Jeremiah Lockwood comes from a family of cantors, spiritual leaders who lead Jewish congregations in prayer and song. His grandfather, the late Jacob Konigsberg, served as a cantor in several cities and performed in concerts outside religious services, always hoping to inspire people with liturgical music.
Not surprisingly, Lockwood would incorporate cantorial music into his band, The Sway Machinery, and wrote his dissertation on Chasidic singers in Brooklyn, who sing in a manner reminiscent of the golden age of cantorial music, which began in the 1920s. The virtuosos of that era looked like they were singing opera at times, but also improvised during solos.
The same can be said for those in present-day Brooklyn.
“It’s astonishing,” Lockwood said of the Brooklyn cantors’ ability to master the vocal techniques of the early 20th century. “Forget the questions about creativity versus imitation, the fact that they are physically capable of doing this is simply shocking.”
“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 school and learned how to play Charlie Parker by just fiddling around with a saxophone in their rooms at night.”
While in high school, Lockwood stumbled upon a YouTube video of singers in an informal Chasidic chant known as a kumzita kind of cantorial jam where the solos are given with the point of the finger.
The video inspired Lockwood to produce the new album The Golden Age: The Revival of Brooklyn’s Chassidic Cantorial Todaywhich was recorded at Dapton Records, an analog recording facility known for soul music.
Three of the six singers on the album went with Lockwood to perform at the Jewish Culture Festival in Poland in late June, 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 singers on his electric guitar.
One of the singers who performed in Krakow, Yanky Lemmer, explained that as a child and teenager growing up in the Chasidic community, he didn’t have much entertainment other than what was considered “kosher.” These families often do not have a television or internet connection available to the children.
“Cantorial music is one of them [kosher] things,” he said. “Oh, let me get into that. This is interesting, this is different”.
Lemmer said when he improvises during services, it’s “one of the most special feelings in the world.”
“When you start improvising and it works, there’s a feeling of, ‘Wow, this is something that comes from me.’ I’m not even doing that,” Lemmer said.
Lemmer, one of the world’s most popular singers, leads services at the prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and has performed everywhere from the Catskills to Australia. He credits YouTube for putting him on the map. After uploading the first video of him performing 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 singers involved in the project, Shimmy Miller, is the son of Benzion Miller, who leads services one Saturday a month at a congregation in the Borough Park neighborhood. That service runs for three to four hours and everything is improvised on the spot. Lockwood, who participates in the choir, called the experience “musically challenging.”
“After one of those services, I’m always ready to collapse,” Lockwood said.
The claim that a revival of cantorial music is underway is not embraced by all the singers on the new album.
“This is not really a revival, so much as a dying gasp,” said Yoel Kohn, a former member of the Satmar Chasidic community. “I don’t know if there will be enough interest to continue this indefinitely as a dark genre of music like baroque music.”
But Hankus Netsky, a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, believes what’s happening with the Brooklyn cantors could be both a transition and a rebirth of the genre.
“I think Jeremiah Lockwood is an arbiter between the generation that is seeing cantorial music die in the congregation and the new generation that is seeing the potential of cantorial music to be rediscovered,” Netsky said.
Lockwood fervently believes that these “young” singers (the oldest is 46) deserve to be discovered.
“These guys are brilliant singers, brilliant artists and they’re so underground that no one has heard of them,” he said. “I wanted to create an opportunity for them to be able to do what they are the best in the world, and I wasn’t sure who the audience would be or if there would be an audience for it.”
of The Golden Age the album is available as both a digital download and vinyl LP.