The San Diego Jewish Men's Choir is an organization that preserves traditional Jewish choral music. It has been in existence for over 16 years and performs it's wonderful music at community events, festivals, synagogues, senior centers and many other venues. For the past 5 years, Ruth Weber has been its director, and she has enhanced the musical heritage by encouraging the choir to record its music so it can be enjoyed by a wider audience. On 8/7/15, The San Diego Jewish Men's Choir will release its second CD entitled "Kochi". It's a celebration of traditional Jewish choral music, that features Indian instruments and arrangements. I recently conversed with Ruth about the exciting new project.
R.V.B. - Hello Ruth, good morning to you. This is Rob from Long Island, New York.
Ruth - Hi, how are you doing?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. You're up bright and early.
Ruth - I usually get up around 6 every day. This is a good time for me
R.V.B. - What kind of morning are you having over there? Is it nice out?
Ruth - Yes, it's sunny. Is it hot over there with you?
R.V.B. - No, it's actually very pleasant. It's about 70 degrees and a beautiful day. Congratulations on your career. Do you enjoy being an educator and a teacher?
Ruth - Yes, I really enjoy that a lot.
R.V.B. - Did you come from a musical family?
Ruth - We were always making music in my family. My mom was a really good pianist and we used to sit on the piano bench and sing along with her. It made us want to play the piano also. She played the guitar as well. We grew up with a lot of music in the house.
R.V.B. - I gather you took formal piano lessons? Did you play in the High School band?
Ruth - Yes I did take piano lessons. I played in the orchestra in school and I used to accompany all of the choirs.
R.V.B. - I guess you enjoyed it so much that you studied music in college?
Ruth - Yes I majored in music in college.
Ruth - I've only been the director for the last 5 years, so a lot of the men were already in the group when I became the director. It started out as a club, under the previous director. A lot of the members were South Africans that had moved here. Now we have members from a variety of countries including France, Mexico, Israel, and South Africa. We’ve gradually gotten more people involved, and when I took it over, we decided we wanted to take the group more seriously and hold auditions. The new members do audition to get in.
R.V.B. - Your new CD is coming out in August?
Ruth - Yes, it comes out August 7th.
R.V.B. - How were you able to get Ricky Kej involved in this project?
Ruth - We submitted our last album "Heritage" for the Grammy's last year and I got to know a group of other wonderful independent artists that were also submitting projects, and Rick was one of them. He and I got in touch with each other and I mentioned how there once was a huge population of Jewish people in India. They migrated there when they were persecuted in other countries, and at one time, there were approximately 70,000 Jewish people living there. Ricky found it really interesting, and mentioned he had some Jewish friends in who live in Mumbai. I said it would have been interesting to hear what kind of music would have been created when the two cultures meshed their sounds together, and he said that would have been really cool and "Let's try it and see." I mentioned to him that it was on my bucket list to go to India at some point, and he said, "Let's make that happen. Let's do some kind of project." I sent him my groups’ version of Avraham Avinu and he made a beautiful arrangement of it. We both thought it was really cool and we decided to do a whole album using his arrangements
R.V.B. - I have to say that it's a very unique idea. I sampled the music and you did capture the Indian feel in the traditional music. I thought the results were fantastic.
Ruth - I'm glad you like it. I think Ricky did a great job with them. I'm really excited about it. The reason we decided to name the album "Kochi" is because there is this little fishing village in India called Kochi, and at one time there was 5,000 Jewish people in it. The rulers at the time welcomed them all and said "You can build Synagogues and whatever you want here." In this little tiny town there are two synagogues. The streets there are called things like "Jew Town and Synagogue Way." That's why we decided to name it Kochi, after the small city.
R.V.B. - Did you get the music from things you heard over in India?
Ruth - I actually haven't been to India yet. The songs we used were not from there, but they are important Jewish historical songs. We recorded those tunes and Ricky added traditional Indian instruments that were being used at the time to create this music.
Where did you find the musicians who played the instruments on the album?
Ruth - Ricky Kej has worked with many of them on his other projects. He used some of them to play the santoor, the sarangi and sitar, and some of the other instruments as well. We also got a great brass player from New York involved. His name is Danny Flam, and he did the brass arrangements for the different songs. There were also local musicians from Los Angeles, who participated in the project.
R.V.B. - Now as far as working together with Ricky... I understand he did a lot of the arranging and you did the directing... did you take a particular song and work together as it evolved?
Ruth - I did the choral arrangements, and we recorded the choral tracks. Then we sent them to Ricky, and then some went off to get the brass arrangements added. Ricky combined them together and we would work on adjusting and tweaking them to make the songs come together.
R.V.B. - That's fantastic. I just wanted to say again that the idea of mixing traditional Indian instruments in with traditional Jewish songs is unusual. Has it ever been done before?
Ruth - We don't think so. There have been albums out that have preserved the traditional Jewish music that was used in the synagogues in India. They’re very different. There's a standard liturgy that's used in synagogue services... just like there's a liturgy from the Catholic church. They have different melodies in India that they use, as opposed to the ones we use in the United States. Their melodies have been preserved on other albums, with just solo voices singing the melody line, but as far as combining them with Indian instrumentation, there are no other projects like this that I know of. That's why this project was so exciting.
R.V.B. - Do you plan on having performances to support the record?
Ruth - We would love to do that! We're going to be having a CD release party on August 9th down here in San Diego. We'll be performing live with some musicians. We'll have the oboe, as well as the percussion instruments and keyboards. We hope to have performances down the road using all of the traditional Indian instruments that appear on the album.
R.V.B. - It's a great idea. What is your distribution plan? Are you going to shoot for India also?
Ruth - We have a distributer - Clay Pasternack, at CPI Inc. He distributes internationally and we're also getting a radio promoter who will promote it internationally as well. We hope that it'll reach a much wider audience.
R.V.B. - Were you involved in the first album also?
Ruth - Yes.
R.V.B. - I know it was called Heritage and I saw a video of a song that had an African beat feel to it.
Ruth - We included a variety of different genres. it's traditional Jewish music from all over, that has some kind of historical meaning to it. It reaches a broad audience. The new album will reach people that know very little about traditional Jewish music, and we hope they will get interested in it.
R.V.B. - I see that you are involved in a lot of projects. You have done a wide variety of things... children's music, traditional music, as well as maintaining your own studio. Is it difficult managing all of the projects that you have?
Ruth - I really thrive on that. I think I would get bored if I was just doing one job. All of the projects are different and exciting, so it keeps me interested in them all. I'm really fortunate because my two kids play music with me. The oboist on the album is my daughter and one of the percussionist's is my son. I am fortunate that they are also perusing music, and we can work on my projects as a family.
R.V.B. - Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Ruth - Thank you for helping us get the word out.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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