Jeremiah Lockwood comes from a family of cantors, spiritual leaders who lead Jewish congregations in prayer and song. His grandfather, the late Jacob Königsberg, served as a cantor in many cities and performed in concerts outside religious services, always hoping to inspire people with religious music.
It is no wonder that Lockwood incorporated cantorial music into his own band, The Sway Machinery, and wrote his dissertation about Chassidic cantors in Brooklyn who sang in a manner reminiscent of the golden age of cantorial music beginning in the 1920s. The virtuosos of that era sometimes sounded as if they were singing opera but also improvised in solo time.
The same can be said for those living in Brooklyn today.
“It’s amazing,” Lockwood said of Brooklyn cantors’ ability to master the vocal techniques of the early 20th century. “Forget questions about creativity versus imitation, the mere fact that they are physically able to do this is mind-blowing.”
“They are self-trained artists,” he said. “It’s kind of like there was a scene of musicians who didn’t go to conservatory or jazz music school and learned how to play Charlie Parker by fiddling around with a saxophone alone in their room.
While in graduate school, Lockwood stumbled upon YouTube videos of cantors in informal Chassidic singing. kumzitA type of cantorial jam session where solos are handed over to the point of the fingers.
The video inspired Lockwood to produce a new album The Golden Age: The Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Todaywhich was recorded at Daptone Records, an analog recording facility known for soul music.
Three of the six on the album went on to perform with Lockwood in late June at the Jewish Culture Festival in Poland, an important annual Jewish musical event that has been going on for nearly 30 years. They had the opportunity to perform with the backing of a string quartet arranged by Lockwood, who sometimes accompanied the cantors with his electric guitar.
One of the cantors performing in Krakow, Yanky Lemar, explained that as a child and teenager growing up in a Chassidic community, he did not have much entertainment except what was considered “kosher.” Such households often do not have television or internet access for children.
“Cantorial music is one of them [kosher] things,” he said. “Oh, let me get to that. That’s interesting, that’s different.”
Lamar said it was “one of the most special feelings in the world” when he improvised during the service.
“When you start improvising and it works, there’s this feeling of, ‘Wow, this is coming through me. I’m not even doing it,'” Lemar said.
Lamar, one of the world’s most famous cantors, leads services at Manhattan’s iconic Lincoln Square Synagogue and has officiated everywhere from the Catskills to Australia. He credits YouTube with putting him on the map. After uploading the first video he performed online, his email inbox was flooded the next morning.
“The emails said, ‘You have to do this for a living. You have to do this,'” he told NPR.
One of the other cantors involved in the project, Shimmy Miller, is Benjian Miller’s son, who leads services one Sabbath a month at a church in the Borough Park neighborhood. That service lasts for three to four hours and everything is improvised on the spot. Lockwood, who participates in the choir, called the experience “musically challenging.”
“I’m always ready to collapse after one of those serves,” Lockwood said.
Not all cantors on the new album have embraced the claim that cantorial music is reviving.
“It’s not really a revival, so much as a dying breath,” said Yoel Kohn, a former member of the Satmar Chassidic community. “Whether there is enough interest left to continue it indefinitely as some obscure genre of music like baroque music, I don’t know.”
But Hankus Netsky, a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, believes what’s happening with the Brooklyn Cantors could be both a passing away and a rebirth of the genre.
“I think Jeremiah Lockwood is the mediator between the generation that sees the death of cantorial music in the congregation and the younger generation that sees the potential of rediscovering cantorial music,” Netsky said.
Lockwood strongly believes that these “young” cantors (the oldest is 46) deserve to be discovered.
“These guys are brilliant singers, great artists and they’re so underground, nobody’s heard of them,” he said. “I wanted to create the possibility for them to be able to do the biggest thing in the world and I wasn’t sure who the audience would be for that or if there was an audience at all.”
The golden age The album is available both as a digital download and as a vinyl LP.