A new spin on Jewish music

The Jewish Music Festival champions diversity in its programming and its reach.

Simja Dujov

The fifth edition of the Montreal Jewish Music Festival begins today and runs through Thursday, Aug. 28, staging seven shows at venues from Mile End to Cote-des-Neiges.

MJMF artistic director Jason Rosenblatt says that the festival’s raison d’être was presenting a wide variety of Jewish music styles, outside of the usual venues and neighbourhoods. In its first year, the festival staged an avant-garde Jewish jazz show at Lion d’Or, and have managed to draw large audiences of francophones as well as anglos.

“We try to have at least one traditional klezmer concert and this year it’s Der Groyser concert with 15 artists from seven different countries performing traditional Yiddish and klezmer music,” says Rosenblatt, “but some of it is a little more punk, a little more rock, more of a vagabond musician type of thing.”

In the past, the festival has booked local klezmer hip hop act Socalled, and this year the crossover artist is Argentina’s Simja Dujov.

“He’s really a DJ,” says Rosenblatt. “He also plays accordion and sings, and mixes elements of klezmer and Balkan music with nightclub music.”

Forshpil. Photo by Adam Berry
Forshpil. Photo by Adam Berry

Diversity aside, Rosenblatt’s programming criteria calls for Jewish content, but that doesn’t extend directly to its musicians.

“To play the festival, you don’t have to be Jewish,” he says, citing world-renowned klezmer clarinetist Christian Dawid as an example of a gentile performer playing this year. “Either it’s really recognizable, traditional Eastern European Jewish music or Sephardic music, or the lyrics are in any of the traditional languages of Judaism: Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino or Judeo-Arabic. Finally, are the themes Jewish? It could be in English or French or whatever, and the themes of the songs have something to do with Jewish history or culture.

“And then there’s the whole package, like Simja Dujov. He doesn’t play Jewish songs per se — it’s more hip hop — but the melodies he uses are classic Eastern European Jewish melodies.”

Though he says that finding acts that meet these criteria is usually easy, one act booked this year was kind of a tough call.

“There’s a band called Sandaraa, their lead singer is Pakistani but the guy who put it all together, Michael Winograd, happens to also be a great klezmer clarinetist. You listen to the music and it sounds more like Pakistani music than Jewish music. I had to dig down really deep to figure out if this qualifies as Jewish, but I figured that if I could get a Pakistani pop singer and a klezmer clarinetist together to perform, I’d give it some leeway. It was just great music and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have them.” ■

The Montreal Jewish Music Festival runs through Aug. 28. See the complete line-up here