‘Tahi taha, we’re all mispacha’
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‘Tahi taha, we’re all mispacha’

Frank London’s ‘Ghetto Songs’ looks at unity, diversity, and musical history

The photograph of Frank London is by Adrian Buckmaster.
The photograph of Frank London is by Adrian Buckmaster.

Ghetto Songs” perhaps is not the most intuitively appealing of album titles.

It might make potential listeners think that it would be grimly earnest, with songs of despair, pain, mourning, inexorable doom.

Those listeners would be right in theory, in that their assumptions would be logical, given where our minds go when we think about ghettoes, but in reality they’d be wrong.

First, the songs are hard to classify as music. They share a provenance in that they all come from a ghetto, but that says far less than you’d think. A ghetto is not a ghetto is not necessarily a ghetto.

“Ghetto Songs” is a Frank London project, which makes it by definition hard to categorize.

Mr. London, the trumpeter and composer who’s been active in the Jewish and broader musical world for decades, at least since the Klezmatics, the American neo-Klezmer band that he leads, started making its joyful, mournful, funny, plaintive, wildly varied but always (sometimes clearly, sometimes inexplicably, but when you hear it you know) Jewish music in the 1980s. He’s probably worked with more styles than there are labels to describe them.

So when he talks about his new project, “Ghetto Songs,” released this month, the first thing he says is that it’s hard to classify. “When a lot of people start talking about albums, the first question is what kind of music is it?” he said. “What genre is it? But if you start there, you are not going to be able to answer that question.

The band plays “Ghetto Songs” in 2019. Daniel Ditmus

“It’s a vocal album with, thank God, some amazing singers,” he said. “It’s songs from all over the world, from all different time periods, but it has a common theme: It’s an exploration of ghettos. It starts with a focus on the Jewish ghetto in Venice, but it goes far beyond it.”

All the songs on the album “come directly from some ghetto somewhere, sometime, or somehow they are about them,” he said.

So what is a ghetto?

It’s usually a crowded place, in a crowded city, and it’s home mostly to people of one ethnic group, usually a minority group. It’s never a chic address until well after those people are gone; the housing generally is substandard, and the architectural aesthetic low-end. It can be a place of poverty and misery; it also can be a culture’s petri dish, a place where creativity flourishes because creative people can’t escape each other’s dreams. Or nightmares.

Certainly not all ghettos are or were Jewish, but the first one was.

“The first ghetto to be called a ghetto was in Venice,” Mr. London said. “Jews were allowed to live in Venice before 1516, but they worked there, and the government realized that everyone’s life would be easier if they could live in Venice.

“So it said, ‘You can live here, but only in this tiny little quarter.’ That became the ghetto. Like most ghettos, it was like what we’d call a Superfund site” — that’s a place that’s so contaminated by the toxic chemicals once used there that it’s poisonous. “The ghetto in Venice was built on an old foundry site. That’s where the word ‘ghetto’ comes from.

Frank London (Sylvain Senez)

“It took only a few hundred years before the word became generalized to mean any walled, enclosed area where one group of people is forced to live.”

Meanwhile, the Venetian ghetto remained a ghetto, in the formal sense of the word; after about a century, “Jews were allowed to live in the rest of the city,” Mr. London said. But the ghetto remained a formidable presence in their lives.

That definition has changed over time; now a ghetto is less likely to be walled, and people are forced to live there through economics, not fiat, but the idea of a segregated place for an unfavored group remains.

“I was invited to Venice to think of a project to commemorate the 500 years after the opening of the ghetto,” Mr. London said. “My thought is that this is what happens in a ghetto, when any group of people is forced to be in a tight, enclosed space. The motivations for being in a ghetto are both positive and negative.

“We think of a ghetto as a terrible thing — the poor Black ghettos in this country, or the ghettos of Poland that essentially were roundup pens before people were shipped to the camps. There’s nothing good about that.

“But in a weird way, the Venice ghetto was a good thing.” The Jews enclosed there “didn’t have to get up early to catch the 5 a.m. commuter train,” he said.

Some of the music on “Ghetto Songs” is Italian, from different periods; some of it comes from ghettos in Warsaw, Marrakesh, Cape Town, and Watts.

The central street of the ghetto in Fez, Morocco. (Robert Prazeres/Wikipedia)

So what do all ghettos have in common?

“The image that I come up with is a cultural petri dish; people are segregated by religion, skin color, economics, whatever,” Mr. London said. “You have a concentration there of whatever the culture is, so the music is a distilled essence of that culture.” It’s also mixed with some of the culture from beyond its walls, because no walls are impermeable.

“And I love it,” Frank London said.

Not every song on the new recording is Jewish, but most are. “If we were to talk about Jewish music — and God help us if we did! — we would talk about Italian Jewish music, from the ghetto in Venice and then from other Italian cities, like Ferrara, and then we’d look at Moroccan Jewish music, and it has its own personality.” Which is to say that just as there is no one right kind of Jew, there is no one right kind of Jewish music.

“Look at Israel,” Mr. London said. “A lot of the popular music coming out of Israel these days is based on Moroccan piyyutim,” liturgical poems, “and those Moroccan and other North African piyyutim came out of North African ghettos.

“They’re non-Jewish music with Jewish texts.”

Because of that combination, “singers of piyyutim in Israel often work with Arabic orchestras, because the musicians know the music. But the text is different.”

The ghetto that was the Lower East Side was a springboard for many of the Jews who settled there.

Not only does the music change as it moves across space, it also changes with time.

“There are two examples here,” Mr. London said. “There is a Maoz Tsur” — a song that’s generally sung on Chanukah, generally to a dour melody — “that we know is at least 500 years old, and it could be even older. Some people today still use this melody. And there’s an Oseh Shalom on the album. I composed half of it, but the main part of it is old Italian nusach. We don’t know when it first emerged, but it sounds a little opera-y.”

There were two Italian composers who were extremely influential, Mr. London said. “It’s so ironic. There is Salamone Rossi, who was Jewish. If you talk to anyone about Jewish music, you have to talk about Rossi, because he’s the cat.

“But he didn’t really write Jewish music. He was Jewish. He wanted to write music like other Italian composers. His music sounded like everyone else’s,” even though he also composed for synagogues. He lived from 1570 to 1630; he’s represented on “Ghetto Songs.”

Benedetto Marcello, who was born in 1686, a quarter century after Rossi died, and lived until 1739, did not suffer from the same need to escape his roots that Rossi did, because his roots were more standard Italian. He wasn’t Jewish. “Marcello was obsessed with Jewish music,” Mr. London said. “It is because of him that we know as much as we do about it.”

He was more or less the Alan Lomax of his time; the ethnomusicologist who is so in love with the object of his passion that he’ll follow it anywhere. But, unlike Lomax, “he didn’t have a recording device,” Mr. London said. “So he wrote it all out.”

Why did Marcello have this obsession? “I don’t know,” Mr. London said. “We haven’t found a diary. But just think of people we know. This one gets obsessed with gospel music, that one with salsa. Because they’re people. He just loved the music — and thank God that he did.

This is a view of in the old Jewish ghetto in Ferrara, Italy.

“We reap the rewards of this fixation of his.”

Mr. London talked about one of the songs on his recording, “O dolcezz’amarissime.” “It was initially a vocal motet, and we arranged it with this crazy set of instruments, half of which didn’t exist in its period,” he said. “We have cello and bass and also vibraphone and electric guitar and accordion, and we make a piece that is beautiful, and it works. Instead of getting really weird, it’s beautiful.

“Part of the fun is that you can transcend time and space.

“We’re in a very interesting time now,” he continued. “We’re redefining cultural dominance, and we’re looking at the assumptions of ethnomusicology — which is a word that has cracked me up for 40 years, ever since I was in school, at the New England Conservatory.

“Musicology is about Western classical music. Ethnomusicology is everything else. Musicology is the standard, and everything else is the deviation. Obviously, we don’t have to parse all the problems with that, but that’s changing.

“Nowadays, we have great singers, like Cecilia Bartoli or Patti Lupone” — one a great opera singer, the other a great Broadway star — “who give vocal recitals, where they bring in music from all traditions, to break the assumption that it’s only a real recital if you sing Schubert.

“Not that I don’t love Schubert…

Salamone Rossi

“So by presenting a motet next to a Moroccan Jewish piyyut, next to a song from the 1970s, by telling people just to focus on the singing, it is like a postmodern vocal recital. That’s a lens that helps me explain the project.”

Mr. London talked about a song — “a really fun one, a Venetian carnival sing-song-y song, called ‘Tahi Taha.’ It sounds like a very old, traditional song, but actually I composed the melody. The reason it’s there is that I am working on this project with an organization called Beit Venezia, which is dedicated to perpetuating Venetian Jewish life and culture through the ghetto. Of the few Jews who still live in Venice, only a very few live in the ghetto, but they use it as a focus. Beit Venezia is trying to make the Jewish ghetto be a living home for Jewish culture.

“Venice is known for its Haggadah” — a lovely, lavishly illustrated (although in black and white), and very early printed version, from 1609 — “so they got artists and made a new one.

“There is a language or dialect called Judeo-Venetia. The residents of the ghetto would have spoken it. It’s nearly extinct; no one speaks it as a native language, but some people know some phrases. So the people in Beit Venezia are trying to reclaim that language.”

This gets back to the song. “It’s the impulse not to let these micro languages disappear,” Mr. London said. “So people who cared about it got together and wrote these words out. They’re doggerel. It’s fun. In the end, there’s a message — Tahi taha, we’re all mispacha.” Venetian, Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew, English, whatever — we’re all family.”

“One of the subtexts of these recordings is the preservation of these very distinctive ghetto languages,” Mr. London said. “Many of them disappear as the walls become more porous. So I find this very satisfying. I feel like this is yet another way that a project like this has a bigger purpose than just being a fun musical thing.”

He told a story about another Jewish song that everyone knows but did not make it onto this recording — not because he didn’t want it to, but because he didn’t have enough room for everything, which is why he thinks of this as the beginning of an ongoing project rather than as a one-and-done. It’s Chad Gadya, the counting song that starts with a goat and ends with the Angel of Death and is sung at the end of a Pesach seder.

This street is in the old Jewish ghetto in Venice. (Ethan Doyle White)

It happened at a concert of ghetto songs that he was giving in Venice during Pesach two years ago, when such things were possible.

“The head of Beit Venezia and his wife adopted a son from Africa, whom they are raising as a Venetian Jew,” Mr. London said. “We teach all our children that song, so of course he learned it. They had visitors for Passover week.” It was a German family; the parents had adopted a son. The little boys had lived together in an African orphanage before they were adopted. “That other boy also learned the words to the song, and we brought the two of them onto the stage.

My band is from all over. International. Intergender. We are in Venice during Pesach, and these two kids, both African, one of them being raised Jewish, the other not, singing this Judeo-Venezian Chad Gadya.

“You could see everyone losing their minds. It was so beautiful.

“This is why I do it. The ultimate purpose of this project, and so many of the other projects that I do, is to find ways to connect people. To help find the commonality of their narratives. This is not to say that every experience is the same as every other experience. They are not all equal. We are not all the same. We celebrate the differences. We love the differences. We love the variety and the commonality of narratives.

“When the presuppositions and the prejudices just kind of go away, when we are engaged in common dialogue through art and music, this is my goal.

“And when it happens, it feels really good.”

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