Photo by Dina Bova All Rights Reserved.

RebbeSoul blends world music, Jewish spirituality

Photo by Dina Bova All Rights Reserved.

Welcome Shavuot with a little spiritual night music. RebbeSoul – the renowned American-Israeli Jewish singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer – will perform at 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 11 at Congregation NefeshSoul in Chandler.

“RebbeSoul is an internationally recognized performer who weaves world music with Jewish themes,” says Rabbi Susan Schanerman of NefeshSoul. “His spiritual and broad appeal will offer a Shavuot experience that will enlighten and inspire with the joy and awe of the festival of the giving of the Torah.”

Originally a conventional Jewish rock musician, RebbeSoul branched off into what has become his distinctive musical trademark:  an eclectic fusion of genre-defying instrumentals and vocals – folk, jazz, soul and new-age sounds, spiced with Yemenite, Sephardic, Middle Eastern, African, South American and Caribbean blends. RebbeSoul describes it as “Jewish roots and world music.”

RebbeSoul was born Bruce Burger in Utica, NY, a city he regards as a hub for great blues and jazz musicians. Performing since the early 1990s, he has five solo albums and recorded with numerous other bands, such as Common Tongue and Hamakor.

RebbeSoul has had a love affair with rhythm and guitar playing since childhood. He laughs when he describes the simple catalyst that started him on his musical path – a plastic guitar his parents rented for him when he was 12. “They weren’t sure I’d keep playing,” he says, “so that’s the reason they rented it. … I played songs I heard on the radio that I thought were incredible: groups like the Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin and others. The guitar playing was not so difficult, so it was relatively simple to listen to a great guitar line by Keith Richards from ‘Satisfaction’ and be able to play it. At the age of 12, that was empowering, making me think I was a guitar god.”

In his early 20s, RebbeSoul moved to Los Angeles to become a background musician for a multitude of artists, traveling with them around the country. Although his career was thriving, an invitation to a Shabbat dinner at a Chabad center turned out to be the watershed moment when Jewish-themed music took root in his mind and soul. “Rabbi Chaim Dalfin and the guys there were all banging on the table, singing the robust melody of ‘Tzamah Lecha Nafshi,’” he says. “I realized this was the sound of my people. I was basically searching for my own sound and I realized it was in my roots. Before that, I was making my living sounding like all these famous guitarists of the day and I felt like a chameleon. This infectious melody caused me to imagine similar scenes at the tables of my ancestors in Eastern Europe.”

Excited by the possibility of recreating the song professionally, RebbeSoul asked Rabbi Dalfin if he could return two days later and record him singing the song. The rabbi agreed and sang part of the song, which became the first track of RebbeSoul’s second album, Fringe of Blue.  His first album, Rebbe, was independently produced in 1995, but “Fringe of Blue” snagged him a coveted record contract. “I was the cover story of Billboard Magazine, and CNN International even came by with a film crew to do a special on me,” he says. “That launched my career and I eventually went on to become a producer as well, going to Israel to expose the amazing Israeli talent and bring it to the world. The reason I moved to Israel eight years ago,” he says, “was to be immersed in the heart of ethnic music and collaborate with musicians of Ethiopian, Persian, Spanish and Ashkenazi heritage. In reality, because of the Diaspora, all Jewish music is world music.”

In 2001, RebbeSoul was invited to teach a workshop on Jewish music at the Limmud Conference in the U.K. and went on to create the song “Kaddish,” from his “Change the World with a Sound” album. To create this kaleidoscope of ethnic music, he remotely recorded musicians in diverse countries such as Spain, Ethiopia and Morocco reciting the Kaddish prayer. “All cultures have a different twist,” he explains. “Moroccans and Persians have different melodies and pronunciations, for example.”

Another workshop RebbeSoul is considering doing while in Phoenix is called “Tzena, Tzena,” based on a Hebrew folk song from 1941. “Pete Seeger brought it to the U.S.” he says, “and it has been performed by famous singers such as Frank Sinatra, Arlo Guthrie, Bing Crosby, The Weavers and many more. I love the kind of enthusiasm young people have for music today; whether it be singing, sampling on the computer or production. That’s part of the reason I love teaching workshops.”

RebbeSoul’s workshops and concerts have him traversing the world. One of his favorite trips was to Poland, where he was asked to perform a solo tour. “It was a fascinating place because of the history,” he relates. “I also got to know the chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, who took me all around the country to various cities. We became good friends. One of the most interesting things that happened to me there was visiting an art school with no Jewish students. They made me a beautiful picture and I gave three encores. There was a real fascination with Jewish culture there, which surprised me.”

“I want people to love and appreciate the music of our people,” says RebbeSoul. “As a producer, I want to work with and guide musicians to find their own voices, just as I found my own sound. I have a particular affinity for people playing the music of their own heritage, no matter what backgrounds they have. There’s something very special when people reflect on ancestry.”

RebbeSoul in concert
Open to the entire community
WHEN: 7:30 pm, Saturday, June 11
WHERE: Congregation NefeshSoul, 6400 W Del Rio St, Chandler
TICKETS: $10 at the door (cash or check only) or in advance through Paypal or by check (note that it’s for the concert)
Cheesecake reception following.

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