Tag Archives: Book Review

Musical Exodus (Book Review)

Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas, edited by Ruth F. Davis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 220 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

If music is the “Jew” of Jewish studies, as musicologist Edwin Seroussi contends, then Sephardic Jewish music is the “Jew of the Jew” of Jewish studies. Not only is it a marginalized topic, as music generally is, but it also suffers from an Ashkenazi bias, which permeates all of Jewish studies. Ruth F. Davis’s edited anthology, Musical Exodus, strives to fill in the oft-neglected picture. It collects ten research papers on musical subjects related to “Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas,” the title of a 2008 colloquium of the International Council of Traditional Music held at Cambridge University, which forms the basis of the book.

Following an informative introduction by Davis, Dwight F. Reynolds outlines the complex and multifarious cultural, religious, and musical backgrounds that gave rise to Arabo-Andalusian music (music of medieval Muslim Spain, “al-Andalus” in Arabic). Vanessa Paloma Elbaz examines the subtle integration of “feminine” vernacular songs into male-dominated worship services in Tangier, Morocco. Daniel Jütte looks at the role of Jewish musicians and dance instructors as cultural intermediaries between Jews and Christians in Renaissance Italy. Piergabriele Mancuso describes the cultural makeup of the Sabbatini, a group of southeastern Italian Catholic farmers who claimed to be “children of Israel,” encountered Italian Jewry, formally converted to Judaism, and migrated to Israel en masse in 1950. Philip V. Bohlman describes how images of al-Andalus as a model of religious and cultural tolerance became symbolic for Enlightenment Jews in Europe. John Morgan O’Connell connects the exclusion of indigenous Jewish musicians in early Republican Turkey to the ousting of Eastern (Ottoman) aesthetics, and the assertion of Western culture. Jonathan H. Shannon explores the contradictory silence surrounding Jewish musicians in Syria, and the persistence of “Jewish fingers”—a hand gesture in Syrian musical practice developed by Yacoub Ghazala, a Jewish musician whose memory officials have worked to erased. Tony Langlois discusses Jewish commercial musicians in the port city of Oran, Algeria, who performed an eclectic style known as chanson Oranaise between the 1930s and 50s. Carmel Raz considers the secular revival of piyyutim (liturgical poetry with roots in al-Andalus) in modern-day Israel as a means of bridging secular and sacred and Mizrahi/Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Edwin Seroussi surveys Hebrew Andalusian poetry unique to Jews of Tripoli, Libya and Djerba, Tunisia. Stephen Blum’s afterword urges further investigation into cultural interactions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in al-Andalus and elsewhere.

Each exploration is richly detailed and defies adequate illustration here. As with any edited volume, some chapters are better presented than others, some fit better within the overarching subject, and some are of more inherent interest to the reader. (These observations are, of course, subjective.) Nevertheless, the book’s expansive timeframe, dispersed geographies, and widely varied musical traditions paint a composite portrait—by way of case study—of a vibrant and multi-layered area of Jewish music, history, and culture.

From this sundry material emerges four recurring themes of special interest to this reviewer. First is the pervasive myth of Jewish life in al-Andalus as a “golden age.” As with any romanticized period, medieval Spain was not quite as glorious as the romanticists claim. Both Davis and Bohlman trace the myth to Enlightenment Jews in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, who saw al-Andalus as a paradigm of ideals they cherished: equality, religious tolerance, and cross-cultural interaction. Davis writes: “Pitting an idealized Islamic tradition of tolerance against the grim realities of European anti-Semitism, they constructed a ‘historical myth’ of an interfaith utopia under medieval Islamic rule, which they presented as a challenge to Christian Europe and as a strategy to improve their own position” (p. xv). The myth was later taken up by Arab academics and journalists, who blamed Zionism for turning Arabs against Jews. Jewish historians countered with earlier evidence of intolerance and persecution in Arab lands and the founding books of Islam. Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries used the “counter-myth” of persecution to align themselves with downtrodden Ashkenazi Jews, and “claim an equal share of the Zionist dream” (p. xvi). Naturally, each myth and counter-myth exhibits degrees of cherry-picking for political purposes.

A second theme is oral transmission. According to Reynolds, “Because musical notation was not in use in Muslim Spain, we possess a wide variety of historical sources about medieval Andalusian music but not the music itself….On the other hand, the large number of living musical traditions that claim some sort of descent from the music of medieval Muslim Spain does allow us—with great care and very judiciously—to navigate at times back and forth between medieval historical documents and modern living traditions and to come to an approximate understanding of the basic structures of medieval Arabo-Andalusian music” (pp. 3-4). This helps to explain both the diversity and continuity within and between various idioms expressive of an “Arab style.” With reliance on generational transfer rather than written notation, these traditions could develop and flourish in a variety of directions without losing a fundamental link to the past.

The third area is the role of poetry. In the classical conception, Arab music was not considered an independent art form, but a vehicle for sung poetry. Thus, melodic construction was largely dictated by the rhythms, meters, and forms of Arabic poetry (essentially a form of logogeneic, or word-born, music). Because of this more or less stable linguistic foundation, the “Arab style” could accept expanding influences from Byzantine, Persian, African, and other sources without losing its aesthetic signatures.

Fourth, and most central, is hybridity. Again quoting Reynolds: “Over a period of nine centuries, from 711 to 1610, there is evidence of professional musicians from a variety of different ethnic, religious, and regional origins performing diverse musical traditions before patrons and audiences of diverse backgrounds. There is also good evidence for understanding the music itself (and not just the music makers) as a very cosmopolitan tradition that incorporated influences from multiple sources and developed innovative new forms by combining and hybridizing traditions” (pp. 21-22). Such hybridity remained a feature of the Sephardic diaspora. For example, Jewish performers of chanson Oranaise, mentioned above, combined medieval Andalusian repertoire and French chanson, a popular genre of music halls and cabarets. Beyond music, hybridity is a characteristic of Sephardic languages, such as the Moroccan Judeo-Spanish vernacular of Haketía, which combines Spanish, Moroccan Arabic, and Hebrew, as well as performance contexts, such as the piyyut revival in Israel, which mixes secular and sacred, East and West.

These themes and the chapters that elucidate them remind us not only of the substantial musical contributions of al-Andalus and its Jewish diasporas, but also of the complex and nearly indefinable nature of Jewish music. More broadly, they support the case for answering questions of “Jewishness”—musical and otherwise—in the plural: Jewish identities, Jewish traditions, Jewish styles, Jewish diasporas, Judaisms. As Ruth Rubin observed decades ago, the music of the Jews is “as diverse and variegated as the Jews themselves” (A Treasury of Jewish Folksong, 1950).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (Book Review)

Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction, by Timothy Rice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 151 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Since its formal establishment in the mid-twentieth century, ethnomusicology has campaigned admirably against the misrepresentation of music as a detached art. Looking beyond musicology’s traditional focus on classical music and maturing beyond the romantic search for musical origins in “primitive” sounds of native peoples, ethnomusicologists have shed clarifying light on the centrality of music in the human experience. As Timothy Rice explains in his delightful primer, Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction, this “discipline with an awkward name” (p. 20) combines fieldwork and theoretical tools to uncover why we are musical, how we utilize music, and what our musical-ness tells us about ourselves.

In this brief yet rich introduction, Rice, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA and director of the university’s Herb Albert School of Music, outlines the field’s kaleidoscopic history and multifaceted approaches. Through big picture discussions and excursions into illustrative case studies, Rice shows how a discipline that once focused on classically defined ethnic groups has broadened the term ethnos (group of people) to include “subcultures” or “microcultures” based on all sorts of social glues: work, class, peer interests, recreational experiences, and so on. Whether the music-culture of study is a remote tribe or angst-ridden suburban teens, researchers employ the same methods—namely, some combination of interviews, participant-observation, learning to sing, play and dance, documenting musical traditions, and transcribing and analyzing music. The resulting information confirms and expands upon the ethnomusicological premise that “humans make music as a constituent element of culture,” and make “connections between music and other facets of culture” (p. 65).

Rice expertly lays out the key findings of the discipline. Among them is the assertion that being “musical” does not depend on personal talent or skill, but on the basic human capacity to “make” and “make sense” of music. He notes the difficulty (impossibility?) of arriving at a blanket definition of music suitable for all culturally recognized examples. He advocates replacing “music as object” with “music as process”: “the interactions between all the human beings present during a musical event, the motivations behind their behaviors, and the significance they attach to them” (p. 6). He describes music as a multi-layered resource, encompassing social and psychological data (and interactions between them), semiotics, aesthetics, and “the construction, self-representation, and contestation of individual and social identities” (p. 73). Rice also provides the reader a glimpse into the work itself, with chapters devoted to conducting research (ch. 3), writing music history (ch. 7), and ethnomusicologists at work (ch. 9).

Two points in the book have particular interest for this reviewer. One is the emerging awareness that both stability and change are natural forces in musical cultures. Rather than assuming that change is a symptom of decline or stability is a sign of vitality, Rice explains that most cultures exhibit dynamism and persistent contact with outside influences: “People have always treated their musical traditions inventively and strategically as resources to revitalize their communities, cope with devastation and change, make older forms of music meaningful in new social and cultural environments, and move toward a hopeful future” (p. 92). The second point is that most ethnomusicologists have discarded old divisions between “traditional” and “modern” societies, replacing them with a nuanced understanding of borrowing, mixing, hybridization, syncretism, commodification, fusion, and creolization—all of which are amplified with accelerating globalization and technological developments (p. 99).

With these and other insights, Rice and the ethnomusicologists he ably represents not only explain how music functions in world cultures, but also how each of us weaves musical sounds into our daily lives.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Baseball’s Greatest Hit (Book Review)

Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, by Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson, and Tim Wiles. New York: Hal Leonard, 2008. 210 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

At first glance, Baseball’s Greatest Hit appears to be a coffee table book. Published in 2008, coinciding with the one hundredth anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” it is heavy, oversized, and filled with photographs and illustrations. Yet, unlike most books of that sort, its contents are not limited to captions and text blocks, and its approach to the subject, while thoroughly entertaining, is hardly superficial. The authors, along with the graphic design staff at Hal Leonard, have artfully balanced visual appeal with meticulous research.

Covering all the bases (cheap pun intended), Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson and Tim Wiles trace the evolution of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” from Tin Pan Alley to the seventh-inning stretch. The song came from the songwriting team of Jack Norworth (1879-1959) and Albert Von Tilzer (1878-1956). Norworth, the lyricist and gregarious one of the pair, was the son of an Episcopal choirmaster. He was drawn to the theater from an early age and had a penchant for marketing his work and himself. Von Tilzer, the more reserved composer, was born into a large Jewish family in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was one of five brothers, all involved in the music business. The family name was Gumm, likely shortened from Gumbinski or Guminski. Albert’s older brother Harry, a prolific music publisher and kingpin of Tin Pan Alley, changed his name to Tilzer (their mother’s maiden name) and added “Von” for an extra touch of class. Albert and the other brothers followed suit.

As with many well-known songs, there is much mythology and intrigue surrounding the origins of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The book examines the range of theories and stories, including the oft-repeated (though difficult to substantiate) claim that neither Norworth nor Von Tilzer attended a baseball game before or in the decades after writing the song. They also contrast Norworth’s insistence that he wrote the lyrics while in a subway car with Von Tilzer’s assertion that he composed the tune around the words “One, two, three strikes you’re out . . .” and handed it to Norworth to fill out the rest of the lyrics. Whatever the case, the authors conclude: “The best estimate is that, in less than an hour, in the spring of 1908, Jack and Albert composed an immortal hit” (p. 22). Within a few months, it became a Top Ten hit of 1908, and today is the third most frequently sung song in the United States, after “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The book offers far too many interesting tidbits to be listed in a short review, but here are a few highlights. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was first introduced to the public as part of a short-lived phenomenon known as the “illustrated song play,” in which a movie theater audience would sing along with the house vocalist and pianist as slides illustrating a song were projected on the screen. The song’s popularity spread quickly, and it sold some six million copies of sheet music. However, it was not until the 1970s, with the efforts of the late Cubs announcer Harry Caray, that the tune was integrated into the seventh-inning stretch. The song has been published in 160 arrangements, has appeared in over 1,200 films and television shows, and is performed at about 2,500 baseball games per year. It is also a little-known fact that what is sung today is only the chorus of the song, which, in its original form, began with this verse: “Katie Casey was baseball mad, 
had the fever and had it bad.
 Just to root for the home town crew,
 ev’ry sou
 Katie blew. 
On a Saturday her young beau
 called to see if she’d like to go 
to see a show, but Miss Kate said ‘No,
 I’ll tell you what you can do…’” (from the 1908 version; Norworth rewrote the verse in 1927).

The chapters flow quickly from one to the next and touch upon seemingly all aspects of the song. Among the book’s many outstanding features are a timeline beginning with the earliest known reference to the seventh-inning stretch (1886), an ode to ballpark organists, a listing of over one thousand commercially published songs about baseball, a brief history of the Cracker Jack, interviews with collectors of the song, a detailed musical analysis by Dave Headlam of the Eastman School of Music, and a CD with sixteen varied renditions of the song. With all of this and more, Baseball’s Greatest Hit is sure to please fans of the song and the game it represents. As a case study in American popular music, the book is a home run (another cheap pun intended).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer (Book Review)

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, edited by Yale Strom, Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2012. 153 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The past decade or so has witnessed a flourishing of books tackling various aspects of klezmer, a term referring both to a style of Eastern European-born Jewish folk music and the musicians who perform it. Growing interest in the centuries-old genre has spurred the printing of a variety of songbooks, fake books, instrument-specific collections, historical analyses and ethnographic studies. All of these areas find a home in Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, a slim yet information-rich volume edited by accomplished klezmer violinist and ethnographer Yale Strom. Filled with historical details, practical advice, technical instruction, musical examples and illustrative anecdotes, this all-in-one book gathers the wisdom of renowned klezmer performers, specifically Peter Stan (accordion), Jeff Pekarek (bass), Norbert Stachel (clarinet), David Licht (drums), Yale Strom (violin) and Elizabeth Schwartz (vocals).

The book begins with two chapters of condensed history from the Middles Ages to the present. These introductory surveys, written by Strom, ease through the somewhat disjointed development of the genre, from the dance halls of twelfth-century Germany, to the Hasidic ecstasy of seventeenth-century Poland, to the army bands of Czarist Russia, to the immigrant ensembles of the United States, to the Yiddish theater, to the modern revival and profusion of the art form.

In the limited space of roughly thirty pages, Strom manages to lay a solid historical foundation while sprinkling in several amusing vignettes. For instance, he includes a story of a man who grew up in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. During his childhood, a fiddler would come through his neighborhood around seven a.m., just after the men had gone to work. As he played a slow waltz, the wives would lean out of their apartment windows. When the music finished, the women clapped in appreciation and threw down money accompanied by rolled-up pieces of paper. The papers contained numbers corresponding to horseraces, which the fiddler brought to a bookie on the women’s behalf (p. 18).

The other chapters continue in this vein. The well-chosen authors elegantly combine the performance history of their instruments, profiles of legendary masters, insights about style and technique, stories from their own experiences, and a handful of musical illustrations. Though they are presented in unique authorial voices (Stan, Pekarek, Stachel, Licht, Strom and Schwartz) and profile unique instruments (accordion, bass, clarinet, drums, violin and vocals), they do address similar issues. It is therefore possible, if not entirely fair, to generalize their content using a few examples.

The topic of stylized embellishments appears throughout the book. This is to be expected, as the use of specific ornaments is largely what defines klezmer playing. Roughly half of Stan’s chapter on the accordion is devoted to this subject (pp. 35-39), and Strom describes the nine core embellishments, or dreydlekh, of the klezmer violin: glitshn (portamenti); mordent; krekhtsn (“moan”); kneytshn (“fold”); tshoks (“bend”); turn; harmonic; trill; and ponticello (pp. 100-101).

The authors also stress that klezmer is a lived heritage, and one rooted in a vibrant and still expanding continuum. As Stachel writes in his chapter on the clarinet: “folk music such as klezmer is a living testament to the history and collective emotional experiences of that culture and its people. It has been passed down from one generation to the next; and that transcends any professor’s attempt to mechanically and coldly ‘explain’ in a theoretical way the essence of Ashkenazi music” (p. 64).

Another theme is the influence of Eastern European cantorial music on klezmer playing and singing. Instrumentalists emulate cantorial adornments and phrasings, and vocalists cannot help but pay homage to chazzanut (cantorial art). As Schwartz puts it in her chapter on vocals: “To sing klezmer in the folk style, one must . . .  harken back to the vocal traditions of the synagogue—not because the songs are liturgical, but because these ornamentations have become an indelible part of the music’s performance” (p. 129).

Many more subjects are addressed in this useful and readable volume. Of course, as with any book, there is room for criticism. For instance, some familiar klezmer instruments were omitted—like the mandolin and members of the brass family—and some chapters offer more technical insights than others. But these objections are minor. Performers, scholars and fans of klezmer music will benefit from the book’s informative discussions, pedagogical elements, personal stories and enthusiastic tone.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.