[A–     JMS]

On October 29, I attended a concert commemorating the 15th anniversary of the passing of singer, songwriter, and spiritual leader Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The tribute took place in a synagogue on the Upper West Side, featuring a mix of singers and artists from the Jewish music scene, all of them covering Rabbi Carlebach’s songs. The evening was dedicated to enjoying, appreciating and recognizing the continual influence of Rabbi Carlebach’s music in today’s Jewish world.

A crowd of close to a thousand people had gathered, mostly modern Orthodox Jews, as well as many people with personal connections to Rabbi Carlebach. Many young married couples, as well as a fair distribution of older couples, took this as an opportunity to spend a meaningful night out. The Saturday night event called for casual dress that reflected its overall laidback atmosphere. As I took my seat among the red velvet lined pews, the crowd’s excitement and energy were palpable.

As the concert began, the lights dimmed, setting the mood of reminiscence and nostalgia that pervaded the evening. The noise level, on the other hand, remained as a distinct buzz throughout the night, since people felt comfortable and uninhibited enough to talk freely during the concert as well.

The concert opened with Havdala, a traditional ceremony separating Sabbath from weekday. This song, as well as all subsequent ones, was a short, lively piece driven by liturgical texts and folk melodies. A warm acoustic guitar set the tone in the forefront, with many accompanying beats creating a lively, moving rhythm. The song that started out with a straightforward single melody lead by prominent guitar quickly became much more complex as the rest of the band joined in. The keyboard, drums, sax, and vocals rose in a sharp crescendo as the beat quickened. The volume rose accordingly, and within minutes soon the much of the audience was clapping enthusiastically. Some left their seats to dance in circles on the open floor in front of the band. Participation, in fact, was encouraged. Cymbals twanged in the background, their offbeat rhythm adding a counterpoint to the predictable melody of the song. From within the audience, a tambourine sounded. I turned to see an older man in the row in front of me holding the twinkly instrument high, shaking it in tune to the music. This unexpected “collaboration” didn’t throw the musicians off, rather enhanced the experience, as the lines between audience and performers blurred.

The first song faded out, with the vocals softening once again, the instruments dropping out on after another, until the gentle strumming of the guitar filled the hall. People found their seats once more, to be regaled by the M.C. He provided an interlude between songs, relaying personal stories about Rabbi Carlebach and the profound effect his warmth and kindness had on so many.

A second song began, starting with a strong overture on the keyboard. The base melody was set in a major key, with the notes rising as the song progressed. In the background, shakers added a subtle beat to the song. The keyboard, as well as other instruments, took a back seat as the focus shifted to a solo on the saxophone. The saxophone repeated the original melody a few times, not adding too many creative twists or otherwise deviating from the original song.

As the song wound on, syncopation could be heard clearly.  The band, as well as backup singers, harmonized to the guitar and lead vocalist. The basic frame of the song consisted of two contrasting sections, one sung in a higher register than the other. The sax was quite prevalent, backing the song, adding a rich timbre that boosted the overall jovial quality of the song. Toward the end, the sax toned down and the keyboard piped in, repeating the melody. The song ended with a final clamor of the cymbals.

Who is a great leader? The next singer posed this question to the audience, and then answered: A great leader is one who creates other leaders, as Rabbi Carlebach was able to do in his lifetime. The singer went on to introduce a niggun, a wordless tune often sung in Chassidic circles. A few steady chords on the keyboard rang out, setting the repetitive tone of the song. These first bars continued to circle again and again, weaving a single, simple melody. The slow intro lead to a rousing, fast moving rendition whose quick tempo brought many to their feet. The music was not complicated, nor was it fine-tuned or sophisticated. However, it was heartfelt and the sincerity implicit in the musicians’ performance, the rabbi’s intentions when first composing the melody, and the audience’s acceptance of this melody allowed inhibitions in the room to cascade in single stroke. Strangers linked arms, dancing as thought they were old friends newly reunited. Hundreds of voices joined in, and the niggun swelled to encompass the totality of the synagogue, as the structure rocking with emotion.

A two-man band came up next, starting their song off with warm guitar tones and recurring chords. Vocals joined in, the two men’s tunes syncopating for a bit. After two rounds of the base melody, the flute joined in with a solo. Then the fiddle chimed in with sounds of olden-day happiness and the unspoiled charm that Rabbi Carlebach’s music is known for. The layering added complexity to the piece, as it built up slowly. Finally, percussion and electric guitar were added to the mix. The vocals died down, allowing the fiddle to stand out, supported by band, with the keyboard keeping a steady beat in background. Flute chirped the harmony. One of the men sang in a noticeably lower register, providing low harmony, as the other loudly sang the melody.

In the following song, the keyboard played the opening chords as the percussion instruments beat steadily in the background. The slow, loud bangs lent a heavy sense of foreboding, echoing the melody. The sax entered, rising above other instruments, until it was playing the melody as the other instruments quieted down. Then the vocals become the focus, while the fiddle provided a dissonant counterpoint in the form of a second melody layered on top of the first. The fiddle then slowed down and faded into the background, as guitar and vocals concluded the song.

The next song began with finger picking on the guitar, producing a distinct folksy sound, one less abrasive than the previous loud and rousing songs.  A twang-y pitch and off-kilter rhythm made this song stand out. Percussion came in, in full force, introducing the chorus. After one round, the chorus sped up, with the sax adding whirls, rising and falling in pitch in quick succession, creating dissonance. The singers whistled through parts of the song, substituting the more typical vocal arrangements.

A soothing tune picked on guitar, signaling one of the last songs of the evening, introduced a calm tone, which in itself was a point of contrast to the rest of overly loud evening. The vocals rose slightly in pitch but the base melody stayed steady, its consonant quality soothing. The keyboard then intercepted, running scales, as cymbals accented the high notes with small sharp rings. Guitar crept in, adding a faster beat, transforming the song from contemplative to fast-paced in its final minutes.

Other songs followed, but they mostly followed the patterns set forth in the above descriptions. Overall, the organizers of the concert intended to host an event celebrating Jewish continuity and joy, as one of Rabbi Carlebach’s solutions to life’s biggest problems was joy. In this vein, the music aimed to bring out the joie de vivre within each individual, and it accomplished this feat with overwhelming success.