Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 1, 2010

Singing the Jewish blues

Saul Kaye mingles Jewish songs with the rhythms and harmonies of the blues tradition

by Be'eri Moalem 

While driving to his next gig in Oregon, Saul Kaye muses in a phone interview: "Right now in the world, people are feeling the blues with the economic recession. I try to do a little 'tikkun olam' (Hebrew for 'repairing the world')."

"Music heals people. It can take them out of their life. It can give a fresh perspective, lift the spirits, and people see that maybe their life is good compared to some of the stories," he adds.

Kaye will try to convey some of that healing — with the help of the blues — at a concert at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto on Thursday, Jan. 7, at 7:30 p.m. A guitarist, pianist and singer, Kaye will perform a solo show of his "Jewish blues."

Born in South Africa and raised in New Haven, Brooklyn and central California, Kaye is currently based in El Sobrante. He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston as well as the University of California at Berkeley.

Kaye says he was first drawn to the blues at the age of 10 listening to a radio show called "The Blues Train." On his website jewishblues.org, he writes: "The blues train would depart at 8 p.m. every Monday night and arrive Tuesday morning about 6 a.m. I would play my guitar all night with Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and B.B. King until I passed out somewhere in the wee hours. ... It left an indelible impression on my young spirit."

By the time he was a teenager, Kaye had decided that he would become a professional musician. Within a few years he was forming bands, touring the world with his music and releasing several CDs. The cover of his 2004 folk rock CD "Doctor's Orders" features Kaye tossing his guitar in the air in a redwood forest. His 2007 release "A Taste of Paradise" shows Kaye on the cover, ready to bite into a red apple that is strategically positioned in front of a female nipple. It contains an eclectic mix of rock, funk, pop and reggae.

Still, Kaye says that it was only in the last few years that he found his Jewish voice. Like many young Jews, he says, he "proclaimed emancipation from the temple" after his bar mitzvah, but gradually started to come back to Judaism over the years. He found that his Jewish heritage resonated with his original love for the African-American blues, saying that Jews and black Americans have long shared a spiritual kinship bound together by the struggle for freedom and against discrimination.

"Jews have been enslaved in many countries over the centuries. ... So, like the African slave experience proved to be a catalyst for blues, so the path of Jewish history fostered its own form of soulful tears. ...," Kaye writes on jewishblues.org.

"You can hear it in the synagogue when the Torah and the books of Prophets are read, chanted in tropes passed down through time, recounting forbearers' sorrows on days of tragedy like Tisha B'Av, or remembering celebrations of freedom on Passover, when Jews recall the Israelite's 'Song at the Sea,' as the waters of freedom parted," he continues.

Kaye's take on the blues is refined yet raw. Traditional Jewish songs are slightly altered and reincarnated with the rhythms, harmonies, vocal styles and melodic patterns of the blues. 

Kaye regularly takes the Jewish blues on the road. He says he plays more than 200 shows per year in spots such as Whitefish, Montana; Houston; Philadelphia; and Tel Aviv at a roughly even mix of secular and Jewish venues. This past summer, Kaye studied at an Orthodox yeshiva (Jewish school) in the religiously intense Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. As a Jew who grew up in the Reform movement and has seen many people treat their religion as a "side thing," he was amazed to find what he describes as "an entire community constructed around Judaism and Torah," with people devoting their lives to religion.

During Kaye's stay in Israel, he composed the songs for his album "Jewish Blues Vol. 2," set to be released in February 2010. Now that he's back in the United States, Kaye describes his religious identity as "flexadox." He often performs wearing traditional cloth fringes and head coverings.

In his upcoming show in Palo Alto, Kaye will be performing selections from both of his "Jewish Blues" albums. Song titles include "Moses' Blues," "Desert Blues" and "The Sky is Crying," which includes the following words:

"I got up early this morning/

I was working my hands to the bone/

I said Hashem have mercy/

Don't Let me die out here on my own."

What: Saul Kaye gives a solo concert of his Jewish blues.

Where: Albert & Janet Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

When: Thursday, Jan. 7, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $15 general, $10 for JCC members and students

Info: Go to jewishblues.org or paloaltojcc.org, or call the OFJCC at 650-223-8622.

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