New album features music from the world’s ghettos

Frank London, the Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer, and co-founder of The Klezmatics, has released a superb new album, Ghetto Songs (from Venice and Beyond), featuring Renaissance, cantorial and contemporary music about and from the world’s ghettos.

The album grew out of London’s 2016 residency at Beit Venezia, a Venice-based organization that aims to weave Jewish culture into the fabric of Venetian cultural life. During his residency, London composed and arranged the music for a staging of The Merchant of Venice, performed in the Venice Jewish ghetto for its 500th anniversary in 2016. A performance by London and his band at a 2019 festival of Venetian music led to the creation of the album.

The repertoire on Ghetto Songs spans the globe, with a strong focus on Venice. It includes 16th-century music and poetry from the Venice Ghetto (works from Solomone Rossi, Benedetto Marcello and Sara Coppia Sulam), a piyyut (Jewish liturgical poem) from Morocco’s mellah; kwela from South Africa’s townships, the music of Cantor Gershon Sirota, who lived and died in the Warsaw Ghetto, and the band War’s 1972 anthemic hit “The World Is a Ghetto.”

London, who’s based in New York, assembled a stellar cast of musicians and singers to perform Ghetto Songs. They include Karim Sulayman, who won the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance; Yaakov Lemmer, who’s considered the preeminent performer of classical Jewish cantorial music today; Cantor Svetlana “Sveta” Kundish, a singer of Jewish music who’s performed throughout Europe as a soloist and with renowned artists and ensembles, and cellist Marika Hughes, a composer, singer and bandleader who’s worked with Whitney Houston, Lou Reed, Anthony Braxton and David Byrne.

Q. When Beit Venezia reached out to you in 2016 to become its artist-in-residence, what were their expectations?

A: Shaul Bassi, one of the main driving forces behind Beit Venezia, left it very, very open. He wanted me to get a sense of Venice, a sense of the Jewish community of Venice, get a sense of the ghetto space itself, so that we could have a discussion about ways to memorialize the 500th anniversary.

Q. How did you learn about the Jewish Venetian musical tradition?

A:The Venice Jewish community, especially the people in Beit Venezia are very passionate and informed. One gentleman, Piergabriele Mancuso, has been collecting all the different music and doing interviews and research for years. He gave me hours of historical recordings of ethnomusicologists who had spoken with older Jews who had gotten into Jewish Venetian households and recorded them singing Passover songs. Home recordings, synagogue recordings, professional recordings, too. Hours of stuff.

Q. Your research helped you compose music for a staging of The Merchant of Venice, performed in the Venice Jewish ghetto for its 500th anniversary in 2016. Would you describe the performance?

A :Some of the music for the production was music of the time period in addition to my composition. When we performed “The Merchant of Venice,” it was very powerful to be in the place, to feel the drama of that place. The Venice ghetto is three tiny islands and the original one is just a circle of buildings, with a bank in the square. The most famous Venetian Jew of all time is Shylock, who’s a fictional character. The ghetto was originally opened so that the Jewish bankers wouldn’t have to commute in and out of the city across the harbour every day. We were there in in the midst of a relatively ungentrified, unchanged 16th century, and we were costumed by a costume maker who specialized in historical reproductions. It was not an anachronism, it was really experiencing a different period of time.

Q. Would you tell me how the album developed?

A: We played at a festival around the theme of Venice in Hamburg, Germany. I had told a few of my contacts in Europe about the idea of Ghetto Songs. That’s why the subtitle of the CD recording is “from Venice and Beyond.” If you do the math of the 12 songs, most of them are either Venice-centric or Italian-centric.

Q. A couple of the songs on the album came out of your listening to the Jewish Venetian music of the Renaissance you had access to. Would you tell me about them?

A: Two pieces are from 450 years ago: The Salomone Rossi setting of “O dolcezz’amarissime” and the Benedetto Marcello setting of “Maoz Tsur.” Salomone Rossi is the Jewish composer of the Italian Renaissance. (But) his music is essentially the same as the Italian non-Jewish Renaissance music. On the other hand, you have Benedetto Marcello, who’s an Italian Christian obsessed with Jewish music. Marcello went to synagogues and transcribed the melodies being sung. Thanks to Marcello, we know the music that was sung in synagogues in Venice and in other parts of Italy 450 years ago. What he did, you could call them compositions, but they’re more arrangements. The “Maoz Tsur” is the traditional melody that was sung at the time with his harmonization.

Q. The album also focuses on several historical ghettos around the world. Why did you decide to take this global approach for the album?

A: I wanted to point out the universality of ghettos. I have found when talking about ghettos, depending on who I’m talking with, that person will have a certain view of what a ghetto is. Most people think of the ghetto of their experience and don’t think of all the other ghettos. About Poland, they’re thinking of the war-torn Krakow Ghetto and the ghettos of the Holocaust. In New York City, when you talk to people about ghettos, they’re thinking of the African-American urban ghettos. People think of their local ghetto as being the ghetto and don’t think of the commonality of ghettos. My purpose is to help give people a global perspective on the phenomena of ghettos and do it by not focusing on the tragedy of ghettos (instead) focusing on the magnificent culture that was produced in ghettos.

Q. You included “Minutn fun bitokhn” (“Moments of Hope”) written by Mordechai Gebirtig, the bard of the Krakow Ghetto. Would you tell me about the song.

A: That’s a very different ghetto than the Venice Ghetto. That ghetto was just to round people up, to wall them in and murder them in the death camps. In the midst of that, the poets and the composers wrote songs, some of them are angry, resistance songs. This one is meant to keep people’s spirits alive and it’s a very hopeful song, “and we will see our enemies defeated.” It’s hard to imagine being in that situation and having the strength of someone like Gebirtig to say that. “Minutn fun bitokhn” was perfect to give people the strength to survive and not fall prey to the depression that comes with the situation they were in.

Q. You also included South African township music of the 1950s in the album. In 1950, South Africa’s Group Areas Act separated all racially mixed neighbourhoods by removing black communities and relocating them on the peripheries into townships. You chose the upbeat tune “Accordion Jive” for the album. Why?

A. It was important to include the South African township music because it shows another kind of response to ghetto life, which is one of joy and partying. “Accordion Jive” celebrates the joyful spirits. I needed to have that voice in the record.