Yes folks, it’s back – that everso- Anglo of events, the Jacob’s Ladder Festival. Now nigh on 40 years young, the latest spring edition of the festival, which first saw the folksy light of day at Kibbutz Machanayim in 1978, will take place at its longtime berth of Nof Ginossar on May 18 to 20.
When three ex-pat Brits, by the name of Morris Cohen, Yigal Sela and Menachem Vinegrad, decided to do something about requiting their longing for the folk-country music which they’d hungrily imbibed in their early formative years in Blighty, they established a monthly folk club in an old abandoned stone building on the aforementioned kibbutz. And thus Jacob’s Ladder came to be. It is now a twice-yearly affair, with the more compact winter younger sibling starting life in 2004.
This month’s advent of the festival, which is now run by Yehudit and Menahem Vinegrad, features the tried and proven musical mix of folk, country, rock and Celtic-inclined fare, with more than 30 shows lined up for the half dozen stages in the hotel and at verdant spots on the hotel grounds.
The festival faithful – Jacob’s Ladder tends to foster a sense of enduring loyalty among its many patrons – can expect to catch several returning acts, such as Canadian country, folk-rock, bluegrass sibling-led band The Abrams, which is back for the sixth time; partners in life and music Larry & Mindy, whose usual nostalgia based show will feature the hits of Carole King and James Taylor; while veteran rocker Libi will front the Flashback rock band and, no doubt, pump out decibels, energy and unadulterated positive vibes by the hatful. The foreign contingent also includes Italian violinist Luca Ciarla, whose mesmerizing solo shows leap across genre borders and generally leave audiences wide-eyed and slackjawed.
One of the festival debutantes this time around is the Nefesh Mountain husband and wife-led quartet from the US. The band’s name gives the artistic game away, and guitaristbanjo player and singer Eric Lindberg and singer Doni Zasloff feed off a rich diet of bluegrass and old-time songs which could be comfortably placed in the Jewish Americana sphere.
With their traditional Jewish background and their love of traditional American music, Lindberg and Zasloff gravitated naturally to the genre hybrid in an easy organic manner.
“It was a complete accident, this whole Nefesh Mountain thing,” says Zasloff. “Eric and I worked together for years, playing all different kinds of music, and we started, just accidentally, creating these Jewish bluegrass songs.”
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It seems the stylistic interface emerged almost surreptitiously.
“It was not intentional at all,” Zasloff continues. “In fact, we didn’t even realize we were doing it until it occurred to us that we had enough to make an album.”
That discovery led to the band’s self-titled debut recording, which includes a fusion of numbers sung in English and in Hebrew, sometimes both. That takes in a number of texts from prayers and the Scriptures, such as “Modeh Ani,” traditionally recited as one awakes in the morning, and “Essa Einai,” lifted straight out of Psalm 121. The lyric of the latter includes the line “I lift my eyes to the mountain,” an almost precise translation of the original opening Hebrew verse, as well as alluding to the band’s name, and Lindberg’s banjo opener deftly dips into Bachesque and Jewish motifs before launching into a more hoedown-accented line of attack.
It was basically a matter of the cart leading the horse.
“We were doing the Nefesh Mountain material, and then we realized, ‘Oh, we need a name for ourselves,’” Zasloff explains.
And it wasn’t just the music that was tugging at the heartstrings.
“As we were writing all these Jewish prayers and songs in the bluegrass style, we also fell in love. So it’s kind of a love story, too,” she happily adds. “But Eric is a real bluegrass lover, as I am. But Eric is deeply involved in the bluegrass world. So this really came from a combination of the two of us.”
As far as Lindberg was concerned, the music and the band were a natural development.
“There are a lot of texts from the Psalms and the various prayers that we were drawn to,” he says.
Lindberg and Zasloff clearly had a good writing team behind them, and the time-honored words moved the creative side along nicely.
“The English translations sounded very poetic,” Lindberg continues. “They almost sounded like a bluegrass lyric I may already have heard. When we were looking through the prayer book and at what was inspiring us, ‘Essa Enai’ was definitely one that kind of leapt off the page. When we read that prayer, I immediately thought of that banjo lick. It’s kind of an immediate song.”
Both have strong traditional Jewish roots.
Brooklyn-born Lindberg had a Reform bar mitzva, and Zasloff comes from a robustly Zionist background, spending time in Israel as a teenager on an IDF-related program. Considering the couple’s deep religious and musical roots, one could see them simply opening the Bible, flipping through the pages and latching on to some verse or other to kick-start a new number. In reality, the musical procreation process can follow any of a number of avenues.
“Sometimes Eric will come to me with an idea on the banjo, and then it all kind of naturally feels like it would be a good match with some Jewish music,” Zasloff says. “But I don’t think you can say there’s any one way [of producing songs]. It can start with the music or with a prayer. There’s no one way.”
Some material comes from very close to home.
“On our new album, we took an old lullaby my grandmother used to sing to me when I was little, a Russian lullaby,” Zasloff explains. “It is just something I’d always known, and Eric put a beautiful banjo line to it.”
However Lindberg and Zasloff go about their creative business, the bottom line sounds seamless and suitably endearing.
The rest of the Jacob’s Ladder program takes in the usual mix of dance workshops – Irish and Cyrelle Forman-Soffer’s beloved perennial square dance slot, with the intriguing newcomer Dance of Life – kiddies’ stuff and, for early risers looking to get some positive lakeside vibes flowing for the day, yoga and tai-chi.For tickets and more information: www.jlfestival.com
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