The name Shofar means horn – from a ram’s horn – in Hebrew and is used as a symbolic ritual in Jewish services, for example, to indicate the end of the fast of Yom Kippur. One interpretation of this name is that this band seeks to announce their musical arrival.
This past Thursday saw Shofar’s debut alongside another band, Poleseye Project, as part of a North American tour at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium. (Music made possible by the Polish Cultural Institute of New York and the Target Free Thursdays Series.) On approaching this concert, it was unclear to me how Jewish music would co-exist with free jazz or whether indeed it could. But that concern was soon eradicated by the strength of the musicians. Their sound encompassed both free jazz and Jewish cultural music with ease. Their music also hinted at rock, blues, and punk.
As the three musicians took to the stage, immediately there was a sense of the unexpected. Rather than the drummer sitting behind the other two as is the convention, he sat to the left while the saxophonist sat center and the electric guitar to the right, all at front stage. This set-up suggested the true partnership that takes place among these men. There is not one leader, all work together. When I asked Mikolaj Trzaska, the sax and clarinet player, to describe their collaboration he said, “We come from different musical traditions, but this is a conversation. We each share a similar sensitivity to Jewish cultural music. We want to make a new language.”
Instead of a light, joyous sound as typified by Klezmer which is what I had imagined, the opening number was meditative, and languorous, as the saxophone stretched out long notes. Raphael Roginski seemed to vibrate the guitar at times as he played in a minor key. Macio Moretti thundered in slow, skillful rolls on the drums as the saxophone launched into elaborate solos, reminiscent perhaps of John Coltrane.
When I asked Raphael to talk more about the Jewish cultural music, he explained, “This is a music that existed prior to the holocaust. Nigunim were a celebratory style of music, magical even. It was born in the Hasidic movement in Poland. There were often competitions among composers to see who could write the best Nigunim and thus be considered closer to God. It was considered a mystical music that could move people into a trance, a prayer. It was improvisatory.” This was also a music sought out by Moshe Beregovski, a Ukrainian Jewish musicologist, who made it his mission in the 1920′s and 30′s to tour the Ukraine making notations of Nigunim and old Jewish folk songs (in a similar vein to Alan Lomax, who toured the American South in search of the blues). Shofar takes as a base some of his musical notations.
As the musicians continue, not a ruffle of paper or a conversation is heard in the audience. They are held transfixed. The old melodies have hit an emotional core. Many nod their head in agreement, as if transported to a pre-war Poland, a time before the violence of the Nazism erupted, before Jewish culture was suppressed. Mikolaj speaks about what the music means to him, “It was about finding my identity as a Jewish person. When I started to play the melodies, I began to hear them in my dreams, this music is something so deep in me that I am dreaming about it.”
With the second song, comes a more lively, danceable sound, the sax screeches freedom alongside a guitar which shifts into higher and higher notes on the scale. The music works. Raphael’s guitar playing is captivating. His is a haunting, expressive sound, a musician journeying to the soul of a lost tradition, while pulling the old melodies into the future.
Stepping into the third song, this music becomes funereal. Even though the performance continued on for several songs (a full hour or more), there was a particular poignant sadness in this moment, a sense of mourning. This is a music of lament, yet at the same time it is soulful, yearning, restless in the best of musical traditions. For a moment, the sax is silent, the drums and guitar speak to one another in an old, but somehow familiar language.
For more about Shofar, including their tour schedule, you can visit
To purchase their CD: http://www.kilogram.pl/?l=eng&id=&ex=