Listen to Jaffa Road and the desert beckons in Sephardic rhythms and tones. The language is Hebrew but the music is also steeped in classical Indian sitar and jazz improv, with Arabic and Turkish strands woven through. In short, it’s a fusion of Jewish-Indian-Middle Eastern jazz and world music.
As bandleader and producer Aaron Lightstone explained, members of the group constantly ask themselves, “What is contemporary music in an urban, multi-cultural setting when diverse people come together to create some new original music?”
The Toronto-based band will have an opportunity to demonstrate their unique sound on Dec. 2, when they make their first New Jersey appearance at Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit Jewish Community Center.
In an interview with NJJN, Lightstone described the band’s influences, its composing process, and how it leapfrogged the Jewish music genre to secure a place in the global music scene: Jaffa Road has won two Juno Award nominations, a John Lennon Songwriting Contest Grand Prize, and the 2013 Canadian Folk Music Award for world music.
Lightstone, who plays guitar, oud, and synthesizers, founded the band in 2003 — it was originally called Shakshuka but changed their name to Jaffa Road in 2008 because a band out of Chicago had the same name — with vocalist and fellow Torontonian Aviva Chernick. (She left the group, amicably, over the summer, but will be performing at Ohr Shalom.) The band also includes Justin Gray on bass, Sundar Viswanathan on saxophone, and Rakesh Tewari on percussion, none of whom are Jewish.
Lightstone and Chernick, both of whom had Jewish day school and Conservative synagogue backgrounds, were introduced by San Francisco Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, who “thought we should make music together,” Lightstone recalled.
They liked the idea; both were studying Arabic music, searching for common ground between it and Sephardic music. “The band was initially formed around the idea that we could find some kind of new way of having a Jewish cultural experience,” he said.
The lyrics on Jaffa Road’s two albums, “Sun Place” and “Where the Light Gets In,” were mostly drawn from Jewish sources in every direction: liturgy, poetry, and kabbalistic chants. You can hear “Ana El Na,” a traditional healing chant, and the liturgical “Sim Shalom” and “Boi Kalah” all on the second album. The title track from the first comes from a contemporary Hebrew poem by Haviva Pedaya, whose words Jaffa Road set to music at the suggestion of Glazer (who remains an important behind-the-scenes inspiration).
The music comes from all the influences on the band: think John Coltrane and Bill Frisell as well as masters of classical Indian sitar, blues, and even experimental rock like Brian Eno and Pink Floyd. You can also hear strains of Galeet Dardashti’s Divahn or Basya Schechter’s Pharaoh’s Daughter, but with a more international flair.
Through this eclectic patchwork you end up with a traditional kabbalistic chant, “Ana Bekoach,” that starts with a meditative sound. As the lyrics shift from “Hear my pleas” to “Hear me cry,” the music shifts, as Lightstone put it, “to a wailing, wild, off-the-hook improv. It’s an ancient kabbalistic poem with sax improv in the style of Coltrane.”
Composing begins in Lightstone’s home studio, where he develops an idea until it’s in a rough form, with different parts mapped out. “Then we get everyone together to replace those parts. So, I might do a percussion part and that’s great, but nothing compared to having a real drummer like Rakesh to take the idea to the next level,” he said. “It’s a very collaborative process.”
The musicians’ expertise, which is deep and layered, comes through in the music: Lightstone has a degree in classical guitar, and has also studied Arabic music, the oud, and sitar. Gray has a doctorate in ethnomusicology in classical Indian music, and plays in an R&B group in Toronto. He also invented the instrument called the bass vena, which incorporates the bass guitar and the Indian string instrument. Viswanathan, on saxophone and flute, was born in India and is a professor of jazz at York University in Toronto. His influences include both Indian and Brazilian music. And Tewari plays with a wide variety of bands in Toronto, including the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.
“We are lots of different strains that come together,” said Lightstone. “Hopefully the sum is something new.”
As for how they managed to get themselves into the world music niche, Lightstone acknowledges that in some ways it was intentional, but in part, it “just happened.”
The “just happened” part? Jaffa Road music played on the Canadian Broadcast Company stations, and, much to their delight, the listeners responded.
“We’re making Jewish music, but if it’s really good music, it should be good for any audience.” When their version of “Lo Yisa Goy” won the 2009 John Lennon Songwriting Contest grand prize in the world music category, Lightstone said, “It was validation that you can do world music in Hebrew.”