New Time and Place for the Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival

Jewish-East Asian fusion band Sandaraa performs at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Jewish-East Asian fusion band Sandaraa performs at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Although we just did this song and dance in June, the re-tooling of the Edlavitch Washington, DC Jewish Community Center has shifted some things around. The 18th annual music festival started on October 26; they’re also moving the film festival to May instead of the winter.

Similar to the event that I attended at the last music festival, the one last Tuesday was a double feature of a documentary and a stage act. Paul Thomas Anderson, famously known for such films as There Will Be Blood and Steel Magnolias, directs his first documentary—an unassuming, 54-minute accounting of musicians practicing their craft in an ancient fort in Rajasthan, India.

The 2015 film, Junun, follows Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to southeast Asia for this collaboration project with the Indian ensemble, the Rajasthan Express. Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur rounded out the group and added some Hebrew influence to the music. I loved the notion that different people could share and transform their cultural expressions. It’s a hopeful message in and of itself about coming together in common purpose.

The documentary was recorded with occasional shaky cam and had little narrative structure; however it transcended any limitations by staying true to the emotionality of music. We laughed at the casual moments where the camera caught a musician picking his nose or making jokes about faulty electricity in India. But the real power came through juxtaposing images, like sweeping panoramas of the Indian environs or a pigeon roosting among the musical equipment, against the musical numbers. I heard people commenting on specific scenes after the film ended, to rancorous applause.

Following a brief intermission, we then listened to an hour and a half-long set, roughly, from the band Sandaraa. Like with the musicians in Junun, this band is a cultural collaboration, started by Pakistani vocalist, Zeb Bangash, and klezmer clarinetist, Michael Winograd. Most of their other band members hail from Brooklyn, many of whom have klezmer backgrounds. The music they played had a South Asian mentality, ranging from traditional folk songs to original compositions set to Urdu poetry, but some of the instrumentation hinted at Jewish influence.

The event went a little long—from 7:30 to 10 pm—and a sizeable portion of the audience left during the last half hour or so of Sandaraa’s performance. But the film and the music went so well together, thematically, that I understand why the festival paired them up. Perhaps it would have been better suited for a Sunday afternoon timeslot, though the house was packed at the EDCJCC either way.

The music festival ends on Nov 5 with another fusion project–Odessa/Havana. Check out my past coverage under the “annual events” tab.

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