A spark from heaven

Divine inspiration has given Shlomo Gronich's life and his music an entirely new direction.

Shlomo Gronich 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shlomo Gronich 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'I want to make one thing clear, I'm not jumping on a bandwagon here," says Shlomo Gronich as he describes his new album and show, Journey to the Source. Offering original contemporary musical interpretations to verses from the Tanach and other Jewish texts, Journey to the Source has become a holy crusade for the veteran singer/composer/musician. But he's intent on emphasizing that, with artists ranging from Ehud Banai to Madonna looking to Judaism for artistic inspiration, he's not part of a trend for commercial gain. "There's been an arrow leading me to this path for a long time, I'm not doing this project because it's all of a sudden fashionable for secular musicians to go back to religion. I've never been fashionable, and I've been following this path well before there was a trend," he said, a day before he along with fellow musicians The Shamayim String Quartet, percussionist Erez Munk and harmonica virtuoso and his wife Michal Adler, flew to South America for 10 days of performances. The 59-year-old Gronich, one of Israel's most well-known and original musicians, has spent his career creating cross-cultural bridges, whether it's his projects with The Sheba Choir consisting of young immigrants from Ethiopia or his ongoing collaborations with Arab musicians. But with fervent passion, he explained that in Journey to the Source, he's forged a collaboration with a higher source. "I think that this new project is a climax of all the things I've been heading toward in my career. Something crystallized inside, and I'm full of focus and shlaymut, completeness, a word which comes from Shlomo," he said. "Every singer will tell a journalist the same thing about his latest record, that it's his best. But what I'm saying goes beyond that. Maybe it's because it's not the words of Shlomo Gronich or Yehuda Amichai, or Bob Dylan, but it comes from the infinite. As you open the texts, the power of ancient Hebrew is so mystical, it just lifts you up high. I get goose bumps just talking about it." Gronich, a self-proclaimed secular Jew, first received the spark from above when someone pointed out to him a prayer from the Shabbat morning service called "Nishmat Kol Chai" which begins: "Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds - we still could not thank You sufficiently Hashem..." "I had never been aware of that passage before, because I'm not observant and don't pray. But when I saw it, I got so excited on a spiritual level. It's such beautiful poetry," he said. "I sat down at the piano, closed my eyes, and a melody came for this ancient prayer in full form from beginning to end. Then like a spring from within me, a period of creativity I couldn't recall ever before in my career, I found one passage after another and wrote music to them. It was like a mystical occurrence - I kept meeting people who brought light to my journey and exposed me to these texts. A religious man named Yitzhak Meir, a retired ambassador, helped me find passages, and from them I chose the ones that spoke to me. In a short time, I had a whole album's worth of songs." FEATURING MUSICAL adaptions of "Eli Ata" (Thou Art my God), "Zamry L'Adonai B'Chinor" (Sing Praise to the Lord) and "Eishet Chayal" (Woman of Valor) among others, Journey to the Source began taking shape. When Gronich envisioned the songs in finished form, he heard a string quartet playing them accompanied by his piano, and he approached the four-piece Shamayim String Quartet about recording the material and going on the road with him. "I began playing classical music as a child. It embraces my soul. It was clear to me from the beginning of the project that this music would be accompanied by a string quartet, not by a rock band or ethnic ensemble. I can't explain how right I was to make that decision," said Gronich. While the project was intensely personal for Gronich, he began inviting guest performers to join him in the studio, when he was struck by a sudden inspiration. "I was working on "Eishet Chayal" and I got an image in my mind of David Broza and the thought that he needs to sing on it. And when I called him, he came the moment I asked him. There was a connection of souls in the studio," he said. Described as an amalgam of world music, soul music, ancient and contemporary Jewish gospel niggunim, Journey to the Source features an unlikely instrument for a Western album - the shofar. Gronich, who doesn't recall when he first picked up the instrument, carries around a collection of nine shofars on tour, and only decides at the last moment which one to use. "That way, it feels like I'm picking it up for the first time," he said. "I don't have a technique whereby I could teach someone else how to do it. And there have been embarrassing moments when I picked up a shofar and nothing came out. I take it as part of the game, I'm not performing for a congregation in synagogue, where it's an obligation." With shows planned throughout the country and abroad in the coming months, Gronich is carefully avoiding slipping on a soapbox by calling on the nation of Israel to return to the Torah. "I'm not trying to carry any flag or be a shofar for a group of people. I'm barely able to be a shofar for myself," he said. "But at the same time, the state of our culture is worsening all the time, with empty stances we hear and see on TV and radio, and ratings consuming everything. I think that especially now, something of value that brings identity to our people should concern everyone."