Jaffa Road: Where the Light Gets In (INTERVIEW)
by Erez Safar
Music lovers better pack their bags because they’re in for a sonic world tour when global tour de force and Juno nominees Jaffa Road release Where The Light Gets In hits your stereo. The album hit stores last week, with pulsating dub grooves, ambient electronic textures, and enough rollicking rhythms to make your belly dance, Jaffa Road will transport listeners to the Middle East, India, Spain, North America, and all points in between.
Aptly named for one of the oldest streets in Jerusalem, Jaffa Road unites multiple cultures and nationalities as the Canadian band leads listeners on a musical tour to the port of Jaffa. Hebrew, Ladino, English, Arabic, and French lyrics blend with genres of Sephardic, Arabic, and Indian music, intertwined with jazz, blues, electronica, dub, and rock. Theirs is world music on a mission – peace through an unparalleled musical experience that brings us together as one people just like the road they’re named for, brings us together as one people.
I sat down with the lead singer, Aviva Chernick and lead musician, Aaron Lightstone to discuss music, spirituality and what’s next for their explosive hybrid of sounds.
Q: The album is great, what do you want people to take away from your music?
AL: Thanks, that means alot to us as we are mainly trying to make an aesthetic statement. We want people to be moved by the sounds they are hearing. We hope that all of the disparate influences and inspirations that come together to create this music, collide in a way that is new and pleasing for listener.
AC: I imagine the listener finding themselves moving. No self-consciousness. Just a sexy little groove, a kitchen dance maybe.
We make music that moves us and we hope that people who listen will be moved. No need for an intellectual process about what they find lying within it. Just moved, body and heart.
Q: There has been a revival of Jewish music and art in the last decade in NY. How do you think the Jewish music scene out there in Canada compares to that of the US?
AL: I see what we are doing as being connected to, inspired by, and a part of the movement you are referring to, but I would say the same thing about how we are connected to the world music / diasporic music scene (which is very vibrant) here and in Israel. I see Jaffa Road taking an active role in the revitalization of Jewish/Hebrew art and culture, we are one of the very few groups doing anything like this in Canada. We have some colleagues here, but keep in mind that the population of Canada is less than 1/10th the population of the US. From a Jewish perspective I think what we are doing is rather unique. There are however other groups that are doing something similar through the lens of their own diasporic heritages. However each group doing this sort of thing mixes the influences in different proportions so each group sounds really distinct from each other. It is important to also keep in mind that this is just my perspective on this matter, as only 2/5ths of the band members are Jewish.
AC: I have many friends making music and all kinds of art in New York and in L.A. but I don’t know what it feels like to be a Jewish artist in the States. From this vantage point, however, it seems easy, less risky. In Canada, as Aaron said, there are fewer people and, so, way fewer Jews. Two things are at play; the Jewish community is incredibly conservative and Jewish culture is less familiar to the mainstream, except of course, through stereotypes in television, film and the media. It takes courage here to come out as a Jewish artist. The treat about working here, though, especially in Toronto is that there are so many World music artists from a variety of countries and cultures. We bring our voice to meet theirs, just like in Jaffa Road, blending and mixing together. This is where the most magic happens.
I agree that the same renaissance is starting to happen here in Canada, encouraged by a growing progressive Jewish community as well as organizations like the Ashkenaz Foundation, and the Koffler Centre who support the Jewish creative voice. I also agree that it feels like we, Jaffa Road, are part of creating something new, pushing what has been before into a greater adventure.
Q: Your music has a spiritual side to it, could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your music?
AL: I derive inspiration from the deep well of Jewish culture and heritage, but not just my own East-European Jewish Heritage, but global Jewish culture inspires, moves, and informs my approach.
AC: The album, for me, is filled with prayers. Whether it is in Hebrew, English, French or Ladino. This is where my passion lies, prayer that doesn’t have to be in a formal sacred space or in music that requires a ‘sacred music’ classification in order to be holy and moving.
A very specific inspiration for the content of the lyrics of the album was a trip I took to Namibia a year and a half ago. I went looking for an experience of vastness and expanse through seeing elephants in the wild and open sky. I found what I was looking for and with that trip I also found so many words to express a deepening relationship with a divine space within that I can access even when moments are narrow.
Q: What attracted you all to make Sephardic styles of music?
AL : I have been interested in many kinds of Eastern music since my first Ravi Shankar and Shakti CDs in the early days of high school. This exploration of Eastern music eventually led I am also deeply attracted to the sound of the oud. There is something very special to me about the sonic properties of the instrument, so it is the sound of the oud that lead me to discover an affection for Sephardic music. The first time I really listened to it was on a recording in 1999. It was the group Zohar with Uri Caine and Aaron Bensoussan. That was one of the first times I really heard Ladino music. Shortly after first hearing that recording a strange set of coincidences led to me becoming friends with Bensoussan (he is a guest singer on both of our recordings), and this set me on a path of exploring Sephardic and related music. I was also drawn to the Spanish aspects of the music for family reasons. Most of my Grandmother’s large family perished in the Holocaust. When my grandmother left Europe she came to Canada, her sister went to Uruguay. Despite great distance, many decades, and the arrival of three new generations, the Spanish speaking Uruguayan branch of the family and the English speaking Canadian branch of the family have remained in close and frequent contact with each other. Additionally, my sister married her High school boyfriend (a Jewish guy from Venezuela) and over the many years we have become close with his family. So perhaps because of the way that Spanish figures into the dynamics of my family, Sephardi music is like this interesting part of my extended family that I feel connected to. On a simpler level though, I want to play the oud and I want to play music that celebrates Jewish culture, Sephardic music is the connecting point there.
Q: Who do you see as your target demographic?
AL : I think we have a few target demographics. Perhaps the most obvious is the one you alluded to in your earlier question. People who appreciate and participate in this revival and revitalization of new Jewish/ Hebrew Culture. I want to be known in that demographic because I think they will dig it, and it is a natural fit. However our touring experience in far flung places has taught us that the music has wide appeal and we should not pigeon hole ourselves as a “Jewish Band”. For example, we have way more experience performing for non-Jewish audiences than Jewish audiences. We have traveled all over Canada and performed at music festivals for folk music fans, jazz fans, and world music fans. We have had some great experiences playing in places with very few or no Jewish audiences. our music has been really well-received at festivals in the rural Maritimes and at the most remote arts festival in North America. In 2010 we went to Igloolik, Nunavut, a tiny Inuit hamlet on a tiny island in the Arctic Archipelago. We played the Rocking Walrus Festival for an almost entirely Inuit audience and they got really into our brand of Hebrew and Ladino music, so I think the target demographic is pretty broad.
AC: I speak Spanish and Hebrew. Not long after we met in 2002, Aaron introduced me to the music of Yasmin Levy. I fell madly in love. I love singing in Ladino. I feel different somehow, like I can be more sensual because there is less baggage than in Hebrew and English. Sort of like a relaxed tourist. Writing an original in Ladino for this album has been one of my absolute highlights. In 2006, Eric Stein introduced me to Flory Jagoda who is now one of my beloved teachers. If you haven’t heard of her, Flory is a 89 year old Jewish musician from Yugoslavia. She is considered to be an American National Treasure. She is sort of the keeper of the Balkan Ladino musical tradition. I modeled the prayer in Bring Love Home (En Esta Klara Noche) after Flory’s prayers. I love studying this repertoire with her and it moved me into bringing a 7/8 rhythm forward for this tune. Of course, the best thing in the band is that it is never ends up being just what one person brings in. So, the 7/8 rhythm in that tune, typical of the Balkans, was taken by Jeffrey Wilson, our percussionist who shifted the feel to a new place, that took the foundation of this tune to greater heights.
Q: How do you see Judaism as playing a role in your song writing?
AL : In a number of cases a line from a tefilah (Prayer), or a traditional Jewish melody form the seed of a song, so on one hand that is a pretty important role. On the other hand, all the band members have been involved in collaborating on the compositions and the band members who are not Jewish have a much more tangential relationship to Judaism. So Judaism is an important inspiration and influence but at the same time it is one of many.
AC: See question 2 and 3:)
Q: What’s next in your career?
AL : International touring: We have had some great experiences playing all over Canada, but I would really like to see this band playing American, South American, European, and Israeli dates.
AC: The release of my solo project December 4th-a collection of music for prayer entitled: when i arrived you were already there. check it out.
Full disclosure: The author of this interview is a paid representative of the subjects.