgy original Yiddish music with satirical tall tales.

Kahn appears at the opening concert Aug. 26 at La Sala with the “post-Soviet klezmer and pop” party band Opa! from Russia. These musicians manage to bring klezmer up to the moment with reggae, ska, funk and rock sounds.

Other international musicians coming to the festival are German klezmer clarinettist Christian Dawid (who, as the name suggests, is not Jewish) who will be joined by local musicians at La Sala Aug. 27 for a rollicking evening of klez contra-dance, and the Argentine duo Lerner & Moguilevsky.

One of the most popular events last year, contra-dance is a kind of American square dancing with a caller that will be given a traditional Yiddish twist. One of the callers is Michael Alpert of Brave Old World and a leading figure in the revival of klezmer.

Accordionist Cesar Lerner and clarinettist Marcelo Moguilevsky (among other instruments) bring their brand of klezmer mixed with Latin American folk music and tango to the Segal Centre for Performing Arts Aug. 28.

The same night at La Sala, Mexico/Brooklyn-based Deleon, which blends medieval Sephardi music with indie rock, shares the stage with one of Rosenblatt’s bands, Jump Babylon.

The latter sings its original English compositions about the immigrant experience in a country-rock style, with touches of reggae phrasing and liturgical poetry. Jump Babylon launches its debut album Soldier Woman that evening.

Two other Montreal-based bands, Magillah, featuring lead singer Michelle Heisler, which performs a more traditional klezmer, and Siach Hasadeh, led by Yoni Kaston, which is reviving little-known meditative chassidic and other spiritual Jewish melodies, are on the bill Aug. 29 at La Sala.

Due to less funding, Rosenblatt has had to find ways of stretching his budget as far as he can. In addition to sharing the cost of bringing in performers from abroad, he has eliminated the free outdoor concert that was scheduled in the first two editions.

It was a hit the inaugural year in Parc de l’Amérique at St. Laurent and Rachel Street and probably would have been just as popular last year had it not had to be cancelled due to heavy rain.

Rosenblatt felt he could not take the risk of doing that again this year because, whether the show goes on or not, the artists and other costs like tent rentals have to be paid.

The MJMF is also a bit shorter this year. Nevertheless, he is satisfied the lineup gives the public a taste of the breadth and depth of Jewish music today.

Rosenblatt estimates that at least 40 per cent of those attending ticketed events last year were non-Jews, including many Francophone Quebecers. Last year, shows were held at such diverse venues as the Lion d’Or club and the Maison de la culture Ahuntsic. In total, about 1,300 seats were sold.

With Federation CJA’s Le Mood program also contributing this year, Rosenblatt is trying to reach out to younger Jews who might not otherwise attend Jewish community programs.

He employs a liberal definition when considering which acts to engage: the lyrics are in one of the Jewish languages, the melodies are traditionally Jewish, or the songs – whatever language—touch on Jewish themes.

As devoted as he is to klezmer, Rosenblatt wants it to be realized that Jewish music is much more than that.

“I’ve found klezmer has become somewhat stereotyped, almost a mockery. It’s is a bit insulting,” he said, referring to the non-Jewish musicians he has seen dressed in chassidic garb playing this eastern European music in Poland and even Montreal.

However, “Just being a Jewish musician is not enough. Conversely, if a non-Jewish musician meets one of the criteria, by all means, apply [to the MJMF],” he said.

Rosenblatt admits, tongue-in-cheek, that if a Bob Dylan or a Paul Simon, wanted to participate at a fee within budget, he’d make an exception.

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