Joshua Nelson teams with the Klezmatics for a show honoring Jewish and African-American heritage
By Bliss Bowen
When Grammy-winning klezmer sextet the Klezmatics teamed with “kosher gospel” artist Joshua Nelson in the early 2000s, their collaboration seemed unlikely yet wholly natural. Since forming in 1986, the Klezmatics have devoted themselves to celebrating Jewish culture and Yiddish language, while Nelson, an ebullient performer whose robust tones eerily resemble gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, has carved a distinct niche paying homage to his Jewish heritage alongside the traditional church hymns he grew up hearing in the black community.
The Klezmatics’ 2005 concert album with Nelson, “Brother Moses Smote the Water,” fused traditional gospel (“Didn’t It Rain,” “Elijah Rock”) with klezmer and Passover service songs (“Eyliyohu Hanovi,” “Shnirele, Perele”) in one joyous, cross-cultural testament to faith and brotherhood. They are revisiting that album during three West Coast dates, including a concert at The Broad Stage on Thursday.
“The ‘Brother Moses Smote the Water’ album is sort of like a pre-Passover experience,” Nelson observes during a conversation from his New Jersey home. “It’s visiting the dimension of Jewish experience, Jews leaving Egypt, but it also parallels African Americans leaving the slavery period. Any storyline has its main dimension, but it’s also dimensionless in terms of grasping all cultures’ deliverance story. People say, ‘Oh wow, that’s the mixture of the Jewish and the black experience.’ Because I’m a black Jew, I can tell people it’s the same experience, just told in different ways.”
During the initial tour to promote the album, the Klezmatics and Nelson performed at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater in Hollywood. At one point, Nelson stood at the edge of the stage and wowed the multigenerational audience as he sang without a microphone. None was needed.
Like Jackson, whose music he absorbed from his grandmother’s record collection as a child, Nelson combines a preacher’s fervor with a born performer’s charisma. He taught at a Hebrew school in New Jersey for years, but now focuses primarily on music. He has released eight albums of his kosher gospel and “Hebrew soul,” whose inspiring message is akin to that presented with the Klezmatics. He strives to “bring the African-American and Jewish communities together,” and says he has witnessed their “complementary parts” since he was a child.
“I would go to the churches back in the old days and hear those guys singing, like ‘Go Down Moses.’ The sound in their voices sounded just like the cantors that used to wail. Cantors don’t sing like that anymore, but when I was a kid, I would go to synagogue and you’d hear that operatic type [mimics], and you would hear that same type of sound in the black church [mimics]. As a black Jew, they sound the same to me. [Laughs] My foot is there in both worlds. I take that experience with the Klezmatics, and we just make it a cultural explosion.”
Nelson promises a “going through the Red Sea experience” at next Thursday’s concert, and he calls “Brother Moses Smote the Water” a “timeless” album whose empowering message of love and community feels more relevant than ever. As cringe-inducing as the current administration is, he welcomes it as “a wakeup call.”
“I kind of love everybody. If the Ku Klux Klan invited me to come sit at their table to eat, I’d turn into Mahalia Jackson and say, ‘All right, sugar, what’d you cook?’ I think people sometimes live in these worlds where they become these actors, but deep down inside of us when you get to know each other, there’s love there, you’ve just got to pull it out. That’s kind of what Dr. King’s message was. …
“If you’ve ever taken your freedom for granted, now’s the time to be thankful for it, and to authorize your citizenship and show people what an American is, not just someone sitting around as a couch potato watching television, watching the world go by. There are things we have to do as Americans. Evil complements good. Evil lets you know, when the nighttime comes, we all put our lights on or we’re gonna be sitting in the dark. This is the climate where we turn the lights on.”
The Klezmatics perform with Joshua Nelson at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 29, at The Broad Stage. Tickets start at $65. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.