This month's JUF News focuses on Israel, and conveniently, I'm able to profile a rising star drawing heavily on his own Israeli identity in his music. Likewise, with the Civil War being a hot topic these days, a production at Northlight is worth its weight in matzoh.
Omer Avital and His Band of the East
8p.m., Wednesday Jan. 9, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.
Bassist and oudist Omer Avital is part of a wave of Israeli musical expatriates spearheading New York City's avant-garde jazz scene. Born in the Israeli town of Givataim to parents of Moroccan and Yemenite descent, Avital's rising profile in the jazz community has been augmented by his role in Ravid Kalahani's vaunted Yemen Blues project. That ensemble's fusion approach to traditional Temani tunes took World Music by storm last year and Avital's experience in that ensemble may have spurred him to musically explore his own ethnic roots.
Omer Avital has made the music of his ancestry the focus of his new ensemble, The Band Of The East. While Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews have often felt their culture slighted by Israeli society, more recently, ethnic musical traditions have enjoyed a revival, thanks to the new globalism and the trend toward re-examining roots.
Where Israeli artists once sought to focus primarily on expressions of a new national identity, the component diasporic cultures and unique diversity found in Israel (and blending thereof) are now a prominent and even prized feature of their work. After finding success in America, Avital returned to his native Israel specifically to study the Andalusian and Arabic modalities of his heritage.
The product is Avital's ensemble and its profound blend of Middle Eastern moods, melismatic melodies and driving North African rhythms, interwoven with funk and a fresh playing style. As Avital describes, "My new group's aim is to genuinely bring the earthy essence of Middle Eastern & North African music together with the living tradition of hard swinging, spiritually uplifting Jazz."
The result is an urgent, spiritually charged collection of tunes that has won praise for Omer Avital and His Band of the East from the New York Times, Downbeat Magazine and many others. It includes the sizzling "Eser (Middle Eastern Funk)," the familiar but sad melody of "Neighborhood Song (Shir Schuna)" and a driving "Ramat Gan" that nods to the bustling, culturally-attuned Tel Aviv suburb.
'The Whipping Man'
With Steven Spielberg's film, Lincoln, playing on the big screen and Obama's "Team of Rivals" approach to his cabinet, the American Civil War is on many people's minds. Stories of the Emancipation Proclamation and famous battles aside, there is also great interest in the roles of Jewish Americans who led, fought and died on both sides of that terrible conflict.
Union and abolitionist stories are marked by accounts of companies of northern Jewish soldiers, Lincoln's remarkable relationship with his Jewish podiatrist, and Lincoln's reversal of General Ulysses S. Grant's anti-Semitic orders. Less known but well documented are Jewish political and military leaders of the Confederacy, such as Secretary of State Judah P Benjamin. The stories of the more than 10,000 individual Jewish Confederate soldiers, however, and their war experiences and relationships with former slaves are nearly forgotten. Many have noted the irony of Jewish slaveholders and the curious parallel to the Exodus story that followed for the then-freed slaves.
Northlight Theatre's production of The Whipping Man, written by Matthew Lopez, explores this complicated chapter in American history in his play. Set in 1865, Caleb DeLeon, a Jewish son of the south, returns to his ruined Richmond home at the end of the Civil War just in time for Passover (this is historically accurate). He finds his family has abandoned their home and the only remaining souls are two former, recently emancipated slaves, also Jews.
As the national debates over immigration, race relations and states' rights continue to simmer even today, this is an important new work by a new playwright with an important voice. The script explores the complex interplay of race, religion, hate, and freedom as the three protagonists make preparations to hold a Passover Seder unlike any other.
"Why is this year different from all other years?" asks the character John Deleon. The immediacy and irony of the culminating Seder scene demonstrates the power of the concept of freedom for those hoping so long for their shackles to be literally broken.
The Whipping Man won the 2011 John Gassner New Play Award from the NY Outer Critics Circle. This production is directed by Kimberly Senior and runs Jan. 18th (MLK Weekend) through Feb. 24 at Northlight Theatre at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
Also notable this month:
The always solid and thoroughly traditional Chicago Klezmer Ensemble performs a Klezmer Brunch set at City Winery Sunday, 10a.m. Jan. 6.
Acclaimed Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close talks about Judaism, Writing and Inspiration at Spertus at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13. (See p. 54 for interview with the author.)
Songleader Rick Recht performs a community concert at Temple Beth El in Northbrook on Monday, Jan. 21.
For more tickets and information on these and other Jewish arts, music, and culture events around Chicago, visit www.juf.org/news and KFAR Jewish Arts Center's online community cultural calendar at http://kfarcenter.org.
Adam Davis is the founder and executive director of KFAR Jewish Arts Center, a leading presenter and advocate of contemporary Jewish arts, music, and culture programs in and around Chicago. For future arts suggestions and feedback, e-mail Adam at email@example.com.