On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Dec. 7, 2020

Sheldon I. (Shelley) Posen (Apr. 12, 1946 – ) Folklorist, Singer, Songwriter, Museum Curator


Shelley Posen is “keenly concerned about Jewish continuity and aware of the realities we face,” he told me in a recent phone conversation.

Posen has written two (of many) songs that reflect his concerns: Will The Children Light the Candles? from his CD, Menorah: Songs from a Jewish Life and The Chanukah and Christmas Song, about an interfaith household “because there are so many and some very close to me.” That one will be on his next recording Jacob Solomon, to be released post-COVID.

Thanks are due to friend Cynthia Nathanson, who introduced me to Posen, a versatile singer and multi-instrumentalist whose career includes researching, teaching, writing, composing and performing.

For the past decade, Posen has been writing “Jewish songs that sounded as if the Gershwins or Irving Berlin had written their music about Jewish life instead of about southern Black folks or Christmas, and weren’t afraid to use Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic.”

As he explains, his Jewish songs “aren’t religious enough for Orthodox Jews, are too religious for Israelis and some Europeans, aren’t Yiddish or ‘klezzy’ enough for klezmer lovers and have too much Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic in them, not to mention religion for secular and non-Jews. One of my songs, And We Sang Ha Lakhma Anya, I’m told, is sung around Pesach seder tables the world over. That’s tremendously satisfying.”

Born to Aaron and Bernice (Bidnowitz) Posen in Toronto, young Sheldon and the family reveled in music. “My Mum made singing part of everyday life and Jewish holidays,” he recalled.

He was a Beth Sholom Junior Congregation cantor while at Associated Hebrew Day School. He attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Mich., majoring in choir and operetta. He played ukulele and guitar, and learned to play the banjo, influenced by Pete Seeger.

Posen toured with the Hart House Glee Club and the University of Toronto Chorus, continuing to perform folk music at festivals and hootenannies. He was a regular at two iconic Toronto coffeehouses, the Riverboat and Fiddler’s Green folk club.

“My Dad was less supportive of my venturing into music as a career because he wanted me to follow him into orthodontics,” he said.

Posen pursued graduate studies in folklore in 1970 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he “absorbed the music of fishermen singing in their kitchens and of the Irish and country music entertainers in popular St. John’s nightspots.”

He became a founding member of the Newfoundland bluegrass band Crooked Stovepipe, and while writing his Master’s thesis in Toronto, “served as Director of Mariposa in the Schools in the pre-dawn of the Canadian children’s folk music boom.”

He received his doctorate in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, carrying out ethnographic research on Irish-Canadian singing traditions in Chapeau, Que. on Allumette Island, across the Ottawa River from Pembroke, Ont. Posen said he became involved in the burgeoning northern revival of southern American choral singing from The Sacred Harp, an early American hymn book. His thesis became a text book in 1988, Singing and Dancing and All Sorts of Fun.

Posen moved to Ottawa in 1983, formed the Ottawa Shape Note Chorus, and taught shape note (a musical notation to facilitate group singing) and harmony singing at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. He also directed Congregation Beth Sholom’s men’s choir.

He formed the vocal trio Finest Kind with Ann Downey and Ian Robb in 1990, and for the next 25 years, the group recorded seven CDs and performed in Canada, the U.S. and UK. Around the holiday season each year, they reunite to perform seasonal concerts in the National Capital Region, but for 2020. they will perform virtually.

Posen was curator of Canadian Folklife at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from 2001-2015; his wife Maxine Muska is assistant director of Ottawa’s Soloway Jewish Community Centre.

He has recorded five solo CDs covering various genres and styles. Others have sung his songs. One about the end of the Newfoundland fishery, No More Fish, No Fishermen, has been performed by folk legends Gordon Bok and Lou Killen, and was a favourite of Helen Schneyer. Eve Goldberg, Claudia Schmidt and Jane Voss recorded his Cole Porter-inspired song Having a Drink with Jane.

“I am not religious,” Posen reflects, “but I write many songs as if I were because I am intimate with and highly value Judaism’s beauty, fragility and resilience as a religion and as a culture. If Jews of whatever persuasion and non-Jews see themselves in my songs and find them entertaining and meaningful, then I’ve done my job.”

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communications. He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

Ashkenaz Festival Marks Anniversary Online (Starts Tonight!)

Sept. 1, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The Ashkenaz Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary online. Live daily pop-up performances and a nightly archive series, will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube from Sept. 1 to 7.

Founded in 1995 as a biennial showcase for klezmer and Yiddish music and culture, the festival grew to embrace global Jewish art and culture, including dance, theatre and film. Ashkenaz has attracted audiences of more than 60,000 to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Due to restrictions imposed by the ongoing COVID pandemic, Ashkenaz is offering a pared-down virtual edition for 2020, featuring a musical sampling.

It’s a jolt to be unable to present the festival in person, said artistic director Eric Stein.

“But being able to mark that milestone in the way that we’re doing, with a look back and also a look at the present, I think is a nice opportunity,” he added.

Twenty-minute live pop-up performances by some of the festival’s Toronto-based alumni will be streamed daily at 4 p.m. from various outdoor locations in the city. The series showcases Sephardic singer Aviva Chernick; the Toronto Klezmer Society; pianist Marilyn Lerner with singer David Wall; Lemon Bucket Orkestra co-founders Mark and Marichka Marcyk; Moneka Arabic Jazz and klezmer/Balkan-style band Beyond the Pale.

Ashkenaz’s founding artistic director, trumpeter David Buchbinder, shot a video for the festival in New Orleans, where he’s based part-time, to be streamed during the festival.

Delivery of music has been completely transformed at this point, with venues not functioning the way they used to, said Stein, who also plays mandolin for Beyond the Pale. But, he added, there are amazing opportunities to hear music in unexpected places, such as living rooms, backyards, porches and parks.

The band “Beyond the Pale,” with Ashkenaz artistic director Eric Stein at far left.

“There’s such a hunger for music out there and there’s a hunger by musicians to get out and play, aside from the fact that they really need to work and earn something because all of their income has been so incredibly constricted,” Stein said.

The festival’s archival series, daily at 8 p.m., presents concerts from festivals from 1999 to 2018. “I would say the further back we go in time with the archival shows, fewer and fewer people would have seen these shows,” Stein said. “It’s like you’re seeing new content.”

Included in the evening series are 1999 performances by the Flying Bulgar Band, a legendary Toronto group that was part of the klezmer revival, and Hasidic New Wave, a band that fuses Hasidic musical styles, such as freylekhs and horas, with jazz, funk and experimental rock.

The archival series will revive a 2014 performance by Zion80, a 10-piece, improvisational horn-heavy band that combines the heartfelt melodies of Jewish music with the polyrhythmic intensity of Afrobeat.

Other highlights of the nightly series include a 2008 concert headlined by Joshua Nelson, an African-American singer who blends Hebrew texts with gospel melodies, and a 2018 performance by YID!, an Australian group that performs Yiddish music mixed with jazz, funk, electronica and indie folk.

The 2016 concert by the Israeli group, Baladino, whose repertoire consists of fresh yet authentic interpretations of Sephardic and Ladino melodies, is also being streamed for the nightly series. 

The finale of the 2006 Ashkenaz Festival rounds out the virtual festival. Featuring an all-star band, the concert is a tribute to the Moldavian clarinetist German Goldenshteyn, an important figure in the klezmer world who died months before he was to perform at Ashkenaz. Goldenshteyn brought his native region’s klezmer tradition to the United States in 1994, when he arrived there with hundreds of klezmer tunes he had transcribed over the years.

“This was a particularly spirited finale because there was an emotional resonance around the loss of German and how significant he and his repertoire had been to the klezmer scene at that time and still to the present,” Stein said. 

“It’s an amazing performance of a complete all-star cast of just about anyone you can imagine who is an important figure in the klezmer scene and it ends with about 40 musicians on stage.”

A virtual exhibition, 25 years of the Ashkenaz Festival, tells the festival’s story, from its launch in 1995 through to the 2018 event. Presented by the Ashkenaz Festival and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the exhibit is online until Sept. 30. 

The exhibit includes a narrative written by Stein, videos, photographs and digitized memorabilia – press clippings, excerpts from program books, festival T-shirts and the colourful, whimsical posters created for each past festival.

Stein said he put the exhibit together to give people a sense of what the festival has been throughout its life, how important it’s been to the artistic community, and to the community at large. It was also an opportunity for him to honour the people who created the festival and who have along the way been critical to its success and functioning.

Stein reflected that watching this year’s virtual edition is a way for people to remember the amazing times they had at previous festivals, surrounded by thousands of people at Harbourfront Centre and feeling the community and the vitality of the artists and the art forms. 

“That’s what we’re missing so much. We all hope we can back to where we can experience that live again,” he said. “But for now, this is the next best thing.”

For more information, visit http://www.ashkenaz.ca/event/ashkenaz-2020/ 

KlezKanada Goes Online for 25th Anniversary Edition

Aug. 11, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

KlezKanada is taking its annual summer festival of Yiddish music and culture – its 25th anniversary edition – online this year.

KlezKanada festival 2019. Photo Avia Moore

More than 60 virtual workshops and classes, and several concerts are scheduled for the five-day KlezKanada festival, scheduled for Aug. 24-28.

The organization’s executive director, Sebastian Schulman, said cancelling this year’s festival due to restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic was out of the question, adding that the culture of eastern European Jewish life teaches about how to persist in difficult times. 

Asya Vaisman Schulman and KlezKanada executive director Sebastian Schulman. Photo Avia Moore

“There’s so many examples of Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews specifically, being able to create in the most dire of circumstances,” he said. 

“Our minds might go most immediately to the war and to the Holocaust. I think there’s (also) a really rich history for centuries of being able to look in the face of fear or catastrophe and to sing, to laugh, to dance.

“And that is a very Jewish way of facing a crisis. The world is in the middle of a crisis right now and our community says, ‘well, let’s put on a festival. Let’s celebrate life as best as we can.’”

Naoki Hishinuma, left, Adam Matlock and Aaron Blacksberg. Photo Avia Moore

While a virtual festival can’t replace KlezKanada’s camp, which has been held at Camp B’nai Brith in Lantier, Que., in the Laurentian mountains for 24 years, the online festival has its advantages.

KlezKanada festival 2019. Photo Avia Moore

For one thing, KlezKanada is expecting registration to be higher than usual this year, with hundreds of attendees from around the world, including many people who have been unable to attend past festivals, Schulman said.

Some workshops, like Transcription Corner, where students will learn how to create sheet music from recordings, will be even more effective online, he said.

Having sheet music helps learning how to play klezmer and Yiddish music, as their sources are old recordings. The instructors will go through the different technologies for transcribing music.

“You could do it in person, but it would be a very dry class in person. If you do it online, you can really get into the nitty-gritty of the technology,” Schulman said.

The festival offers klezmer music instruction ranging from “Klezmer 101” for new players, to a variety of workshops for intermediate and advanced students. The ambitious program also includes Yiddish language courses, lessons in visual arts and Jewish cooking, film screenings, dance classes and children’s activities.

Performers on KlezKanada’s virtual main stage will include the Grammy award-winning band The Klezmatics, and Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, a genre-defying artist who’s known for fusing Jewish music with hip hop. In concert, Socalled will be singing Yiddish songs backed by a string quartet.

Concert Highlights

“Where Have You Been?: 25 Years of KlezKanada in Lantier, Quebec,” based on research into KlezKanada’s camp location in Lantier, combines theatre and music. The piece was created in collaboration with indigenous historians, musician and writer Geoff Berner, and puppeteer Jenny Romaine.

Klezmer trombonist Rachel Lemisch and Jason Rosenblatt perform from their home in Montreal. She comes from a family of klezmorim that goes back generations, and he is one of the world’s leading performers of klezmer on diatonic harmonica.

East Meets West Revisited looks back to the 1980s, a time in contemporary Yiddish culture when artists from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union reconnected with their counterparts in North America and western Europe. The concert features Michael Alpert (USA/Scotland), Efim Chorny and Suzanna Ghergus (Moldova), Sasha Lurje (Germany/Latvia), and the Strauss Warschauer Duo (USA).

Workshop and Class Highlights

Klezmer 101 Yoni Kaston and Ariane Morin teach the basic klezmer genres and explain modes and harmonies, and students will learn tunes in a play-along session.

Klezmexperimental Ensemble In this experimental music workshop, led by Dan Blacksberg and Frank London, for intermediate and advanced students, participants will explore creating pieces with no set tempo and try out different kinds of musical layerings, while they push the limits of what kind of music they can make live. 

Alternative Voice Techniques for Folk Singing Yiddish singer extraordinaire Sasha Lurje will help vocalists learn how to control their voices and use them as instruments. The class is open to both experienced singers and people searching for their voices.

The Beauty in Ugly Stuffed Vegetables – One thing that nearly every Jewish community – from Romania and Poland to Syria, Morocco and India – has in common is an affection for stuffed vegetables, the culinary technique that transforms a bit of meat or starch into a soulful and seductive centrepiece. Leah Koenig, the author of The Jewish Cookbook and Modern Jewish Cooking, explores the cultural particularities of this universal Jewish food. Recipes will be provided in advance of the class for anyone wanting to cook along.Dancing

Together Apart Avia Moore and Magdalena Hutter will lead participants in exploring Yiddish dance in relationship with the screens that are currently so central to our lives. They will explore concepts such as space, tempo, shape and gesture through Yiddish dance and ScreenDance. They will then send participants out into the world to record their own movement explorations, starting with a zhok (Yiddish dance) step.

For more information, visit http://klezkanada.org