The anguish of slavery

Event explores how Jews, African-Americans share common history

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

For many, the word “Klezmer” conjures up images of Jewish brides in chairs being hoisted in the air by friends and family while “Hava Nagila” plays in the background, or perhaps the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where men dance with bottles on their heads. But a group of local musicians hosting an event at Boulder Mennonite Church are trying to combine this music with American music from the rural South in an attempt to explore the connections and common experiences between African- Americans and Jewish people.

The event, called “Let My People Go: Songs of Freedom and Liberation,” is a collaboration between The Boulder Klezmer Consort, a loose collection of local Klezmer musicians, and Southern Journey, a group dedicated to early 20th-century Southern folk music. Ticket sales will benefit Congregation Nevei Kodesh. According to the leader of Southern Journey, Marta Burton, the concert tries to show how people coming from diverse backgrounds can relate to each other on a fundamentally human level. Burton points out that slaves coded messages about the Underground Railroad into songs about Exodus, the biblical tale of the Jews escaping enslavement in Egypt.

“Slaves in America sort of picked up on [Exodus] when they became Christianized, really related to Moses and escaping to freedom,” she says. “The Jewish stories inspired the slaves to hold on and move towards freedom.”

Sheldon Sands, who leads the Boulder Klezmer Consort, hatched the idea for the concert during a brainstorming session for the congregation. He remembered seeing a multicultural performance by the New York-based Avodah Dance Ensemble years ago and finding the performance very moving.

“All the performers were either Jewish or African American,” Sands recalls. “It was timed close to the Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the freedom from slavery from Egypt. … I was just so moved by the power and the emotion of the performance and the commonality between the more recent historical African American experience of slavery and the ancient biblical one of the Israelites in Egypt.”

He proposed the idea to Burton — they were both members of the same musician consortium — and she enthusiastically agreed.

Burton has long been interested in traditional American music. She worked with the University of Denver’s Spirituals Project for a number of years and helped produce several of the organization’s choral CDs. Her experience with the music led to the creation of Southern Journey. The group focuses on the archival recordings of Alan Lomax, a music historian who, from 1933 to 1942, recorded rural Southerners singing folk music. Music historians generally consider the Lomax recordings, housed at the Library of Congress, to be one of the most important and extensive sources of pre- Civil Rights Southern folk music.

Sands, a Naropa grad, has played Klezmer music for the past dozen years in and around Boulder. He briefly played piano for a few of Allen Ginsburg’s performances in the ’80s, and he has studied under local jazz piano guru Art Lande. Sands wasn’t always a Klezmer fan — he thought the music, traditionally played at weddings and celebrations, was “shmaltzy” — but when he discovered more traditional Klemzer that had experienced a small revival in New York in the ’70s, his opinion changed.

“I got turned on to some of the more authentic, old-world Klezmer music, which really was an import from the Jews of Eastern Europe, from which my grandparents descend,” Sands says. “There’s a strong improvisational history with Klezmer music. You don’t just play the same tune the same way twice. Just like how jazz musicians will take solos over the form, there’s very much that tradition in Klezmer music.”

Although the concert focuses on slavery in the past, both Sheldon and Burton are keenly aware of slavery today, and both cite statistics saying that more people are enslaved today than at any time in history. Singer Faye Nepon will join the Klezmer ensemble to sing a harrowing song about a massacre in a Jewish village, and Southern Journey will sing “Strange Fruit” — a song about lynching — with both black and white voices. “Strange Fruit,” usually attributed to Billie Holiday, was actually written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish man.

“To hear men’s voices and women’s voices, and very white-sounding voices and very African-American-sounding voices singing as one voice is as though it was coming out of this deep humanity,” Burton says.

Despite the heavy content, Sands and Burton want the concert to be uplifting, not depressing.

“The anguish of slavery, of living under conditions where one doesn’t have the most essential human rights, is going to be portrayed pretty starkly,” Sands says. “But we don’t just want to be there the whole performance. Naturally, we’re going to portray the triumph of the human spirit. … The whole concert’s not going to be a downer.”

On the Bill

“Let My People Go: Songs of Freedom and Liberation” takes place on Saturday, April 2, at the Boulder Mennonite Church at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $36 for adults, $18 for students/seniors/low-income patrons. 3910 Table Mesa Drive, Boulder. For more information, call 303-443-4567, or visit