By Sara Appel-Lennon
San Diego Jewish Men’s Choir fuses Indian and Jewish music traditions
Music is a universal language to join people and narrow cultural differences. The San Diego Jewish Men’s Choir’s new CD, “Kochi” celebrates two cultures by fusing Indian instrumental music with Jewish songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino. The result is a toe-tapping, body-swaying, humming-along music experience.
Del Cerro resident and founding SDJMC member, Shaun Edelstein, says the choir’s mission is to preserve and promote Jewish music. “This really means something to us. It’s not just a bunch of guys having fun. This is the music we heard from our grandparents” said Edelstein.
Music has been instrumental to Edelstein, who is originally from Johannesburg, South Africa. Since age 10, he sang in a community choir at his synagogue. “For 30 years I never went to a wedding without a choir,” he said. When he immigrated to San Diego 20 years ago, he asked, “Where’s the choir?” This motivated him to find others to start a Jewish men’s choir in San Diego. In 16 years, the choir has sung at 50 weddings; receiving requests every three to four months.
The choir has 25 to 30 members with most from South Africa, two from Israel, one from France, a few from Mexico, and the rest from the United States. Members live in various parts of San Diego, as far south as Chula Vista, as far north as Escondido, and two in the College Area.
Choir Director, Ruth Weber graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor’s in music and received a master’s degree in Music Performance from California State University Northridge. She has been directing the choir for six years. At first, she said she felt nervous about directing so many men. Now they treat her “like one of the guys. When else would all of these men follow a woman except when we’re trying to preserve the tradition of Jewish music,” said Weber.
When Weber met Ricky Kej, last year’s Grammy Award-winner of Best New Age Album and producer and arranger from India, he asked her to send him a soundtrack of the choir. Weber, Kej, Vanil Veigas, Danny Flam, and Greg Gilpin recorded “Kochi” in New York, San Diego, and India by sending files back and forth to fuse Indian instrumental music with the choir singing Jewish songs.
“We’re using technology to bring back something from thousands of years ago,” said Edelstein.
In November 2015, “Kochi” won first place in the Akademia Awards for Best World Beat Album, reached third for World Music on Billboard World Music Charts, and seventh in the Billboard Heatseeker Charts. According to their promoter, “Kochi” plays on 119 radio stations in the United States and Canada, and on 70 different airline easy listening channels.
Sixteen years ago, if they sang to 20 people, they were happy. Now they sing to people from 20 countries, and were considered for a Grammy nomination.
“How did we ever get on 119 radio stations? Ruth’s drive, commitment, and passion! She has been a key figure. It’s all due to her, believe me. We were a bunch of guys before and she molded us into a high-quality musical entourage,” said Edelstein.
This CD is dedicated to the world’s oldest Jewish community living 2,500 years ago in Cochin, (Kochi) now known as Kerala, India. The Hindu king inscribed a decree on antique plates allowing Jews to own land, build synagogues, and live freely at a time when they were persecuted elsewhere. These plates still remain in the synagogue.
In 1792, there were 2,000 Jews with nine synagogues in Kochi. In contrast, New York had only 72 Jewish families and one synagogue. Indira Gandhi recognized the synagogue’s 400 year anniversary in 1968. The main street is Synagogue Lane and the village is called Jew Town. Since 1948, thousands of Kochi Jews immigrated to Israel.
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer wrote about and conducted tours to recount the history of the Jews in Kochi. Upon returning from a tour, choir member Mo Gold recounted the city’s history. Weber then wanted to create the CD. “Music intertwined people. That’s what we replicate with this album,” said Weber.
The choir’s first CD, “Heritage” was funded by Kickstarter. In keeping with their mission to preserve and promote Jewish music, the choir donated 400 CDs to international libraries, schools, and nursing homes with Jewish audiences.
Proceeds support the Gabriel Project of Mumbai to provide nutrition, healthcare and literacy for children living in the streets of India. “Tikkun Olam (which is Hebrew for “repairing the world”) –– it’s about giving back,” said Edelstein.
For the men of the choir, there is only one drawback –– Monday night choir rehearsal conflicts with Monday night football. But it’s a small sacrifice and they tape the games instead. “Don’t tell us the scores, la, la, la. …This is more important than a football game. Everyone arrives at practice ready to sing,” said Edelstein.
“Kochi” is available for purchase on Amazon or iTunes. For more information on the San Diego Jewish Mens Choir, please visit sdjmc.org.