By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — A former Intown Chabad of Dallas rabbi, a Brooklyn rabbi and a veteran Dallas musician are collaborating with an assortment of Deep Ellum jazz musicians on an album of Hasidic Jewish melodies.
While it is true that bringing together jazz musicians on a project of this nature is not a typical move in Hasidic communities, the results are undeniable, explained Chanan Rose, the former Chabad of Dallas rabbi who is producer on the project.
Recording these Jewish melodies with musicians from such different backgrounds results in a very rich and warm sound true to its heritage, Rose said.
“There are incredibly special and talented people involved on this project,” Rose said. “The players from the Dallas musical community are amazing.”
The first single, Niggun Rostov (circa 1918), has been greatly praised by Jewish communities and it is about to be released for broader public consumption.
The release of this single roughly a month ago was the harbinger of a much larger project — the recording of a nine-song album, using melodies spanning nine generations of Hasidic leaders: Niggunim.
The group hopes to have that entire album mixed and mastered by mid-August. They have launched a crowdfunding campaign on their website, www.niggunsociety.com, to raise support and funds.
Rabbi Shlomie Rabin of Brooklyn — an accomplished Hasidic singer — said he is very happy with both the result of the first single and the promise of the remaining album.
“We view the melody as whole, complete, and perfect,” Rabin said. “Our role is to simply present the soulful tune without getting in the way of its natural beauty.”
Rose and Rabin, who live in the Chabad Hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said they started developing the idea roughly eight months ago. The two eventually reached out to Dallas musician Stephen Ketner, cofounder of Kulmus Records, to help them navigate the world of music.
The result? The creation of the Niggun Society, which was able to cultivate a sound steeped in tradition that reflected an innovative approach, said Rabin, lead vocalist for the project.
A niggun is a form of Jewish religious song — vocal music containing repetitive sounds such as “ai-ai-ai!” or “bim-bim-bam” rather than specific lyrics. Some of these largely improvisational songs are prayers reflecting lamentation, while others may be about joy or victory.
Throughout the ages, Jewish people have used these wordless and meditative melodies to connect to the unity of God’s existence. Ultimately, they are crucial to Hasidic Jewish worship and reflect what has been described as the mystical joy of intense praying.
This journey resulted in a return to North Texas for Rose.
He, Rabin and Ketner ventured to the legendary Palmyra Studio in Palmer — a world-class big studio steeped in amazing acoustics, fantastic equipment and more than its fair share of rock-‘n’-roll mystique.
Ketner said this studio has a mixing console from the Beatles work on Abbey Road and a reel-to-reel that Elvis Presley recorded on (or so legend has it).
The Palmyra Studio also is known for its production of the music of Erykah Badu and Buddy Miles.
Needless to say, all parties involved felt the vintage recording studio was a perfect fit for this unique project.
With Ketner producing and arranging, the group recorded Niggun Rostov in early April.
The feedback from the Jewish community was very positive.
Fitche Benshimon of Benshimon Music in Brooklyn said the music contained “heartfelt vocals accompanied by complimentary music — just what I’d want in a niggun.”
Rabbi Itzik Wolf, a Brooklyn educator succinctly described Niggun Rostov as “a soulful delight.”
During a Wednesday, May 11 telephone interview from Brooklyn, Chanan Rose and Shlomie Rabin said they first met in Israel about five years ago and reconnected in New York City two years ago. Fast friends on both occasions, the duo quickly discovered they shared a love of all things musical.
Chanan Rose said he met Stephen Ketner at the blues and jazz music scene of Deep Ellum (Rose said he felt drawn there) while working as a rabbi for Uptown Chabad in Dallas. They became friends and musical colleagues. Rose even took guitar lessons from Ketner.
Needless to say, Ketner was a natural fit for this project, Rose said.
“When this idea came up, I immediately thought of Steve,” he said.
Ketner, an established Dallas-area musician, explained that he had literally (as in, within the same hour) just returned from Los Angeles as part of one leg of a tour with the Freeloaders, a Cajun jazz band. He primarily played guitar on this tour.
As the person who composed the arrangement for the single, Ketner described the experience as eye-opening on many different levels.
“I’m not Jewish — I’m actually agnostic more than anything,” he said. “When Chanan Rose and Shlomie Rabin first asked me to work with them on this I was very skeptical. But there is something really magical about them. They are two very special guys.”
Finding a studio
Rose and Rabin’s idea for the single was to coincide its release to commemorate the Lubavitcher Rebbe of Chabad’s birthday, 11 Nisan, which this year corresponded to April 19. The revered Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson passed away June 12, 1994.
But they wanted a place where the recording quality was superlative, not substandard.
“So they called me, a jazz-rock-blues musician, and asked if I knew a great place to record,” Ketner said. “I said ‘Yes. One of the best places on Planet Earth, actually.’”
That would be Palmyra Studio. Stephen Ketner said they recruited and hired several Dallas jazz and rock musicians to record the classic Jewish music there.
Engineer Sam Damask mixed the single. Greg Calbi, of Sterling Sounds, NYC, mastered it.
(Calbi has mastered classics such as Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Chick Correa’s Hot House, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and Paul Simon’s Graceland.)
As the work on the single progressed, Stephen Ketner said he could tell there was a serendipitous vibe in the air. It was something very positive, very amazing — and incredibly forgiving.
“We kept making mistakes that would have halted other projects, mistakes that would have allowed no recovery,” Ketner said. “But we kept chugging through it. … This really should not have worked the way it did but so many good things kept happening.”
Ketner said he learned from his new colleagues that in the Chabad movement, the music is the upward connection from the spirit to God.
“For them in their culture this is their most sacred music,” Ketner said. “To be presented in such an organized and high-fidelity way is super-significant. Seriously. If you want an authoritative version of this music, come listen to this. It is high-fidelity and it will last for generations.”
Ketner said the entire experience has been a revelation.
“Like I said, I’m more agnostic than anything but I am open now to the mystery of everything,” he said. “There is something going on here that I definitely don’t yet understand.”
The single is available to be heard online for free at: www.niggunsociety.com/thesingle/.