Jeremiah Lockwood came from a family of cantors, the spiritual leaders who lead Jewish congregations in prayer and song. His grandfather, the late Jacob Koenigsberg, served as a cantor in several cities and played concerts outside of religious services, always hoping to inspire people with liturgical music.
Unsurprisingly, Lockwood would incorporate cantorial music into his own band, The Sway Machinery, and write his thesis about Hasidic cantors in Brooklyn, who sing in a manner reminiscent of the golden age of cantorial music that began in the 1920s. century. The virtuosos of that era sometimes sounded like they were singing opera, but they also improvised during solos.
The same can be said for those in present-day Brooklyn.
“It’s amazing,” Lockwood said of the Brooklyn cantors’ ability to master early 20th-century vocal techniques. “Forget questions of creativity versus imitation, the fact that they are physically capable of doing it is just mind-blowing.”
“They are self-taught artists,” he said. “It’s like there was a scene of musicians who didn’t go to a conservatory or a jazz school and learned how to play Charlie Parker just by playing saxophone alone in their rooms at night.”
While in undergraduate school, Lockwood came across a YouTube video of cantors of informal Hasidic chanting known as kumzitea kind of cantor jam session where solos are fingered.
The video inspired Lockwood to produce the new album Golden Ages: Brooklyn Hasidic Cantorial Revival Todaywhich was recorded at Daptone Records, an analog recording facility known for soul music.
Three of the six cantors featured on the album went with Lockwood to play at the Jewish Culture Festival in Poland in late June, an important annual Jewish musical event that has been taking place for almost 30 years. They were given the opportunity to perform with the accompaniment of a string quartet arranged by Lockwood, who at times accompanied the cantors on his electric guitar.
One of the cantors who performed concerts in Krakow, Janki Lemer, explained that as a child and teenager growing up in the Hasidic community, he did not have much entertainment other than what was considered “kosher.” Such households often do not have TVs or internet access for the children.
“Cantorial music is one of them [kosher] stuff,” he said. “Ooh, let me get into it. It’s interesting, it’s different.”
Lemaire said that when he improvises during a service, it’s “one of the most special feelings in the world.”
“When you start improvising and it works, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is something that’s coming through me.’ I don’t even do that,” Lemmer said.
Lemmer, one of the world’s most famous cantors, leads services at Manhattan’s prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue and has served everywhere from the Catskills to Australia. He credits YouTube for putting him on the map. After uploading his first video of himself performing online, his 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 cantors involved in the project, Shimmy Miller, is Bentzion Miller’s son, who leads services one Saturday a month at a congregation in the Borough Park neighborhood. This service runs for three to four hours and everything is improvised on the spot. Lockwood, who performs in the choir, called the experience “musically challenging.”
“After one of these services, I’m always ready to collapse,” Lockwood said.
The claim that a revival of cantor music is underway is not accepted by all the cantors on the new album.
“It’s not really a revival so much as a dying gasp,” said Yoel Kohn, a former member of Satmar’s Hasidic community. “I don’t know if there will be enough interest left to keep this going indefinitely as some obscure musical genre like baroque music.”
But Hankus Netsky, a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, believes what’s happening to Brooklyn cantors may be both a transition and a rebirth of the genre.
“I think Jeremiah Lockwood is the arbiter between the generation that sees cantorial music dying in the congregation and the younger generation that sees the potential of cantorial music to be rediscovered,” Netsky said.
Lockwood strongly believes that these “young” cantors (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 an opportunity for them to be able to do what they’re the greatest in the world at, and I wasn’t sure who the audience for that would be or if there would be an audience for that.”
The Golden ages the album is available as both a digital download and vinyl record.