USA: Beyond Hanukkah 101: Klezmer Master Yale Strom’s Broken Consort Illuminates Hanukkah’s Many Shades and Sounds on Shimmering Lights
“The easy Hanukkah 101 line,” says renowned ethnomusicologist, violinist, and arranger Yale Strom, “is that it’s a festival. It commemorates the freedom of faith. The freedom to believe or not believe.” It’s this idea that drives Shimmering Lights, the new album from Strom and the ensemble he put together for it, Yale Strom’s Broken Consort (YSBC). The album is a lively celebration of Hanukkah and the freedom that it treasures.
The album begins with a rollicking, delightfully complicated oud solo. In this rendition of “Maoz Tzur” you can hear the frets of the oud buzzing, almost as if with joy and excitement. It’s a traditional song, but with a distinct middle-eastern flair--a Moroccan-Jewish influenced reinterpretation of a classic. “I put that as the opening track to open people’s ears,” Strom says. “To give them a new flavor.”
This embodies the approach that Strom and YSBC take with this album. Some songs are sung in Hebrew, others in Yiddish, and others still in Ladino and English. Throughout all ten pieces, Strom and his band swim a wide ocean of Jewish musical tradition that touches myriad continents, centuries, and languages. They subtly fold a range of other sounds and styles into their improvisations and solos, everything Texas Swing and bluegrass to jazz, classical and rock music.
“Kita’l Tas,” the album’s third track, is a Renaissance-era song originating from the Jewish communities that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, that had been driven from their Spanish homeland. Its Ladino lyrics celebrate food of Hanukkah, both the preparation and consumption of it. The vast majority of what is heard on the recording was played live, and the synergy between the eight members of the Broken Consort that recorded it is palpable. The song has an addictingly raw, spontaneous, and energized feel to it.
As tracks like “Kita’l Tas” prove, the musicianship featured on this record is nothing short of exquisite. The lineup of the Broken Consort is comprised of some of the core members from Strom’s past projects, including guitarist Fred Benedetti, contrabassist Jeff Pekarek, and vocalist Elizabeth Schwartz. New to the Consort are violinist Sara Caswell, cellist Alexander Greenbaum, oud and electric guitar player Amos Hoffman, and violist David Wallace. At the helm is Yale Strom, a distinguished violinist, arranger, ethnomusicologist, documentarian, and all-around Renaissance man.
Each song began with Strom closing his eyes. He’d play the melodies to himself on the violin, and wonder: “What is the feel of the music?” From there, the arrangement sprouted organically. “I finished the first tune, which then suggested the second. Tune two informs tune three and so on.” As a result of this unique approach, the songs featured on this record, despite coming from an array of cultures and centuries, seem related in a distinctly organic way. And what unites them all is Strom’s tasteful arrangements and his Consort’s lavish musicianship.
Even though the recordings on Shimmering Lights are treasures of musicianship, the Broken Consort make sure they don’t overstep their bounds, “You approach the lyrics like an actor approaches a script,” says Elizabeth Schwartz, the vocalist of the band. “The lyrics are telling the story. It’s not my role to step in front of the lyrics and show off how great I’m singing. It’s my job to present the story of the song.”
The work of freedom is not just about celebration, however. Sometimes, as YSBC demonstrate with “The Fool Over Yonder,” the album’s striking closing, a statement against leaders unworthy of their roles. Yet even the dark night of current politics has its light: “So many of the songs on this album are very old, some many hundreds of years,” Schwartz explains. “We wanted to end with a very fresh original. ‘The Fool Over Yonder’ is our last song because it looks forward to the hopefully hundreds (if not more) of Khanikes to come.”
Unafraid to let the music speak, Shimmering Lights is a virtuosic, unconventional ode to Hannukah. As Strom and his Consort thread the needle through centuries and cultures, they revel in the freedom that Hanukkah celebrates. “It’s not a holiday,” Strom says. “It was a celebration that came later on in Jewish history. It commemorates the first in Western religion that looks at the freedom of religion.” Shimmering Lights isn’t simply about Jewish history—it is a bright celebration of the freedom of religion, of tradition and thought, the freedom to be. “This album gives something for everyone to celebrate. I should be free, and I am free.”