Jeremiah Lockwood comes from a family of cantors, the spiritual leaders who lead Jewish congregations in prayer and song. His grandfather, the late Jacob Konigsberg, served as a cantor in various cities and performed in concerts outside religious services, always hoping to inspire people with liturgical music.
Not surprisingly, Lockwood incorporated chant music into his own band, The Sway Machinery, and wrote his dissertation on the Chassidic singers of Brooklyn who sing in a manner reminiscent of the golden age of chant music, which began in the twenties. The virtuosos of that time sounded like they were singing opera at times but also improvised during the solos.
The same could be said of those in present-day Brooklyn.
“It’s amazing,” Lockwood said of the Brooklyn singers’ ability to master the vocal techniques of the early 20th century. “Forget questions about creativity versus imitation, the fact that they’re physically able to do it is mind-blowing.”
“They are self-taught artists,” he said. “It’s like there’s a scene of musicians who didn’t go to conservatory or jazz school and learned to play Charlie Parker just by playing sax in their rooms at night.”
While in graduate school, Lockwood came across a YouTube video of cantors in an informal Chassidic chant known as kumzita kind of singing jam session where they deliver fingertip solos.
The video inspired Lockwood to produce the new album Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Chantorial Revival Todaywhich was recorded at Daptone Records, an analog recording facility known for soul music.
Three of the six singers on the album went with Lockwood to perform at the Festival of Jewish Culture in Poland in late June, a major annual Jewish musical event that has been going on for nearly 30 years. They had the opportunity to perform with the support of a string quartet arranged by Lockwood, who at times accompanied the singers with his electric guitar.
One of the singers who performed in Krakow, Yanky Lemmer, explained that as a child and teenager growing up in the Hasidic community, he didn’t have much entertainment other than what was considered “kosher.” These homes often do not have televisions or internet access available for children.
“Cantorial music is one of these [kosher] things,” he said. “Oh, let me in. That’s interesting, that’s different.”
Lemmer said that 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 sense of, ‘Wow, this is something that happens to me.’ I’m not even doing that,” Lemmer said.
One of the world’s best-known singers, Lemmer leads services at Manhattan’s prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue and has officiated everywhere from the Catskills to Australia. He credits YouTube with putting him on the map. After uploading the first video of himself 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. This service lasts three or four hours and everything is improvised on the spot. Lockwood, who participates in the choir, called the experience “musically challenging.”
“After one of those serves, I’m always ready to collapse,” Lockwood said.
The claim that a renaissance of cantorial music is underway is not accepted by all the singers on the new album.
“This is not really a revival, so much as a dying exhaustion,” said Yoel Kohn, a former member of Satmar’s Chassidic community. “Whether there will be enough interest to keep this going indefinitely as an obscure genre of music like baroque music, I don’t know.”
But Hankus Netsky, a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, believes what’s happening with the Brooklyn singers may be both a step and a revival of the genre.
“I think Jeremiah Lockwood is an arbiter between the generation that is seeing song music die in the congregation and the younger generation that is seeing the potential of song 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 nobody’s heard of them,” he said. “I wanted to create a possibility for them to be able to do what they’re the biggest in the world and I wasn’t sure who the audience would be for that or if there would be an audience.”
The Golden Centuries The album is available as both a digital download and vinyl LP.