Reviews for The Hidden One

by Richard Kaplan, Five Souls Music, 2009

TIKKUN Magazine, January/February 2010
Review by Rabbi Jonathan Seidel Phd

"Richard Kaplan’s new CD The Hidden One (Hane’elam): Jewish Mystical Songs presents a powerfully evocative musical dance between the “hidden” and the “revealed,” as heard in poignant, immediately haunting silences and in the sparse, understated nigunim (melodies without words), found in subtle doses throughout the album.

Vocalist and cantor Kaplan, accompanied by an ensemble of stellar musicians and singers,
has created a prayerful gem of a CD that I believe (as one who deeply resonates with Sephardic and Hasidic music) will become a classic. It’s as if he’s channeling the primordial music of a barely known, esoteric kabbalistic sect, situated somewhere in the spaces
between Haim ben Attar (the famous Sephardic mystic who influenced the birth of Hasidism)
and the Ba’al Shem Tov. I felt I had somehow heard this music before, perhaps
in a previous gilgul (incarnation), when we were engaged with a paradigm-shifting
Sufi/Sephardic/Hasidic/Proto-Jazz community.

To devotees of Jewish music, this CD is a love song, sung with and without words, sung in Hebrew and Aramaic from the classic liturgy and Zohar, or sung to the words of traditional and newly composed piyutim (para-liturgical sacred poetry). It is a love song addressed to “You,” the very immanent and personal Divinity which so often remains hidden when we create rigid and imaginary boundaries which rob us of the mystical encounter. The Hasidic/Sufi trajectory present in these recordings beautifully expresses this intimacy with the Divine, which as the Qur'an has it, is “as close as our jugular veins” or as accessible as the memory of a beloved departed bubbe or nona (Yiddish and Ladino for “grandmother”). Kaplan is remarkably in touch with this most subtle of proximities.

Those who know Kaplan’s previous CDs (Tuning The Soul and Life of the Worlds) are familiar with his uncanny ability—shared with musical and poetic luminaries such as Israel Najara of the 16th century—to marry melodies from non-Jewish locales (even Mongolia, in this recording!) with Jewish mystical poetry. He also creates new Latvian/Lithuanian-influenced tunes for pouring out the heart, and performs a stunning Eastern European wordless song meant to accompany the dying process. The CD reconnects me to my ancient Ashkenazic roots while expanding upon them with several exquisite “neo-Hasidic” musical creations composed by Kaplan.

And be prepared for a few tracks that reflect the mournful pathos and longing of the Diaspora experience (perhaps ultimately best understood as a universal state of profound spiritual disconnection). You might cry a little - OK! I however actually find this “melancholy”
(or better yet, “deep soulfulness”) very appealing.

From a little known nigun of Reb Nachman of Breslov, to melodies preserved by the modern musical adept Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, to Turkish, Moroccan, and Spanish chants, Cantor Kaplan has produced an array of quietly ecstatic songs and original compositions that give life to the term “Jewish Renewal”. Kaplan’s jazzy riffs, supported by ney (cane flute),
‘ud (lute), tar (frame drum), cimbalom (hammer dulcimer) and other seemingly incongruous instrumentation, are set to revelatory and inspiring verses that send this writer right into the lap—or before the throne, as it were—of the Mystery of Mysteries. It is a very cool album with a great aural warmth, clearly derived from the embers of the Kabbalah’s overriding intention of tikkun. If you are searching for a collection of songs with which to focus your meditation and Jewish contemplative life, this is truly it!"

JUF News Chicago, September 2009
Review by Paul Wieder

“Kabbalah has become the latest celebrity fad, but for centuries the authentic Kabbalah
has been a source of philosophy, prayer, and song for Jews. West Coast cantor Richard Kaplan adheres to the 'old school' of Kabbalah, presenting 18 (of course) songs from the Kabbalistic tradition. They come from across generations and around the Jewish world, but all are sublimated by Kaplan’s yearning baritone and elegant piano playing. The arrangements are meditative and minimal, adding only the percussion, strings, or winds of the country of the song’s origin, leaving room for the listeners to fill in the spaces themselves. Full lyrics and notes are provided, and Kaplan even sings some of the songs in English. Kaplan’s third release solidifies his reputation as the best American interpreter of Jewish spiritual and world music."

Professor Karen Barad Phd, Department of Physics, UC Santa Cruz, 2010

"The music on this album is deeply awe-inspiring and elevating in a way that goes far beyond even the deep touch music can provide. Words cannot express my gratitude for this amazing gift you've given and 'brought down' to us."

The Cantors Assembly of The Jewish Theological Seminary, NY
Review by Cantor Shoshana Brown, 2014

When artists record vocal music, they hope that it will appeal to listeners reasonably educated in the artist’s genre, even if the listener is unacquainted with the singer’s previous work. There is no doubt in this reviewer’s mind that Kaplan’s high baritone voice, smooth and rich and full of feeling, will appeal to the uninitiated. But since his chosen genre here is "Jewish mystical songs," it might be appropriate to orient potential listeners towards what Kaplan calls the Divine Within, in order to help them fully appreciate the depth and subtlety of this collection.

Kaplan’s first CD, Tuning the Soul (1999, with Michael Ziegler) was a mind-and earopening collection of Jewish sacred songs, chants and niggunim from around the globe–with a heavy emphasis on Middle Eastern and Hasidic melodies and modalities, and a lively ensemble of instrumentalists and background voices helping to create a sound alluringly distinct from your typical Western cantorial or folk-liturgical fare. His second CD, Life of the Worlds (released in 2003, and reviewed in these pages (volume 35, 2010), continued along this path in an ever-expanding manner, with a full background chorus and an even greater range of melodic sources and influences. It included an original, heart-breaking kinah (lament) that Mother Earth (Kaplan) sings in English over the Khurban (the destruction) of our Planet to the tune of Eikhah (Lamentations) trope, turning the traditional Tisha Be’Av song of mourning for the Temple into an elegy for the primordial Gan Eden. One also hears in this second CD the increasing influence of American jazz, especially in Kaplan’s own keyboard accompaniment.

With The Hidden One, listeners familiar with Kaplan’s previous recorded work feel the artist turning inward–and yet he continues to expand, exploring new worlds within. The whole album is in fact a soul-journey. For the most part, it is not music that hazzanim will use when singing prayer texts. But they might well adapt some of the gorgeous meditative niggunim for use at select interstices during the lengthy Yamim Nora’im services. The simpler chants might effectively provide "breathing space" during Yizkor, or be taught on a congregational retreat to serve as "soul-lifters" for the group.

As ground-breaking as Kaplan has been in setting Jewish liturgical texts to music from around the world, he is nevertheless quintessentially American. One senses in him a strong kinship with John Coltrane–particularly with the latter’s album "A Love Supreme." Indeed, although much can be said about the vast breadth of selections and styles on "The Hidden One" (including two chants set to the melody of a Mongolian folk song), the direction of both Kaplan’s and Coltrane’s soul-journeys is the same–toward the Supreme Source of Love.

That is why one needs a bit of orientation when listening to "The Hidden One." Without first reading the CD’s accompanying 18-page booklet, for example, the listener can be put off or at best, confused. For a collection of "Jewish mystical songs," the album opens in a fairly straightforward manner with LeShem Yikhud ("For the Oneness"). The booklet explains that this number employs the language of Kabbalistic "intentions"; it is in essence a kavvanah for the entire album. Kaplan’s booklet provides the English for a whole string of intentions, ending with:

Behold, we have come to sing in a pleasant voice the Song of Songs
For the sake of the unification of the Holy One and the Indwelling Presence
To unify The Name, "Yud Hey with Vav Hey."

Although in fact Kaplan never sings any portion of Shir Hashirim (the canonical "Song of Songs") on "The Hidden One," nevertheless the entire album is a love-song to the Divine–in particular to the Divine in-dwelling Presence--but also to the Divine Love that surrounds and fills all the space of the world. This gentle piece (just Kaplan with minimalist piano and violin accompaniment) sets the tone for the album, starting us on an inward journey with quietness, collectedness, and love, inviting us to breathe and to be thankful for the Presence that both fills and surrounds us.

We move on to a somewhat more confusing piece, Ani nikhna ("I Surrender"). Because of the esoteric nature of the mystical teachings/meditative practices on which the words of this song are based (the English and Hebrew words were written by Kaplan himself with the consultation of his friend and teacher Rabbi Miles Krassen), the casual listener may easily get the impression that the singer is an unabashed narcissist in love with himself:

Ani nikhna l'nishmati, v'nishmati ponah Elekha
I surrender to my soul, and my soul, she communes with You
Libi oheiv et nishmati, v'nishmati ohevet Ot'kha
My heart is in love with my soul, and my soul, she's in love with You.

It is obvious, when one sees these words written out, that the You is God, not the singer’s own self...but what does it mean to be in love with one’s own soul? In the CD’s booklet, this selection is introduced as "a song to support the ongoing process of enthroning one’s soul, and the concomitant diminution of the tyranny of the ego." So the song/meditation is meant precisely as a tool to prevent narcissism, and to elevate that part of our being that is most connected with God and with other souls. But without careful reading of the notes, this concept might not come across: the melody is taken from a "Moroccan chanting tune." To this reviewer, however (unlike Kaplan, I am not an ethno-musicologist) this hardly sounds like "Moroccan" music.

Notwithstanding how faithfully Kaplan may have followed the contour of a Morrocan chantmelody, he has thoroughly "Kaplanized" it, making it more accessible to the Western ear. The result: a tender, caressing love song to the Soul and to God. Not your typical synagogue fare!

As our journey continues with Zikhr'kha ("Remembering You"), Kaplan moves outward from the soul to include the body in a devotional dance/chant. His notes state that this 2-line chant (Hebrew and English) is set to a "Turkish Jewish Sufi zikr (dance of remembrance)," and he gives directions for how to move the body as one chants it. It is hard to tell from Kaplan’s still-gentle, intimate rendition here how powerful this chant can be in a larger setting, but I have experienced it with an entire congregation in a retreat-setting. As more and more people do the movement in unison and with a strong percussion holding everyone together, this chant can induce a "group high," and indeed involve the whole cardio-vascular system in one’s praise of God.

There is not room in an introductory review of this type to give a detailed response to each of Kaplan’s eighteen selections on The Hidden One; but I do want to underline the ever-broadening arc of the soul’s journey as we progress through this album. Not all of the melodies are Middle Eastern; Kaplan’s fifth track presents us with his strong suite: the Hasidic meditative niggun (wordless melody). The CD's first Hasidic selection, it is a niggun hakhanah, a "melody of preparation," composed by Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch (1860-1920).

Although normally I would like to hear such a selection sung without any instrumentation (as would be the case in its sitz im leben or real-life context), Kaplan provides such a lovely, non-intrusive piano introduction and accompaniment, that it is a joy to hear. He labels this one a "melody for entering," and indeed, it feels that with it we have entered a new "palace" (to borrow from the mystic’s terminology) on our journey, and this lilting, cheerful, yet yearning tune sets us up wonderfully for the piece that follows it.

Now that we have ventured into the soul-territory of Jewish Eastern Europe, it is appropriate (but brave!) of Kaplan to offer his own rendition of the famous A Dudele, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev’s prayer/cry/meditation on theodicy. Everywhere I turn – Du, Du, Du. All the questions of why good things happen--why bad things happen–melt away in the realization of God’s presence. Throughout the album the second-person address to God persists, and here is where Jewish meditative practice differs from the Buddhist. The Jewish spiritual paradigm is one of ani/Atah; ich/Du; I/You. Kaplan sings this well-loved Yiddish/Hebrew heart-outpouring in such a way as to make it immediate, fresh, and passionately felt. His choice of the tsimbl or cimbalon (hammered dulcimer) and the klezmer baraban or drum set as accompaniment, sets Kaplan apart in his loving effort to be authentic to the time, place, and people of this song’s origin–and this may be the first recording to use such an appropriate--yet unexpected--setting. This part of the journey includes several more Hasidic melodies (tracks 7, 8, and 10), including the one for Sim Shalom that borrows a melody by Joel Engel made famous by its use in the play The Dybbuk, and an exquisite (but hardly congregation-friendly) setting of Yedid Nefesh attributed to the Baal Shem Tov. But the crown of the album, set at its center (track 9 of 18) is Atah, Atah, Atah ("You, You, You"). Arriving at this summit is like reaching the sticky center of a flower awaiting pollination. At the singer’s touch it opens lushly, stretching out extravagantly colored petals, layer upon layer, pouring forth scent. This flower has sprouted from the seed of a phrase attributed to Rabbi Alexander Ziskind (d. 1794) and found in Yitzhak Buxbaum’s Jewish Spiritual Practices (1990). Apparently Rav Ziskind had the mystical custom of repeating the words "yotzri u-vori atah" as a mantra to his "Fashioner and Creator." Kaplan takes the mantra as his starting-point and cushions it within liturgical phrases from The Berditchever’s A Dudele. He piles on (as he writes in his notes) "many key verses from other songs on this recording." The layers consist of Kaplan’s solo voice, his piano accompaniment, a "chorus" of two female voices together with Kaplan (although they sound like many more); and we hear a montage of phrases in English, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish, layered one upon the other. Significantly, Kaplan here employs the word HaVaYaH as a vocalization of God’s most sacred name, Yud-Hei-Vav- Hei. In modern Hebrew, this word means "existence," and it feels that with this composition we are gazing into the well of all existence, its Source being the ultimate You from which we have all sprung, from which we draw our existence at each moment, and towards which we are all journeying, to merge with it once again. This is a flower that only Kaplan could cultivate, combining his mysticism, his deep feeling for Hasidic meditative niggunim, his fluid jazz piano technique, and his soul-kinship with John Coltrane. (Although Kaplan refrained from doing so, it would have seemed quite natural to include Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme" as one more layer of petals into this musical flower!)

The remaining tracks on The Hidden One each have their varying charms: there is Se'u Minkhah ("The Offering"; another Kaplan composition), which shares some of the "layering"of "Atah, Atah, Atah." Although the "layering" here is more intimate in scale, with solo voice, piano and violin, it nevertheless impresses as a flower viewed through time-lapse photography. I am particularly partial to those selections which Kaplan sings unaccompanied ("The Besht’s Yedid Nefesh"--A Sabbath Song attributed to Reb Aharon of Karlin--and "A Melody for Leaving the Body," taught to Kaplan by his musical and spiritual mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi). Kaplan's pure voice is so full of tenderness and yearning for the You to whom he sings that no accompaniment is needed, and indeed, unaccompanied songs like these two seem richer for the absence of any extraneous ornamentation.

As our meditative soul-journey draws to a close, the orientation is no longer inward, but outward. At this point Kaplan, like the Holy Temple's kohanim, serves as a vehicle of blessing directed outwards towards all humanity. Like an Old World hazzan, Kaplan sings a closing Birkat Kohanim with lots of ai-yai-yai’s and ya-ma-ma’s, and yet (although he writes in his notes that this "version...comes from the ChaBad Hasidic lineage), with his rippling piano underneath and bourbon-smooth voice above, Kaplan does not attempt to replicate an Eastern European khazonishe(cantorial)-sound. There is certainly a plaintive, pleading quality to this request for blessing upon us all–but then it is as if the sun has come out from behind the clouds, the notes of blessing pouring forth like honey, or perhaps like sunshine dancing upon water. The attentive listener goes forth feeling blessed indeed.

I stress that it is the attentive listener who will be blessed by this album. Just as the God who is ne’elam, hidden, can be known only by those who heed God’s plea "to be still and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:11), so this album can only be fully appreciated by those who are able to still their souls and let themselves be led on this journey with Kaplan. In our day of instant downloads, who knows how much longer the work of a mystically oriented recording artist like Richard Kaplan can maintain its integrity in its completeness? How many are willing to take the time to listen to a whole album with real kavvanah? For those who have been blessed with this stillness and with the mazel to have stumbled upon Kaplan's minhah ("offering"), a reward awaits them comparable to that which we mention when we don the tallit in the morning:

They will feast on the abundance of God’s House,
and drink from the Divine’s streams of delight
(after Ps. 36:9).

Hazzan Shoshana Brown and her husband, Rabbi Mark Elber, serve as joint Spiritual Leaders for Congregation Beth El of Fall River, MA. She is a frequent contributor to JSM, her review of Shmuel Barzilai's "Chassidic Ecstasy in Music" having appeared in the 2013 issue. Her choral arrangements of Psalms set to Celtic-Appalachian ballad music--"Songs of Yearning and Celebration"—were performed at the 2011 ALEPH Biennial Kallah.

Reviews for Life of the Worlds

"The modern-day traditional Jewish music revival is filled with artists exploring klezmer's Eastern-European roots, but you'll hear no clarinet and little violin on cantor/educator
Richard Kaplan's Life Of The Worlds. Although these are traditional songs, there is a broad range of the Diaspora represented on his second album, including Afghani, Spanish, Moroccan, and Algerian traditions. Kaplan dives into the sacred and the secular, the prophetic and the exultant, finding commonalities amongst different tribes and fusing them together. Musical accompaniment comes in the form of an occasional flute, piano, and violin as well as Moroccan clay drums, oud, dumbek, and other pre-modern-era instruments, but the instrument at the center of each song is Kaplan's voice--his high baritone majestically soars, quavers with sensitivity, and rings out with joy. To hear him sing solo versions of traditional Niggun is to hear a world-class master savor the multifaceted nuance of each note and transcend the concept of song, turning it into religion and high art."
Tad Hendrickson,, January 2004

"In an interview promoting Life of the Worlds, cantor and songwriter Richard Kaplan explained that the loose and free feel of his music came from encounters with the recordings of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones. Listening to the album it's easy to see why Tyner himself has thrown kind words Kaplan's way. Life of the Worlds contains Jewish sacred world music from the Middle East, Andalusia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia played by a small ensemble, often augmented by guests from around the world. Kaplan sets sacred texts and poems to traditional Jewish melodies and new compositions, or in the case of "Eyn Keloheynu," he offers a new arrangement.His love of music that is both deep and moving keeps the album from being too syrupy, and a respectful but maverick attitude makes it charmingly cosmopolitan over academic. Kaplan's excellent writing and arranging skills are matched by his passionate vocal delivery and lyrical piano playing along with some excellent interaction with his fellow musicians. Take the Afghani Jewish chant "Le'el Adir Neranenah," for example. After Kaplan's fiery vocal opens the number he blends into a radiant choir of voices with the message and mysticism coming through loud and clear. It's his combination of talent and humility that makes him so charismatic and Life of the Worlds such an appealing and illuminating listen. Add a detailed 32-page booklet and you've got an excellent package for both ethnomusicologists and novices who appreciate spiritual music."
David Jeffries, All Music Guide, January 2004

"Plenty of well-meaning, if ultimately lightweight, Jewish records take the multiculti aspect of the Jewish experience as a license for exploring exotic roots and slinky rhythms. Cantor Richard Kaplan's Life of the Worlds is indebted to a wide range of Jewish traditions, from Yemen to North Africa to Eastern European Chassidism, but more than just multicultural, it's multidimensional. A fluid ensemble crosses cultures with understated taste and grace. Shared rhythms and melodies join the sacred music from various traditions, highlighted by frame-drum percussion and solo violin, clarinet, oud, and accordion. But the ringer is Kaplan himself, the possessor of a resonant, intimate tenor and no slouch on the piano. His performance of "Le'El Adir Neranenah" is given a spiritual boost by Kaplan's McCoy Tyner­esque chords, transforming this Afghani-Jewish melody into a post-bop jazz exploration. It's only one of the many complex moods -- and satisfying triumphs -- of this sophisticated collection."
Mark Schwartz, Barnes & Noble, February 2004

Life of the Worlds is a remarkable and wonderful journey into Sephardicpiyyutand Hasidic niggun. Cantor Kaplan has a rich baritone voice that he uses expressively, at times with great bravura, at other times with an intimacy that goes deep into the heart. On this wide-ranging recording, Kaplan applies his ethno-musicological training to liturgical texts from Jewish communities around the world.

As a result, no two of the eighteen tracks are alike. The selections are interpreted with a sure musical sense that always seems intuitively right. The accompaniments are engaging and fit naturally with the music. The accompanying booklet has personal notes on each piece along with the words, transliterations and word for word translations, in other words it is both accessible and useful.

1. Ha'aderet Veha'emunah-LeKhay Olamim: A Yemenite piyyut (sacred poem) with a refrain for Leader and Congregation to be sung before the Amidah. I think this piece is eminently suitable for worship because the congregational refrain is so singable that people would pick it up immediately. It is performed with an arrangement of Middle Eastern instruments that builds as the song goes on.

2. Le’El Adir Neranenah: An Afghani piyyut in alphabetical acrostic for leader and congregational response accompanied with piano, doira (framed drum with jingles) and tar (framed drum). The verses are rhythmic and the response is instantly learnable.

3. Bati Legani: A beautiful melody by Rav Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; the text is from Shir Hashirim. The intimate singing combines with the piano accompaniment in an especially affective rendition.

4. Kinah Lekhurban Gan Eden: Based on the concept ofKinot on Tishah B’Av, this is a lament for the destruction of the earth (an 'eco-lament'). In Hebrew and English, with words and music by Cantor Kaplan, the unaccompanied melody uses Eikha (Book of Lamentations) trop as its inspiration. Here Kaplan does some of his most creative work as a composer and writer.

5. Sephardi Yerushalmi Khatsi Kaddish: The melody is the popular Ladino song, “Cuando El Rey Nimrod.” The accompaniment by oud (pear-shaped lute) and kanun (board zither) is charming.

6. Navah Tehilah: Shokhein Ad is set to an Afghani Folksong in 7/8 meter; this is one of the most interesting of all the settings. Accompanied by mey ? (Turkish double reed) saz (wire-stringed lute), dundun (African talking-drum) and dumbek (hand-held drum), the piece rocks.

7. Hayoshevet Baganim: Set to a text from hir Hashirim, the melody is Yemenite. With only a drum for accompaniment, the music is almost mantra-like. Cantor Kaplan is in his element here with a performance that is truly meditative.

8. Eyn Keloheynu: This is an authentically non-Western approach to the familiar piyyut, its Moroccan melody being worlds apart from the usual four-square tunes heard in most American synagogues. I suspect that without the accompaniment, worshipers would find the melody difficult to follow. That being said, the performance is quite engaging.

9. Modeh Ani/Elohay Neshamah: These two excerpts from Birkhot HaShachar are set to a beautiful Sephardi melody from Salonica that suits both the text and most voices. The performance is full of feeling, with a supple, expressive line and very effective accompaniment on the oud and ney (long, end-blown flute).

10. Eli Shema Koli: The piece opens and ends with an unaccompanied, unmeasured chant from the Sephardi Yerushalmi community. This Moroccan piyyut is sung to the tune of an Algerian freedom song in which the leader intersperses each verse with a chorus that involves the congregation responsively. The accompaniment on accordian, dumbek (chalice-shaped drum), riqq (Arabic tambourine), bendir (Moroccan framed drum), violin and oud gives the song a driving verve.

11. Reb Nachman’s Niggun: Kaplan is at his most captivating in this unaccompanied, meditative niggun of the Bratslaver Rebbe.

12. Hishtapkhut Hanefesh: This is a beautiful rendition of the piece by Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. The Yiddish is beautifully pronounced and the accompaniment by cimbalon, bass, tilinca (Romanian wooden pipe with no finger-holes), baraban (two-skinned drum from the Caucasus played with sticks), and violin is effective. In the accompanying notes, Kaplan identifies the mode as a gypsy doina; in Yiddish it’s known as a volokhl (shepherd’s song in the Ukrainian-Dorian minor mode with characteristically raised fourth and sixth steps).

13. Niggun of the Alter Rebbe: In this deveikut (meditative “clinging-to-God”) niggun by Shneur Zalman of Lyady, who founded the HaBaD branch of Hasidism), Kaplan attains an appropriately devout mood, through his beautiful and deeply felt tone of voice.

14. Ve’erastikh Li: Set to a Salonican melody, this three-part nuptial vow from Hosea is used in daily prayer while wrapping the fingers with the Tefillin shel Yad. Here Kaplan combines vocal sonority, sinuous line and supportive accompaniment into a very moving rendition.

15. El Mistater: Kaplan chants this unaccompanied piyyutfrom the Husyatiner Hasidim without the varied coloration and vocal agility that is so evident on every other track on this recording.

16. Ashrey: This is a jazzy version of the deservedly popular responsive setting for Psalm 145 by Pinchas Spiro. In the middle of it — from Tov HaShem la-kol... through L’-hodi’a livnei ha-adam ...(verses 9-12), Kaplan inserts a Gregorian chant as sung by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata on their recording, The Sacred Bridge: Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe. The chant actually originates in Sephardic practice, as Eric Werner showed so clearly in his book The Sacred Bridge (1955: 419f).

17. Yemeni Shema : This melody is verifiably Yemenite, and Kaplan is once again in his comfort zone—combining his beautiful voice with musical sensibility to create an impressively novel rendition of a familiar text.

18. Grandfather Sang a Song: The prayer ha-ma’ariv aravim (Who brings down the evenings) – from the Evening service — is first chanted in Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) style. That is followed by the personal tale of how Kaplan’s family emigrated to America. The chant then re-emerges in a jazz version interposed with Yiddish. This story of the American Jewish Experience interweaves cultural elements from all over the diaspora, and transforms them into something new and unique.

Richard Kaplan is an artist well worth getting to know. His varied interests and musical acumen make this recording a listening pleasure from beginning to end. Whether accompanied or a cappella, the music is served with a conviction that allows for setting aside one’s critical ear in order to make the journey with Kaplan. Moreover, his innovative melding of piyyut texts with disparate musical traditions points a plausible way toward the re-invigoration of Jewish music generally and Jewish worship in particular.
Cantor Ira Bigeleisen, Journal of Synagogue Music,
Jewish Theological Seminary NY, Fall 2010

Southern California native and Bay Area resident Richard Kaplan, cantor of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, is conversant in the range of Jewish sacred genres from Afghanistan to Yemen, Morocco, Andalusia, Greece, and Eastern Europe. Kaplan’s crystalline baritone enjoys restrained choral backing harmony and understated accompaniment on accordion, clarinet, ney, mandolin, oud, saz, cimbalom, kanun, violin, bass and hand percussion. But Kaplan’s voice remains central, whether self-accompanied on piano, as on “Ashrey” (adapted from Psalms),“Bati Legani” (from the Song of Songs) and “Grandfather Sang a Song” (a jazz-tinged hymn to the immigrant experience), traditional material such as “Sephardi Yerushalmi Khatsi Kaddish” (to the timeless Sephardi folk melody “Avram Avinu”) or in acappella settings. Striking examples of the latter include “Kinah Lekhurban Gan Eden” (Kaplan’s self-described “eco-lament” on the destruction of the Garden of Eden, with a haunting female chorus), the reflective Yemeni text “Hayoshevet Baganim,” and the Hasidic pieces “Reb Nachman’s Niggun,” “Niggun of the Alter Rebbe” and “El Mistater,” the evocative prayer from the Sabbath third meal celebration.
Michael Stone, Global Rhythm Magazine, June 2004

One of the most wonderful qualities of Jewish culture is that it encompasses elements from so many of the world’s traditions. As a people dispersed through virtually all corners of the world, Jews have been unusually privileged to develop a culture of broad diversity that nevertheless manages to express a uniquely Jewish vision. This is nowhere more apparent than in the vast treasury of Jewish sacred music. In recent years, many fine artists have enriched our appreciation of cantorial music, klezmer, Hasidic and neo- Hasidic niggunim, Sephardic ballads, Yemenite chants, and Yiddish songs. Rarely, however, has an artist appeared who could integrate so great a range of Jewish cultural expression as Richard Kaplan.

While he was still in his teens, a friend opened up Kaplan’s musical horizons by playing him recordings from around the world. “I don’t think there is a traditional music on this planet that I can’t take in,” says Kaplan, “but then, I could argue that all of them are part of everyone’s aural DNA.”

Kaplan spent many years as a professor of music at Skyline Community College, teaching a course called “Sacred Musics of the World.” Over time, he was inspired to embark on the cantor’s path, absorbing the traditional liturgy during an apprenticeship with Hazzan (Cantor) Mark Dinkin. In 1997, Kaplan was named Cantor of Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative synagogue in Oakland, California, a position he still holds.

Life of the Worlds lives up to its title by presenting an expansive “worldcentric” view of Jewish spiritual expression. Kaplan, with his sensitive and soulful singing, extensive repertoire, exquisite taste, and meticulous production treats us to melodies from Afghanistan, Morocco, Yemen, Spain, Salonica, Jerusalem, and Eastern Europe. Most of the selections are traditional and Kaplan is faithful to the aesthetics of each source. Not only does he sing each melody in its native style, he has gathered a group of exceptional musicians who accompany him in an authentic and transporting manner. Kaplan seems to have found just the right musician and instrument for each melody and rhythm, whether Afghani or Gypsy. Take, for example, the incredible musicianship of Stuart Brotman and Daniel Hoffman accompanying the Yiddish classic, “Outpouring of the Soul,” attributed to the Hasidic master Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. No less impressive is the remarkable accompaniment of kanun, oud, and saz master Mimi Spencer on the Middle Eastern and Central Asian selections and the beautifully nuanced playing of violinist Jeremy Cohen on “Ve’erastikh Li” (“I Will Betroth You to Me”).

Life of the Worlds is no mere journey through diverse traditions. It is also an expression of the inner spiritual vitality that sustains all worlds and a guide to the One within Whom all worlds arise. Most of the texts are drawn from familiar Jewish liturgy and biblical verses. Several of the most beautiful pieces set verses from the “Song of Songs” to supporting melodies, including a particularly lovely version of “Bati LeGani” (“I Came to My Garden”), composed by Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi. Reb Zalman is also the source for a very rare Husyatin Hasidic musical rendering of the mystical hymn“El Mistater” (“The Self-Concealed One”). Kaplan also takes us with him on deeper contemplative journeys via wordless niggunim by Rebbe Nachman and Chabad Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Lyadi. Complementing the introspective and devotional selections are rhythmic hymns of praise that arouse wholebody devotion, like the irresistible Afghani “Navah Tehilah” (“It is Lovely to Praise”) in 7/8 meter.

Of special note is an “eco-lament” (a term Kaplan coined for an “ecological lament”), which is based on traditional Eastern European melodies for Tisha b’Av, a festival which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies in Jewish history. Kaplan here expands the concept of “temple” to represent Gaia (Mother Earth), and weaves the ancient tunes into an emotionally powerful dirge entitled “Lament on the Destruction of the Garden of Eden.”

Life of the Worlds is a remarkable recording. The production includes Hebrew and Yiddish texts as well as transliterations and creative translations. The performances by Kaplan and his accompanying master musicians are consistently stellar. This is a collection of sacred music of the highest order, guaranteed to delight and move in so many different ways. It is a recording that one may turn to for inspiration, to learn new ways of expressing old prayers, or just for fun.
Miles Krassen, Tikkun, September 2004

"A remarkable album of mostly sacred music from a cantor. From the full range of Jewish traditions, this is essentially Jewish world music. Kaplan's own vocal and piano work is arresting, but he's supported by an excellent cast, although they're used sparingly - which only increases the emotional effect of the disc. Heavily annotated (which is a good thing) it's an album that absorbs the listener completely into a world that manages to be both ancient and modern at the same time. Perhaps one of the best records concerning the Jewish Diaspora."
Global Village Idiot, January 2004

"Kaplan fills the songs with such sparks that they awaken a spiritual feeling in the listener...
The album can be appreciated by those looking for a more complex spiritual Jewish music, those looking for alternative arrangements of chestnuts like Eyn Keloheynu, or for new music to sing at services. Definitely recommended."
Aaron Howard, Jewish Herald-Voice, December 2003

In his new CD, “Life of the Worlds,” Cantor Richard Kaplan goes around the Jewish world in 80 minutes, showcasing the amazing variety of the Jewish musical ecosystem. Subtitled “Journeys in Jewish Sacred Music,” the new disc indeed conveys intense spirituality, not only in the selected material but in the vocal performances as well, sung in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. Drawn from musical traditions born in such far-flung locales as Morocco, Yemen, Salonica and Afghanistan, the CD is itself a form of hallel, or praise Some tracks blend multiple traditions, but Kaplan — a globetrotting ethnomusicologist (and cantor at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham) — is ever respectful and knows how to cobble. Moreover, with his soothingly golden voice, he conveys the appropriate prayerful solemnity. The dude sings with kavanah — soul.

The disc kicks off with a Yemeni song, “Ha’Aderet Veha’emunah.” For the uninitiated, the exotic tone of Jewish music from Arab lands seems utterly different from the familiar Ashkenazi melodic minor scale, but it is certainly beautiful. Other North African tracks, like “Hayoshet Baganim,” “Eyn Keloheynu,” and the frenzied “Eli Shema Koli,” feature Kaplan accompanied by all kinds of instruments you probably have never heard of, but the spirit translates into any language of the heart. “Le’El Adir Neranenah” and “Navah Tehilah,” with their syncopated rhythms and vocal peculiarities must have been difficult to sing, but Kaplan makes it seem easy. It’s certainly easy on the ears. Some are sung a cappella or nearly so. “Bati Legani” is a Chassidic melody charmingly arranged for voice and piano. “Reb Nachman’s Niggun” and “Niggun of the Alter Rebbe” are a nod to Ashkenazi tradition, which, as is made clear from this album, grew out of deeper African roots. One track, an Iberian-flavored Sephardic rendition of the Chatzi Kaddish, coveys the feeling of a hot sirocco blowing in from Africa through the synagogue doors. “Kinah Lekhurban Gan Eden” is a wistful song based on melodies sung on Tisha B’Av.

Two tracks are particularly ambitious. “El Mistater” is a seven-minute musical triptych into the Kaballah, complete with the chanting of the sefirot and, in the CD’s 32-page booklet, a cogent explanation. It’s not the most tuneful track, but it says something about his command of Judaic idioms that he could put the piece together so seamlessly. Most impressive is the final track, “Grandfather Sang a Song,” a multiethnic suite that unites the many strands that came before into a striking musical tableau. Alternating from chazzan to jazz singer, Kaplan runs the gamut of his grandfather’s world, riffing in Hebrew, English, Yiddish and Spanish. The jazz piano trio section echoes the soul and R&B music world Kaplan inhabited as a young man long ago, but he’s still got the chops. This is the kind of CD to play when you deliberately want to shut the door, kill the lights and journey to interior worlds. Richard Kaplan is the perfect tour guide.
Dan Pine, J.Weekly, April 2004

"Cantorials of a very different sort fill this second album by the engaging Richard Kaplan. You may recognize the names of some of these songs from your prayerbook, but through Kaplan, they revisit their exotic past. Eighteen tracks explore Jewish spirituality, from its most ancient musical sources. Extensive notes delve into the origins of Jewish mysticism and how it found expression in music. Anyone seeking a deeper meaning in Jewish faith — or just some great globe-encompassing world music played on oud, tar, and kanun — is invited on these "Journeys in Jewish Sacred Music," as the collection is subtitled."
Paul Wieder, Jewish World Review, December 2003

"Grandfather Sang a Song," the last track on Life of the Worlds, is one of the greatest things
I have ever heard!"
Jim Helman - Record Producer, Composer and Musician, July 2003

Reviews for Tuning the Soul

"I love this recording! Kaplan and Ziegler have drawn on numerous sacred and folk music traditions, Jewish and otherwise, to find new or neglected settings for Jewish liturgical texts. The result is an album of haunting, moving music performed by both men and a cast of superb guest musicians. Especially recommended to those who love the sounds of Middle Eastern music, the dominant flavor in this mix." Rating: 5 stars *****
George Robinson, New York Jewish Week, October 1999

"It's a moving peice of work. It deals with states of mind that I'll enjoy visiting for years to come."
Stuart Brotman, Brave Old World

"Tuning the Soul is one of the most transcendent works you'll hear. The music itself reaches both inward and upward."
JUF News Chicago, June 2000

"Richard Kaplan and Michael Ziegler have produced that rare recording which makes the new holy and renews the old. Tuning the Soul provides a superb antidote to the mediocrity of syrupy or campy American Jewish music and a great way to get back into the sheer power
of our traditional music. We are both a European and Middle Eastern people and we can truly
feel it here!"
Jonathan Seidel, Tikkun

"Richard Kaplan and Michael Ziegler have the Arabic maqamat (tonal organizations) down
cold. They convey a clear sense of that Mizrachi inner world... it's enough to get this album and tune your own soul toward the sacred."
Aaron Howard, Jewish Herald-Voice, January 2000

Reviews about RICHARD KAPLAN

"I like his music!"
McCoy Tyner, Jazz master

"... Putting his all into every turn of phrase."
OP Magazine

"A fine artist. I couldn't believe it - the versatility, the different styles, the different languages, the different instruments, the enormous talent - but most impressive was the soul."
Naomi Newman, Co-founder A Traveling Jewish Theater [concert review]

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