Performer Shlomo Simcha: The Power of Jewish Music and Radio
Shlomo Simcha is “keeping the ‘Jewish’ in Jewish music.” With the unprecedented waves of new artists coming out, Simcha remains a traditionalist.
By Benyamin Bresky
First Publish: 2/12/2007, 9:26 PM / Last Update: 2/12/2007, 11:06 PM
Speaking via telephone from his home in Toronto, Canada, Simcha spoke with Ben Bresky, host of The Beat on Arutz 7’s English audio and podcasting site, Israel National Radio. Although Shlomo Simcha may strike one as a mild manner individual, he has a fascinating background and numerous stories. With his British accent punctuated by numerous Yiddish and Ashenazi-pronounced Hebrew phrases he discussed the importance of Arutz 7 and the power of music.
Shlomo Simcha’s song 'Miracles' from off his new disc, is the theme of the Arutz 7 – Israel National Radio benefit concert. The miracle of Arutz 7’s radio revolution in Israel has been going on for 18 years. The concert will feature Shlomo Simcha along with his long- time musical collaborator, Abie Rotenberg, the young and dynamic Srully Williger, Israeli cantorial star Netanel Hershtik, and Carlebach- style Jerusalem singer Chaim David plus other special guests. The concert will be held Sunday Feb. 18th. For ticket information visit www.arutz7concert.com.
Shlomo Simcha was born Shlomo Sufrin in Manchester, England, and grew up in London where he was one of thirteen children. Much of his musical history comes from his family experiences. Simcha’s father was the chazzan of the local synagogue. “Shabbos around the table there were many hours of zmiros together.”
“A good baal tefilah is something that can’t be taught in a classroom,” says Simcha. “You’ve got to see what it means that a Yid stands and pours his heart out before the Aibishter.”
Today Simcha is a chazzan like his father as well as a performer. He sees a big difference between singing on stage or in the recording studio and singing in synagogue. “When you’re standing on stage, there’s more of a challenge to actually connect with the crowd and take them on a journey of tefillah. Encouragement, happiness, sadness, whatever the story is, you’re taking them on a journey.” By contrast, Simcha describes his feelings about public prayer. “When you’re standing before the amud, you’re representing tehillim, you’re davening to Hashem. It’s a very different state of mind, it’s a very different state of heart. Just in terms of vocals and how your voice comes out, it’s very different in shul. There isn’t the music, there isn’t the fanfare, it’s much more natural, un-cut, un-edited. It has a different flavor.”
Nevertheless, Simcha’s spirit when leading prayers comes through in his music, specifically in his 'Shabbos with Shlomo Simcha' album, a surprisingly successful recording of prayers.
Shlomo Simcha’s style of music is varied, but all within the framework of Hasidic pop, or Yeshivishe style. The songs focus on the voice with roots in cantorial music. The faster ones mix a call and response chorus and blasts of horns for an orchestra sound familiar to fans of Mordechai Ben- David, Avraham Fried and other artists. Simcha also mixes things up, incorporating a little bit of Israeli Mizrachi style with the Middle Eastern- sounding hand drums and string instruments. There are also tracks that incorporate acoustic guitars as well as hard rock style electric guitars. But mostly, he sticks to a traditional, familiar sound. His most recent release came out this year. “I just finished my bar mitzvah year, thirteen years since my first album,” says Simcha.
Jewish music is perhaps now bigger than it ever has been before in terms of worldwide distribution, and the amount of albums released. Two separate Jewish- themed albums, Matisyahu and the Klezmatics, were nominated in this year’s Grammy Awards in the United States. The award ceremonies were held this week and The Klezmatics won for Best Contemporary World Music Album.
In light of the new awareness of Jewish music, Simcha states, “On this album we worked very hard to stay close to the roots of what Jewish music is all about. With advancement of modern technology, the standard of recording has gone up, there’s also an influence of the secular world. That tends to creep its way into Jewish music. One of the goals of this album was to not let that happen and to stay strong and firm to our roots.”
One of Simcha’s fellow composers holding down the vanguard of tradition is Abie Rotenberg, who will also to be performing at the Feb. 18th concert. Amazingly enough, the two originally met in a grocery store in Toronto one Friday afternoon. “I was shopping erev Shabbos and I picked up more than I bargained for”, says Simcha with a laugh.
The song 'Miracles', for which the concert is named, is one of the many duets between Rotenberg and Simcha. The lyrics tell about the struggles of the Jewish people in ancient times leading up to the modern day. They were written by Rotenberg’s daughter who got her musical start as the little girl on her father’s 'Marvelous Midos Machine' series.
Simcha credits Arutz 7 Radio with helping spread his music, and in fact several of his albums thank Arutz 7 in the liner notes. But for musicians such as Simcha, the real fondness for Arutz 7 comes with the message of being a news source they can count on for a more balanced perspective on Israel and the Jewish world. “Arutz 7 represents building Medinas Yisroel and the day to day miracles that we take for granted.”
In addition to his singing career, Simcha also works in the area of outreach to troubled youth and teens at risk. He gives an example of the power of Jewish music in the story of one young man who gave up on the religious lifestyle. “If you’d see him walking down the street you’d never know the kind of home he came from.” Simcha describes the young man as having a car packed with old, outdated cantorial CDs from long gone stars such as Yosselle Rosenblatt, Ben-Zion Shenker and Dovid Werdiger (Mordechai Ben- David’s father).
“In the glove compartment he had all these CDs and a yarmulkah. He says to me, 'when I listen to this music, I realize that there has to be an Aibishter. There’s something more to life. I have to put a yarmulkah on.' And eventually he became frum. His life turned around. It’s interesting how the music helped him connect to his spiritual side.”
Simcha continues, “Music has a tremendous ability -- it’s a tremendous vehicle that can be used either way and certainly with Arutz 7 and all the chevra that are involved it's used to bring people closer to Yiddishkeit and give people the sense of direction and the goal of what it's all about and what Am Yisrael is all about.”
Shlomo Simcha will be performing live this Sunday, Feb. 18th at Lincoln Center in New York City. For ticket information visit www.arutz7concert.com.
Click here for audio of the Shlomo Simcha interview.
Benyamin Bresky is the host of The Beat on Israel National Radio. He maintains a Jewish music journal at israelbeat.blogspot.com.