By Lizzy Solovey
African-American spiritual music, a type of folk music, offers a Christian interpretation of the plight of slaves in the 19th century and is considered a precursor to gospel music.
Sung inside and outside of churches, this music developed as a way for African-Americans to band together and hope for a brighter future. By singing lyrics concerned with the Old Testament, African-Americans instilled a sense of faith in their community. Characterized by antiphony, percussive sounds, ring shout, and improvisation, spiritual music received a mixed reaction from outsiders. While some felt the music was too strange, one group of people might have noticed the similarities between spiritual music and their own traditional melodies— Jews.
For centuries, the Jewish people have also used rhythm and melody in their prayers to unite and hope for salvation. Thinking about prayer in a new way does not surprise junior Jenna Turow.
“It makes sense for prayer to sound like music, and vice versa, because of the spirituality and personality that is attached to both. Prayer and music are both meant to be a (mostly personal) expression.”
But, it can also be noted that prayer and music foster a sense of community and communal support. Slaves chanted spiritual music to band together, and Jews spread across the diaspora chant in synagogues worldwide to feel united.
Considering all the similarities between spirituals and Jewish prayer, some contemporary musicians have been inspired to bridge the gap between them further. This attempt to explore Jewish prayers and African American spiritual music together carries the implication that both groups can use spiritual songs and Jewish prayers interchangeably from a religious perspective.
Soul2Soul is the name of one concert put on by the National Yiddish Theater, Folksbiene, which has one group perform after the other. Although the authenticity of spirituals and Jewish prayers is sacrificed in such contexts, the chance for others to hear these traditionally private and community based musical forms is expanded. Still, others see an opportunity to capitalize on the similarities between spirituals and Jewish prayers by creating a new musical genre entirely, which perhaps could be called “Afro-Semitic” (term taken from YouTube).
For example, Warren Byrd and David Chevan are two musicians who use jazz to combine the message of Jewish prayer and African American spiritual music.
Senior Jenna Bishop agrees with this notion of pluralism as someone who is active in Greek life on campus.
“Being in a multicultural sorority, the combination of African American music and Jewish prayer seems [to me] as though it would be a very enriching and interesting endeavor that would allow the two cultures to learn more about one another,” she said.
Perhaps, as we start realizing how much the Jews have in common with other groups, we will start spreading the love and seeing more mixed genres of music, art, etc. on our own campus.