Klezmer, they’re not. The three members of Warsaw, Poland’s Shofar take their cue from the Hasidic melodies of Eastern Europe’s Jewish population, but they don’t play for dancers, and there’s little nostalgia in their sound. Instead, they’ve developed a rough-edged, free-jazz-inflected approach that mixes Hasidic music’s devotional roots with the abrasively modern tones of the electric guitar—and that’s every bit as creative as anything coming out of New York City’s Radical Jewish Culture scene.
“Basically, the idea was Raphael Roginski’s, the guitarist in the band,” says drummer Macio Moretti by phone from his home in Poland’s capital. “He was travelling through Ukraine and somewhere he bought this book of tunes collected by Moshe Bieregowski. And he brought it back, and I think that’s one of his biggest inspirations and resources for playing music. I don’t remember how, exactly, it all started, but he had this idea of bringing me in as a drummer, and the saxophone player Mikolaj Trzaska, to create a trio and work specifically on these tunes. Two of them are older than the Hasidic ones; they are maybe a thousand years old. But mostly it’s Bieregowski’s Ukrainian tunes.”
Paradoxically, one of the pleasures of working from the Bieregowski collection is that the early-20th-century folklorist wasn’t always meticulous in notating his discoveries.
“I don’t know if you know the book, but basically some of the melodies are just three bars long or five bars long,” Moretti says. “It’s like sketches of music that you’re really trying to put the life into. This is the nice thing about it.”
In other words, the three musicians are able to take serious interpretive liberties with what is otherwise very traditional material. There is some similarity between Shofar’s approach and how jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman expanded on blues and gospel themes during the 1960s, but Moretti stresses that his band is not consciously modelled on the jazz of that turbulent time.
“There’s an unconscious influence for sure, because Raphael and Mikolaj, they are really into old free-jazz stuff and ‘out’ music,” he allows. “Ornette Coleman is a good reference for what Mikolaj’s doing, although he’s not the only saxophone player that he’s inspired by. So there was no conscious decision to do it this way; it’s just that most of the things we were doing are based on intuition. It’s just having the material and knowing what you can do with certain people.”
Nor, he adds, is there an explicitly political dimension behind playing the music of a people who, through pogroms, genocide, and exile, have largely vanished from the land they once occupied. “Of course it has something to do with the history, and you must think about the history while playing this music,” the drummer allows. “Then you dig deeper and try to know about what happened here and all that stuff. But it’s music first.”
Very good music, too. Gritty, soulful, and compelling, Shofar’s take on the Hasidic repertoire epitomizes the resilience of Jewish culture—and the power of even the most forward-thinking music to encode enduring memories.