When most people think of Jewish music, they probably imagine the dulcet warbling of a klezmer clarinet and not the propulsive rhythm of a reggae groove or the harmonies of a bluegrass spiritual.
At the fifth annual Desert Gathering Jewish Music Fest on Nov. 5, Nefesh Mountain, a bluegrass band, and Josh and Chava, a folk duo with a strong reggae background, will add both these genres to the Jewish musical repertoire in their first appearances at the festival.
Also performing is the festival’s founder, Todd Herzog, a singer-songwriter and cantorial soloist at Temple Solel.
“The Desert Gathering Jewish Music Fest will be an amazing day to connect Phoenix’s entire Jewish population, as well as music lovers of all backgrounds, in a show of community and togetherness,” Herzog said.
Formerly held at Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix, this year the festival has relocated to the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus in Scottsdale.
Josh and Chava is a nationally recognized folk duo made up of Chava Mirel and Josh Niehaus. Mirel, the daughter of a rabbi, is from the Seattle area and has been performing music in front of audiences since the age of 2. In addition to touring nationally and internationally for both Jewish and secular acts, Mirel serves as a prayer leader and musician at multiple congregations throughout the Seattle area.
“I always loved music that had groove to it without really knowing what that was about,” Mirel said. “When I went to college, I started studying African music, that was my focus. I was in this project that contained reggae, Jewish music and African music, and that’s how I got involved with reggae. Then, I just got obsessed with it and dedicated my life to working with Jamaican artists.”
This love of reggae music led Mirel to relocate to New York, where she lived for roughly a decade, performing with reggae icons like Clinton Fearon and Ari Up, lead singer of the English punk rock band, The Slits. Mirel toured both the United States and in Europe with Up.
Eventually, she met Niehaus at the Hava Nashira Songleading Workshop, a Jewish musical workshop in Wisconsin, and they have been playing music together ever since.
Nefesh Mountain is a bluegrass band fronted by the husband-and-wife duo of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff. They combine traditional Jewish music and themes with bluegrass and Adirondack music.
“We kind of accidentally started creating this new kind of a music,” Zasloff explained. “It wasn’t something that we planned, it was something that kind of happened. We actually were falling in love as it happened, so it’s like Nefesh Mountain is our love story.
“We were sitting down to write prayerful and soulful Jewish music, and just every time it would come out in this bluegrass style,” she continued. “After writing a number of prayers and some songs, we sort of realized we’re doing something here and we should probably call ourselves something.”
Combing the Hebrew word for soul, nefesh, with mountain, Zasloff said the band’s name symbolizes both the verdant Adirondacks that gave birth to bluegrass music and Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, according to the Torah.
Describing their music as American roots music with a Jewish identity, Lindberg said their set at the festival will consist of 60 percent to 70 percent new music.
The band has recorded two works by Woody Guthrie, the famous folk and protest singer who was married to a Jewish woman, Marjorie Guthrie. Her mother was Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. Zasloff and Lindberg discovered that Guthrie felt a deep bond with the Jewish people due to his itinerant Dust Bowl days, Lindberg said. The two works include a poem Guthrie wrote, which the band set to music, and a song of Guthrie’s they cover called “The Hanukkah Dance.”
Also new at this year’s fest is the He-brew Beer and Wine Garden, stocked by Mesquite River Brewing Company, a local brewery that offers kosher and non-kosher beer and wine. There will also be a number of vendors, including Kettle Heroes, Zabari Mediterranean Grill and Lior the Baker, formerly called Jerusalem Bakery AZ.
PJ Library once again will sponsor a children’s area that includes activities such as face painting, books, and arts and crafts for younger festival attendees.
Pardes Jewish Day School, also located on the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus, will host the inaugural “Preschool Pre-Party” for students and their families.
A special online-only ticket promotion for the month of October is in place. Buy two general admission tickets and receive one free. Buyers must use the promotion code GATHERING. Another promotion offers two general admission tickets, plus a fleece blanket, for $25. JN
For more information or tickets, go to desertgatheringaz.org or call 480-483-7121.