The Hidden One: Jewish Mystical Songs (2009)
This recording contains a collection of musical pieces that are intended as vehicles
for spiritual practice. I have found them to be very efficacious and transformative
as such over the past few years, and continue to use them in my daily meditation
and davenen (prayer) practice.
In several pieces, the term HaVaYaH is used as a vocalization of the Tetragrammaton—
the Ineffable Divine Name of four letters—YHVH (Yud Hey Vav Hey), usually
pronounced Adonay. This name is often translated as “Is-Was-Will Be,” as it
contains within it three forms of the Hebrew verb “to be,” Yihyeh (will be), Hoveh
(is), and Hayah (was). HaVaYaH means “existence” in Modern Hebrew, but in Jewish
mystical circles, it is used to denote That Which is transcendent, immanent,
omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient.
On the CD’s cover is a painting by my dear late friend, Dr. Michael Sgan-Cohen.
Michael was a wonderful Israeli-born artist, philosopher, art critic, teacher, and
musician of whom it was once said: “To the secular he’s religious, and to the
religious, he’s secular.” Michael loved Torah and Kabbalah, the Hebrew language,
and the geography of the Holy land, and used these themes in his works, which
he meant to be “visual meditations” or, as he called them, “visible silences,” works
that would spark contemplation on the mysteries of existence. His painting Dimui
Kaful (Double Image), Acrylic and Mirror on Canvas, 1984 is a perfect example of
Over each of the five fingers appears the name of one of the “five souls” taught
by the Jewish Mystical Tradition (see CD track 13), and in the mirror is half of a
photographed face—that of yours truly. The original painting, which graces the
cover of this booklet, has a rendering of the painter’s face in the mirror, but his son
Malachi kindly granted me permission to make this change. Malachi told me “You
only see half of yourself in a mirror.” Yes, unveiling and revealing the concealed!
For verily, the “five souls,” the hidden consciousness in our bodies, hearts, minds
and higher regions, is invisible. The quest to discover, identify with, and finally to
live from this “Higher Self ” is the work of a lifetime. “Looking in the mirror” of
What? by What? for What? in the “image” of What?….
In several pieces, the term HaVaYaH is used as a vocalization of the Tetragrammaton— the Ineffable Divine Name of four letters—YHVH (Yud Hey Vav Hey), usually pronounced Adonay. This name is often translated as “Is-Was-Will Be,” as it contains within it three forms of the Hebrew verb “to be,” Yihyeh (will be), Hoveh (is), and Hayah (was). HaVaYaH means “existence” in Modern Hebrew, but in Jewish mystical circles, it is used to denote That Which is transcendent, immanent, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient.
On the CD’s cover is a painting by my dear late friend, Dr. Michael Sgan-Cohen. Michael was a wonderful Israeli-born artist, philosopher, art critic, teacher, and musician of whom it was once said: “To the secular he’s religious, and to the religious, he’s secular.” Michael loved Torah and Kabbalah, the Hebrew language, and the geography of the Holy land, and used these themes in his works, which he meant to be “visual meditations” or, as he called them, “visible silences,” works that would spark contemplation on the mysteries of existence. His painting Dimui Kaful (Double Image), Acrylic and Mirror on Canvas, 1984 is a perfect example of this genre.
Over each of the five fingers appears the name of one of the “five souls” taught by the Jewish Mystical Tradition (see CD track 13), and in the mirror is half of a photographed face—that of yours truly. The original painting, which graces the cover of this booklet, has a rendering of the painter’s face in the mirror, but his son Malachi kindly granted me permission to make this change. Malachi told me “You only see half of yourself in a mirror.” Yes, unveiling and revealing the concealed! For verily, the “five souls,” the hidden consciousness in our bodies, hearts, minds and higher regions, is invisible. The quest to discover, identify with, and finally to live from this “Higher Self ” is the work of a lifetime. “Looking in the mirror” of What? by What? for What? in the “image” of What?….
A Musical Journey into Sacred Consciousness
The CD presents the first American recordings of a Husyattiner (Polish Hasidic) version of the extended Kabbalistic song El Mistater,
a Khatsi Kaddish performed the way it is often heard in Jerusalem (set to the tune of a famous Sephardic folksong called Avram Avinu), the rousing
Other notable pieces include the ecological lament Kinah Lekhurban Gan Eden ("Lament on the Destruction of the Garden of Eden") as well as an authentic Carpathian arrangement of the Yiddish song "Outpouring of the Heart" ( Hishtapkhut Hanefesh).
Among the wonderful musicians on the recording is found the voice of the first Moroccan woman rabbi in the history of the earth, Rabbi Tsipi Gabbai! Members of such accomplished Klezmer bands as Brave Old World and the San Francisco Klezmer Ensemble appear on the CD, as well as master musicians from Egypt, Morocco, Israel, and the United States.
The CD was born of my deep respect for traditional Jewish music, my delight in singing it, and a desire to, as Rav Abraham Isaac Kook puts it, "make the old new."
Richard Kaplan gave this interview in late 2003,
RK - That’s such a simple and yet difficult question. On some level, I just sang. We had a very musical family, one which actually sang together fairly often – grandparents and all. My older brother was a professional musician at an early age and I followed suit. But I was eventually faced with situations and opportunities that demanded skills I did not yet possess. I went after them, with varying degrees of success. Sight-singing was a very difficult undertaking, until I used a numbering system for scale degrees. But most musical subjects were a source of great interest to me – a labor of love. Music history, musical analysis, counterpoint, harmony all came very naturally.
And somehow, I was born with an appreciation for the world’s music - from Korean to Mongolian to Tibetan to Shinto to Turkish et al. It is an odd thing, but don’t think there is a traditional music on this planet that I can’t take in, but then, I could argue that they are all in our aural DNA somewhere. I loved music, and was fortunate enough to be able to make a living doing something I loved. I don’t believe that we were put on this planet to be miserable from 9-5 for 50 years.
CR - What attracted you to these particular traditions and how did you go about making them your own?
RK - With repeated listenings. Sometimes in the car or while cooking, I would saturate myself in musical traditions that made me feel that big “YES!” - they excited something in my nervous system and emotional world. It’s funny, when I was teaching world music courses at the college level, I would spend a week on the music of Burma, six weeks on classical Japanese music, four weeks on Native American traditions, et cetera. I went on this way once for two solid years, week to week, never once repeating a culture. Eventually it dawned on me, “Hey, how about Jewish ethnomusicology?
Did your interest in Jewish music and your return to Judaism coincide? How was your experience different from other Jews of your generation?
RK - I was always interested in Jewish music, but didn’t delve into the sacred music that much until re-connecting with a Jewish practice. There is, sadly, too often an antipathy towards one’s own ancestry. I had to do a lot of healing regarding my roots and family, and investigated other religious traditions in the meantime. Finally, the door opened and I was free to embrace a fabulous worldwide inheritance of Jewish music and spirituality.
I feel the overly rational emphasis found in mainstream places of worship needs a paradigm shift. So, the baby-with-the-bathwater response by many young folks is understandable. Slowly, meditation and mysticism are finding their way back into Jewish observance, as is the recognition of the need for a daily spiritual practice. Also, in reaction to the Holocaust, many of my generation just wanted to assimilate.
CR - How has your extensive background in early music helped you perform Jewish music (ie - Sephardic, Mizrachi) styles with a heavy Middle Eastern-based component?
RK - The Dutch historian Huizinga, in his book The Waning of the Middle Ages, once asked the reader to imagine how much more attuned Medieval populations must have been to the natural world – a fire, the wind, or “a single, distant cry.” Somehow, surviving early music masterpieces still carry primal apprehensions of reality and heightened states of awareness. Many Renaissance polyphonic works were based upon the same mathematical ratios used by the great Renaissance painters, achieving what they considered to be a music of the spheres. And you feel it in their musical expressions, even in early organum and isorhythmic motets. There is a sense of romance in the best sense of the word – almost a musical shamanism – it’s incredibly evocative, sensual, intuitive, and sensitizing.
Also, modes commonly found in early music and the dastgah-ha, ragas, makamat (from Persia, India, and the Middle East) all devolve from a musical mysticism believed to contain psycho-spiritual elements and often, they are even associated with specific seasons and times of day. These traditions certainly have ancient roots, and I think they touch our sense-knowledge and sense-longing, so wounded by post-modern life. I remember when I was immersed in Indian classical vocal music and studying with the Pakistani khyal master Salamat Ali Khan, if I listened to a winter evening raga on a summer morning, it would feel viscerally wrong! So, the music of various Middle Eastern cultures and much of the early music repertoire are still capable of revealing ancient aural wisdoms and perceptions.
CR - How do you stay loose and avoid becoming too academic?
RK - Hazrat Inayat Khan used to say that “politeness is dead art.” I remember a musicology professor of mine calling Antonio Vivaldi a “mere musician” – not a scholar. I recall reading of Beethoven’s disgust toward academic “sphinctoral contractedness” among the “knowers.” I don’t know, once you’ve encountered great jazz as played by free-form improvisational geniuses like John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, how uptight can you be? Once you’ve come across great humorists, satirists and dancers, how academic can you be? And once you’ve met academics who are alive, loving, passionate, and involved in life, people and politics, how uptight can you be? The Jewish tradition teaches that all learning should be put into action, into living prayer, into a compassion practice. I thank G-d that I have scholar friends who are some of the funniest, most down-to-earth, soulful people you would ever want to meet, yet can write amazingly precise and detailed bibliographies and footnotes!
CR - How did you decide upon your instrumentation and pick your collaborators?
RK - I let the individual song and its origin make many of the decisions for me. But today, we also find ourselves attracted to “combinative” world music situations, so I might
use some Moroccan clay drums on a Yemenite song, for instance. But I must say, by and large, I used instruments from the music-culture germane to a given piece. The gypsy cimbalom
was used by the Jews of the Eastern Europe, and I used this, along with the traditional balaban (Klezmer drum set) on the Yiddish folk song Outpouring of the Heart
(Hishtapkhut Hanefesh) on the recording, along with Klezmer violin stylings by Daniel Hoffman of the San Francisco Klezmer Experience. But, others have an “ethno-jazz”
flavor, and piano and bass are used. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of those places with an abundance of great ethnic musicians, and I gladly drew from this wonderful resource.
The album also has ney, kanun, dumbek, tar, riqq, tilinca, doira, clarinet, violin, mey, saz, oud, and Egyptian accordion dispersed throughout
CR - How did you go about choosing the individual tracks and why?
RK - Well, first of all, I had incredible sacred poetry to work with!
Track 1- To The Life of the Worlds (LeKhay Olamim) has such a mind-expanding text! A great Rabbi of the later part of the last century, Aryeh Kaplan, used to ask folks “where does 2+2=4 exist?” And it is everywhere, from in front of one’s nose to the furthest reaches of the universe. But it also exists nowhere – that is – beyond time and space. Rabbi Kaplan used this analogy to lead the mind toward an apprehension of what might be called the “G-d principle,” which, like this simple formula, exists beyond time and space, and yet is everywhere.
So, the text of To The Life of The Worlds has us meditate on many powerful divine attributes, all set to a syncopated Yemenite melody that I put into an iqa (Middle Eastern rhythmic pattern) called mafuf. The call-and-response texture represents an exchange between an archangel (the soloist) and a praiseful choir of angels. This leads to a profound feeling of shared praise and immersion in consciousness-stretching abstractions. It’s what my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi refers to as “socialized meditation.”
Track 2 - This is the first American recording of an Afghani Jewish tune called Le’El Adir Neranenah. Interestingly, it has a poly-rhythmic feeling of 3 against 2. I added a refrain to the original tune and when we sing it with a large chorus, it becomes quite ecstatic. I’m trying to bring this kind of intense joy back into congregational settings. The Middle Eastern and Hasidic communities never lost this, but in my view, much of the American Jewish worship experience has fallen victim to an overly pragmatic, rationalistic, and utilitarian approach that first arose in “Enlightenment” Europe. In the end, however, perhaps it is a matter of temperament and taste, but it’s not my way.
Track 3 – Bati Legani has to be one of the most gorgeous Hasidic melodies ever composed, a “holy waltz” based on texts from the Song of Songs. The melody possesses an innerness that so beautifully reflects the sense of divine immanence and indwelling suggested by various interpretations of this famous sacred poem.
Track 4 - The saddest day in the Jewish calendar is a festival (called such because tears shed on this day water the seeds of a longed-for global consciousness, of oneness and reverence for all Creation) known as Tisha be’Av (the ninth of the month of Av – which falls in the dog days of summer). It commemorates major tragedies in Jewish history – such as the destruction of the Two Temples in Jerusalem. It is said the Expulsion from Spain began on Tisha be’Av. This festival has its own special laments, known in Hebrew as kinot (kinah is the singular).
While looking through these texts one day I came across one that had the First Temple singing in the first person - “Alas, my walls have been breached, my holiness desecrated.” And it was in a female voice called the shekhinah, or divine feminine presence.
I used this concept to lament the distress of our larger temple – Gaia – the Earth Mother, and composed a lament with Her singing in the first person as well, and called it Lament on the Destruction of the Garden of Eden. (Over the years I had been dreaming of a global lament on behalf of the planet. Imagine 100,000 people in a stadium, weeping empathically with the pain of the Earth).
So, I set my verses to a couple of these traditional Eastern European lament melodies, but the middle section is based on chanting forms from the Book of Lamentations, which is a scroll particular to the liturgy of Tisha be’Av. The Book of Lamentations is attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah, hence the opening lines of my lament, “....and Jeremiah wept.” I worked on this piece over a period of years, re-sculpting it until satisfied. I coined a term to describe this genre of song, I call it an eco-lament, or ecological lament.
I sang this piece a couple of Earth Days ago for 3000 folks at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral as part of an ecumenical consortium offering prayers, poetry, and dances on behalf of our planet – the experience of a lifetime! May hearing it become less infrequent, and over time, may it no longer be necessary!
Track 5 - This is the first recording that I know of in the Americas of the Half Kaddish prayer set to
Track 6 - I fell in love with this song when I was 19 years old and collecting the ground-breaking UNESCO series, Music of the World. The Afghani album contained a tune called Chant of Farkhar, in 7/8 meter, that is one of my all-time favorites. Using the methodology of 16th century Jewish mystics, I put a Hebrew text to the tune and came out with a new song of praise. George Chittenden, a local Balkan music master, played the mey (a Turkish duduk – large double reed), and Mimi Spencer played saz on the track. At the bottom of the texture, is yours truly playing my lifelong friend Bobby Franks’ Steinway Grand. Crossover! “May My House be a House of Prayer for All Peoples!”
Track 7 - Sufi chanting inspired Hayoshevet Baganim. We back-miced the tar (frame drum) and
- Again, this the first recording in the Americas of a Moroccan version of the popular hymn Eyn Keloheynu. The melody constantly uses phrases that end by sitting on the flatted 2nd degree of its scale (doubly-flatted actually when performed properly in the modal tuning of Makam Hijaz). Israeli ney player Amit Bleiweiss was fortunately in the Bay Area with his fiancée at the time, and gave a great performance. I re-arranged this tune from an old, out of tune and barely comprehensible track from a Westminster set of recordings called In Israel Today, which was produced by the Bengali ethnomusicologist Deben Bhattacharya.
Track 9 - It’s a song about the soul-breath, and the ney performance brings out this Breath of All Life feeling. It is the first appearance of the ud on the CD. I love the magical simplicity of these Sephardic tunes; their subtle asymmetrical phrasings take the melody to extraordinary levels of grace.
Track 10 – Eli Shema Koli features vocals and zagarids (glottalizations) by the first Moroccan woman Rabbi in the history of the earth, Tsipi Gabbai. It also features Moroccan riqq and dumbek. Percussionist and violinist Bouchaib Abdelhadi brought his sweet 9-year old daughter to the recording session, and she was having so much fun with the headphones on, listening to her daddy record. After she left, I wept to think how ashamed the adults on all sides in the Middle East should be of themselves, in respect to the kind of world they are giving over to these precious innocents! Alas....
Track 11 - It took many takes to achieve the kind of “inner kneeling” that its author, the wild and spiritually virtuosic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, suggested.
Track 12 - This is a Carpathian arrangement of an Eastern European Yiddish para-liturgical (outside of the standard liturgy) song by a great hasidic rabbi, Menakhem Mendel of Vitebsk. Stuart Brotman from the klezmer band Brave Old World had a major hand in the arrangement, especially in the second up-tempo section with its addition of the Rumanian shepherd’s flute, tilinca. The balaban (klezmer drum set) gives an almost New Orleans funeral band feeling to the opening slow sections of the song.
Track 13 – The author was said to float around the room in his chair – a few feet above the ground – when davvening (prayerfully chanting) this niggun (song without words), called Ya’aleh. It took 23 tries before getting a version I could live with on this one - the correct intention exists on a razor’s edge.
Track 14 – This Salonican tune features a wonderful early-music-nuanced messa di voce which is heard in the violin-playing of maestro Jeremy Cohen. It was inspired by Thomas Binkley’s seminal Grand Prix du Disque-winning album of medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut’s Ballades. I love poetry when it is recited over an instrumental melody; the Machaut recording is a great example of this.
Track 15- The song El Mistater was a piece I worked on over three years. After its third recording session, I finally got the approval of its bearer to the shores of North America, my beloved teacher and friend, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I had finally achieved the balance of "making it your own" and "getting out of the way" (what the Jewish mystics call Bittul haYesh – the elimination of your "somethingness" - or what Reb Zalman likes to call, your "transparency to G!d." (This balance is also what Reb Nachman of Breslov calls "the narrow bridge.")
Reb Zalman fell in love with this piece and as he told me, "dedicated himself to it" while in Brussels in 1939, before he barely escaped the Shoah. He went every week to the Sabbath Third Meal services of a Polish hasidic group known as the Husyattiners until he had memorized it - a remarkable feat - as the piece is seven minutes long, with its own melody for each of the ten sefirot (Divine Emanations). It is wonderful to davven El Mistater while wearing tefillin (prayer boxes) in the morning.
I feel this piece is a very important contribution of the CD – a gift for daily Jewish spiritual practice.
Track 16 – Ashrey was another tune that was many years in the crafting. It's not at all easy to sing – constructed upon a deceptively simple opening and closing melody. Inspiration: the Indian ragamalika (garland of ragas) – several modes and melodies woven together.
Track 17 – My friend Michael Ziegler and I were experimenting and having fun and eventually came up a hip way to sing one of the most famous verses in the Jewish canon!
Track 18 – I’ve been singing and re-writing Grandfather Sang a Song since its birth in 1980. Thank G-d it has finally been recorded! Yiddish Jazz! I used to play it in Manhattan clubs a lot and folks really liked it. I so appreciate Stu Brotman’s bass playing on this track, especially his use of the instrument to imitate the sound of the docks of New York’s Ellis Island in the opening English lyrics of the tune.
I am greatly thankful to a wonderful man, Ray Gatchalian, a retired Oakland firefighter, social activist and children’s activist, who had a huge soul. At a party a while back, he said to me “you have got to record that song!” Ray had a shaman-like way of inspiring folks to realize their dreams. Because of him, I could no longer put off recording this song. Sadly, Ray died just weeks before this CD was released, in a road accident while making a film about impoverished children in Chile. Bless his soul - some folks can hold and love thousands of other souls. He was such a one.
CR - If you could magically communicate one idea or concept to people of all faiths, what would it be?
RK - That all of the world’s spiritual traditions share a central body of universal wisdom embedded in their “outer” forms. Each “mainstream” tradition has its “inner” strain, for Islam the Sufis, for Jews the Kabbalists, for Hindus the Vedantists (to name just one Indian “inner” tradition). We have much more in common than not, and must emphasize these commonalities now, or risk all that we hold dear. It is truly time for what has been called a “deep ecumenism.”
CR - Anything else you’d like to discuss?
RK - It is very gratifying that many of the songs on Life of the Worlds are already being used at
Ivdu et HaShem besimkha! – Serve the Source of All with joy !!
Tuning the Soul: Worlds of Jewish Sacred Music (1999)
We have placed a special emphasis on Mizrachi music, whose tonalities often sound “out of tune” to the Western ear, but whose subtle inflections of intonation and melody can become captivating when one grants them open-eared listenings. This is the world of makam, an Arabic word that means “a place from which to rise.” It is related to the Hebrew word makom, meaning “place.” Makam is a system of tonal organization, similar to others found in Asia and the Middle East, such as the Indian raga, (meaning “emotional coloration”). More than just the series of pitches that make up its “scale,” a makam has a “musical personality,” with its peculiarities of movement, hierarchy of tones, ornamentations, and psycho-spiritual aspects. Some common makamat (plural) are Hijaz, Rast, Bayati, Nahawand, and Ajam. In Mizrachi and Sephardic communities, different makamat are used each week to chant the Sabbath prayers, giving tremendous musical variety to their services.
In addition, we present several re-workings of traditional Middle Eastern folksongs, following the methodology of 16th century Safed (Israel) mystics, who took regional melodies and, as they believed, “raised them up” by marrying them to sacred Hebrew poetry.
“Sacred music” has many faces. We use this term to refer to music used in the context of spiritual and religious life. A prayer may express praise, gratitude, petition, or supplication. All of these varieties of intention are found in our recording.
The Hasidim of Eastern Europe gave birth to a musical genre that is very dear to us – the niggun, (Hebrew for “melody”). A niggun may or may not have a text. It is impressive that even when they have no words, these prayerful melodies can invoke our innermost contemplative and devotional sensibilities. A niggun is commonly sung for long periods of time, to open the heart, spark the imagination, reach ecstasy, and at the conclusion of its singing, to bring about absolute silence – known in Hebrew as ayin. This profound state of quietude is compared by Jewish mystics to the “primordial nothingness” out of which universes are born. We have included two examples of these “wordless prayers”: Niggun of the Besht and The Rav’s Niggun.
The majority of the texts heard on this recording come from the Siddur (Jewish Prayer Book), which is a compilation of prayer, sacred poetry, and prose that has evolved over the centuries. The Siddur exists in many forms, and we have drawn from Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Mizrachi Siddurim (plural) for this project. Most of these collections share similar material, but have significant variations.
May music attune us to the sacredness within all of Creation.
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