I first heard this Yemenite folk song in Jerusalem. "Eshal Elohai" is asking Gd to free those in captivity. Well, I don't know about you, but after sheltering at home this long, I feel like I am in captivity! So here is the perfect song for this time, the time of the Corona virus...
I was fortunate enough to receive some excellent books of Jewish music from the late, Velvel Pasternack. For more on this knowledgeable and influential musicologist, please see my blog from July 2019.
There were books he gave me of Sephardic music, Hassidic music, and others. I perused these and found many songs containing the same liturgy but different melodies, depending on which communities the songs came from. Not so surprising, considering the vast Jewish diaspora.
The holiday of Pesach (Passover) was approaching and I began searching for some good songs for that holiday as I am frequently called to lead musical seders. "Kadesh Urchatz" is the seder, itself, the order of things in that ritual meal and "seder" means order. I found a few different versions but the one that caught my attention was the "Kadesh Urchatz" from the Jews of Calcutta. It flowed beautifully and set the seder up in a way that felt ideal for a symposium. I took a few liberties with the melody and chords but did my best to remain faithful to the essence of it.
For Pesach Sheni (second Passover) on zoom, in addition to having several, talented guests do what they do, I played a few tunes having to do with the Pesach. One of them was "Kadesh Urchatz." So many people wrote in about it that I decided to play it again by itself and here is my video of it from home. It is my way of extending my hand to the Jews of Calcutta from this Jew of the Ashkenaz.
A month ago today, June 11th, a great authority on Jewish music, died. His name was Velvel Pasternak and among other things, he founded Tara Publications which provided numerous manuscripts of Jewish music, the music of my people.
When I began to record my first pieces of music under the name RebbeSoul, I only had a nodding acquaintance with Jewish music. The music I knew as such consisted merely of tunes I heard in synagogue and in Hebrew school on the rare occasions that I actually attended, usually at the painful insistence of my parents dragging me in by my ear.
So I recorded "Avinu" (Avinu Malkienu, אבנו מלכנו) and "Bim Bam," songs which made it on my first RebbeSoul album entitled Rebbe/RebbeSoul. This soon led to a record deal with world music label, Global Pacific Records and my next album. Because of my new fascination with my newly discovered, traditional music - the music of the Jewish people, the album was to comprise entirely Jewish music and henceforth its title, Fringe Of Blue, pertaining to the tzitzit worn from an important quote in a biblical passage.
Because I was now their signed artist, the record company wisely introduced me to Velvel Pasternak. I remember our first phone call. Velvel in New York and I, in California speaking about Jewish music. I knew nothing about it. He knew everything about it. He became a fountain of knowledge, exposing me to material I never even knew existed. There was a wealth of it as I was soon to find out because several days after that first conversation, a package arrived in the mail of several of his books of Jewish music and with his compliments.
It was a tremendous and meaningful gift. Soon, I went on to purchase even more from his vast catalogue and then had manuscripts which included music from Morocco, Spain, Lubavitch, even Calcutta.
Nowadays, it's a simple matter to search for even obscure music online and be able to actually listen to it instantly. Not back then. All I can say is I'm so glad I did not have that option. Had I heard those songs the way they are so often played, I probably would have just shrugged and never bothered to record them. But I didn't hear them, however, thanks to Velvel's foresight, I had them on paper. With great curiosity, I opened the books and started playing. I was true to the notes but instinctively put my own mojo on them. I made them my own. This to me, was the real beginning of the sound of RebbeSoul. In these traditional melodies, there were treasures just waiting to be heard.
"Kol Dodi" and "Et Dodim Kalah," two songs of Shir Hashirim, The Song Of Songs, started this way. I never heard a note until I played it myself and thank the good Lord for that.
Velvel Pasternak was largely responsible for helping me find my way and by providing me with some of the necessary tools, became a co-conspirator in creating what Reb Shlomo Carlebach called "the future of Jewish music." I am eternally grateful to him for that. Many thanks, Mr. Pasternak. Todah rabah.
Here is an entertaining and informative interview with Velevel Pasternak, conducted in 2016.
"Tzena Tzena" was written in 1941 by Issachar Miron and Yehiel Chagiz. They were both in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army. The song became a hit here (Palestine, at the time) Pete Seeger heard it and brought it to his band, The Weavers who recorded and released it in 1950. It reached #2 on the Billboard charts and then nearly every major recording artist in America at the time, recorded it.
The surviving songwriter out of the two is Issachar Miron, who just celebrated his 93rd birthday. I was introduced to him by singer/songwriter and good friend, Rahel Limor. Issachar invited me to visit him in his home in NYC and while there, he showed me his recording studio in his home, complete with keyboards, Mac computer system, ProTools, Waves, etc. He is amazingly active, sending files to me using Dropbox, while engineers and musicians are busy recording in his studio, ... all this at age 93!
This is Issachar in 1950 (below), when "Tzena Tzena" was released by the Weavers. Within a short time, the song would be recorded by all the stars in America including Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Pearl Bailey, the Smothers Brothers, just to name a few. This is Issachar at the beginning of his rise to fame.
Here he is today (below) with his wife Tsipora, also still alive and a renown concert pianist.
I extracted the following from Issachar's website and made this edited version for you. The new video of the new, RebbeSoul remake of "Tzena Tzena" follows this story.
Issachar Miron was born in Kutno, Poland, in 1920. Miron’s mother, Haya Helen Elbaum-Michrowski, an accomplished pianist, died in 1927 at the age of thirty-six, when Issachar was 7 years old. His father, Shlomo Michrowski, a shopkeeper and an ordained rabbi was a gifted violin virtuoso. He and his family along with some 7000 Kutno Jews lived and suffered between 1941 and 1942 in the Kutno Ghetto, officially named by the Nazis, “Judenlager Konstancja."
In March 1942, virtually all the Jews of Kutno perished in Chelmno, on the river Ner—the very first Nazi death camp of the “final solution for the Jewish question.” They were buried in ditches they were forced to dig in the nearby Rzurzowski Forest, prior to being shoved into the poison gas vans.
Issachar Miron's father, Rabbi and concert-violinistShlomo Michrowski(right), his sister,Lusia-Tsipora Michrowski, and his brother,Moshe Pinchas Michrowski, who all perished in the Holocaust, pictured with Issachar Miron(standing) who remains the sole survivor of his entire family.
Issachar settled in Palestine, after serving in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army where he wrote the music to "Tzena Tzena," during the Second World War. When the State of Israel was established, he was named the National Deputy Director of Music, assisting Frank Peleg, the world-renowned piano virtuoso, who served as the National Music Director for Israel's Ministry of Education and Culture. He was also appointed as the National Officer-in-Chief of Art and Music Programs for the IDF.
In the United States, as a professor, he served as the Dean of the Music Faculty at the Jewish Teachers Seminary and the Herzliah Teachers Institute, both in New York City. He is a recipient of ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award for creative writing, and a winner of the Israel Engel Prize for Music.
His songs, film scores, and instrumental works are many and include "Tzena Tzena" with Hebrew lyrics by Yehiel Hagiz, English lyrics by Gordon Jenkins and Mitchell Parish. The song was popularized in the United States by The Weavers and other major artists who subsequently performed and recorded "Tzena Tzena" include Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Arlo Guthrie, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Pearl Bailey, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Connie Francis, Chubby Checker, Dusty Springfield, Eartha Kitt, the Smothers Brothers, Neil Sedaka, Barry Sisters, Chet Atkins, Metropolitan Opera singers, including: Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, Misha Raitzin, Roberta Peters, The London Symphony, Mantovani Symphonic Strings, and others. "Tzena Tzena" has been covered over 600 times.
Issachar Miron lives in New York, N.Y. with his wife of 67 years, Tsipora, a concert pianist, who served on the faculty of the Music Academy in Tel Aviv, Israel. They have three daughters, seven grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter.
Issachar Miron is listed in Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem), Who’s Who in the East (U.S.A.), Who’s Who in Israel, Who’s Who in ASCAP, Who’s Who in ACUM, AGAC Directory, Who’s Who in World Jewry, the International Platform Association Directory USA, and The New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
The night before meeting Issachar Miron, I was at my friend Dan Gil's recording studio in Sharon, Massachusetts. I played a few African guitar parts to a click which seemed to fit the song and took it in different direction, away from the "boom chick" rhythm that all the earlier versions had. Later, I played a "4 on the floor" African groove calledkawiato, which is used a lot from Township music to Trance. Speaking of Township music, I called my good friend Keith Hutchinson in Johannesburg, South Africa who played in Johnny Clegg and Savuka among many other amazing projects and he contributed some excellent tracks. I then added some of my favorite musicians and singers in Israel to participate. So there is Amharic from Zemene Melesse and Mulu, Spanish from Argentinian/Cuban singer Jaime Granco, Hebrew from Shlomit Levi, Roi Levy, and Dvir Cohen, and so on.