Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jewish Music, Poetry and the Three Weeks

Blogging about Jewish Music during the two times of the year we are not allowed to hear music is very challenging. Even more so than Sefiras Haomer, this is specially true now that we are coming close to Tisha Beav, the saddest day of our calendar, and bloggers deal with this in their own way. Some go out for vacations, some write about older acapella albums (no new albums came out this time, as far as I know) and I decided to go for something more exotic - I got into Ben Bresky's poetry initiative in his radio show. You can hear my piece here (click in "Listen Now" and skip to 35:34).

You must be asking yourself who in the world would be interested in poetry these days and that's kind of understandable. Last time I wrote poems was in school, years back, and this poem is actually old - I originally wrote it a few years ago because I wanted to understand Poetry.com's business concept after meeting its founder. So, it's not like I write poems everyday. Okay. But how is this connected to Tisha Beav?

In case you didn't realize, Tisha Beav is all about poems - that's what the Kinos are, poems. In fact, we all spend two or three hours reciting the (numerous) poems and most people don't even understand what's going on, aside from the implicit connection to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Poetry was one of the tenets of Judaism in the Spanish Golden Age and poets would be sponsored on a yearly basis to write poetry about Judaism, history and also love stories. That's why most of our Zemiros come from that time - Zemiros are also poems, written by real poets who were very knowledgeable about Judaism or even famous Rabbis like Elazar Hakalir, the most prolific of them all, and Ibn Ezra (you read some of his poems here).

Now, Jewish Music and poetry are also intrinsically connected. Although the vast majority of JM lyrics today are taken from the Tanach and Chazal, Jewish musicians of the past would focus in composing music for their own original lyrics. Adon Olam, Lecha Dodi and Yedid Nefesh are good examples of popular "liturgical poems" that are commonly used as song lyrics. Taking lyrics from the Torah and Chazal is halachically problematic and many religious musicians refrained from doing it until the past century. Only recently JM has become flooded with Torah and Chazal lyrics, most probably because of Reb Shlomo Carlebach's influence - JM of today is a brainchild of Reb Shlomo, who would always find touching lyrics in the Torah and Chazal.

But even today most of the Sephardic songs, called "Pizmonim", are solely based in poems. Back in Syria and Lebanon, the poets were celebrated and well-respected as a noble and noteworthy class, and if you look into their songs is possible to learn a lot about their "Avoda" and life back in the Arab countries.

It's getting harder and harder for JM composers to find meaningful and "new" lyrics from the Torah and Chazal. The times were every singer would come up with a new Hamalach Hagoel or Acheinu are over - most recent CD's have very original lyrics. As I see it is a matter of time until JM turns back to poems as its prime source of lyrics. Many singers are already in this stage - Chaim Israel is a good example (no wonder he is Sephardi) and my man Shuli Rand (review coming soon!) - it's really cool to hear songs that actually tell a whole story (of course, I also like songs from Chazal and Torah, but original lyrics are more dynamic and leave more room for creativity, if you know what I mean). But in order to come up with great new lyrics we need great poets. And poetry today is often times seen as outdated or one of those things no one does anymore (come on, admit you thought I was weird when I said I was writing poems).

My poem is stam something I wrote long ago that is not really connected to Torah or Tisha Beav. But maybe that's the birth of a new poet, who will down the road compose lyrics for an actual JM star. Who knows?

But one thing is clear - we need more poets/lyricists! Rav Shwab (maybe I'm confusing with the Bobov Rebbe - see Artscroll's comentary on the Piyutim) wrote his heartbreaking Piyut about the Holocaust, which many congregations recite in Tisha Beav, after he saw in a Sefer that whoever is capable of writing Piyutim should not refrain from writing about the destruction of the Beis Hamikdah. So what are you waiting for?

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