Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2002 / 29 Kislev, 5763

Chanukah, classical
and pops

By Paul Wieder | Like the Maccabees of old coming down from the Judean hills to reclaim the Temple, Chanukah CDs are coming from the most unexpected of places to rededicate the holiday musical landscape.

Shelley Olson uses classical music traditions to inform her Chanukah Cantata. And Shirley Braha, a.k.a. Little Shirley Beans, collected a dozen bands you've never heard of (unless you are a fan of the Casino Ashtrays, Chariots of Tuna, or Gumdrop Alley) and charged them with writing all-new Chanukah songs for the anthology I Made It out of Clay.

The Chanukah Cantata is a powerfully moving re-telling of the Chanukah story through music and narration. The storyline in ancient, but is told in such immediate terms that it seems like headline news. Funded by a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant, A Chanukah Cantata received its world premiere at the 1999 Sydney Jewish Arts Festival. It went on to have its US debut at no less than White House. The piece has since been broadcast in six countries on five continents, from the Netherlands to South Africa.

The genesis of the project was far more humble. Olson explains that her friends knew she was a composer and urged her to fill a musical need; there was a "limited repertoire for Chanukah for concert and chorus."

For inspiration, Olson lit menorahs all around her house. What she came up with was a song series based on the menorah itself. There are eight songs, all in 3/4 time, framed by two 4/4 songs representing the shamash and the blessing over the candles. The idea "came from inside of me. It was not a conscious thing at all," Olson recalls.

On a trip to Australia soon after, she met Judy Campbell, who had just been hired as choir director at a Sydney synagogue. "I try to see what's happening in the Jewish musical community everywhere I go," Olson explains. Campbell fell in love with the piece, then made Olson a deal- if she would provide the choir, Olson would let her premier the piece in Australia. Which is what happened, a mere three months later.

On the recording, the piano is delicately played by the then-14-year-old Marianne Scholem. The powerful baritone was provided by Abe Singer, then 17. And there is a children's choir. But some members of the adult choir were in their late 60s, and the album should prove equally profound to listeners of all ages.

Remarking on the disparate nature of the songs that make up the body of the work- ranging from a war chant to a lullaby- Olson says, "No two candles burn alike."

The same could easily be said of the 20 songs on the wildly eclectic I Made It out of Clay, billed as the first "Chanukah Indie-pop compilation." "Indie" is short for "independent," as in independent film. The two media also share an do-it-yourself, hey-why-not ethos. However, there is a "tight sense of community that builds around it," that is lacking in the film world, Shirley Braha, the album's producer, notes.

The performers on Clay are based in a dozen states, plus Canada and Finland, where they know something about winter. Kisswhistle remakes Elvis Costello's "Veronica" into "Verhannukah," and Mesopotamia harmonically laments the passing of a tail-chasing dog named Dreydel. The tones range from meditative to raucous, and encompass sounds from samba (Jumprope's "Hanukkah in Brazil") to nursery rhyme (the Boyish Charms "Theme for a Defiled Temple"); DJs will probably find "Hanukkah Girl" by Metronome the most radio-friendly cut. Many of the tracks feature muted vocals, but the full lyrics to all 20 tracks are enclosed.

Thematically, the strongest messages come from The Golden Synthetic Songbook, who comfort all those teased for getting gifts on eight nights instead of just one, and Winterbrief, who lament the commercialization of holidays in general. Along with toys, food and candles, several songwriters address the joy of family gatherings and the spirit of hope central to the holiday.

Not every band has a Jewish member... and then not all the songs are strictly Chanukah-related, including The Rosenbergs' snarky "Puff Daddy Isn't Kosher." But the album and its bands certainly capture the plucky, underdog spirit of the Chanukah story.

Braha is of Syrian Jewish descent- "The Syrian Jews have their own little cultural bent," she reveals, no doubt affected by their part in the original Chanukah story. She created the album when she was 16. Now a 19-year-old freshman at Smith College, she is a recognized authority on the underground music scene, and the album is starting to gather some above-ground attention, being written up in YM Magazine and the Village Voice. She continues to release recordings, DJ a radio show, and organize benefit concerts. Sales from Clay will benefit the Yeshiva of Flatbush's toy drive.

Order "A Chanukah Cantata" by clicking here. For more info on "I Made It out of Clay" click here.

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JWR contributor Paul Wieder is a public relations associate at the Jewish United Fund and a columnist for JUF News. Contact the author or the magazine by either clicking here, or calling (312) 444-2853.


© 2002, JUF News