Kosher Gospel

At this year’s Washington Jewish Music Festival, Joshua Nelson brought together Klezmer and Gospel to create a truly unique blend of culture and sound.

Klezmatics 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Klezmatics 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WASHINGTON – When Joshua Nelson talks about being kosher, he is not referring to his kitchen or the menu. He is talking about taking reverent Gospel music and using it to express Jewish rather than Christian devotion.
And boy, is it something to kvell about.
“I have invented an exclusively Jewish style of Gospel music,” the Jewish African-American performer explained to a sold-out audience at the recent local Jewish Music Festival.
He then demonstrated what he meant with a rousing, swaying, rhythmic number he said came from 15 years of teaching Hebrew school and trying to keep his students from getting bored.
“I want to dance the hora!” he intoned in a full gospel chant.
“Sit down with my rabbi and study the Torah!” Nelson shouldn’t been too concerned about keeping his class’s attention. The ebullient, ornately robed entertainer is hard to keep your eyes off of, and at moments his boundless energy, rollicking keyboarding and rich voice seemed too large for the Jewish Community Center auditorium he was performing in.
At times he also seemed to overwhelm the Klezmatics, the Grammy Award-winning Klezmer group he shared the stage with at the festival and often joins in concert.
But elsewhere they held their own, and both acts occasionally combined for sublime harmony, as when the Klezmatics recited lines in Yiddish while Nelson sang in Hebrew.
Nelson, whose brother Chad frequently took the stage to back him up, also treated the crowd to some more traditional Gospel tunes, including a haunting “Go Down, Moses” and rousing “Didn’t It Rain.”
The Klezmatics, for their part, displayed some amazing instrumental exhibitionism, with whiplash-inducing trumpet and clarinet solos and a young drummer, Richie Barshay, who gamely provided extended drum rolls and cymbal crashes as the vocalists eked out every last note for its maximum impact.
Introducing an early song, accordion player Lorin Sklamberg explained some of the ensemble’s enthusiasm by referencing the concept that singing would help wake up the messiah, and that singing loudly even more so, before breaking into a dizzying circus-esque number.
Though Klezmer and gospel might not make the likeliest blending of musical styles, performing them together highlighted and enhanced their similarities – their emotion, their joyousness concealing a mournful undertone – in ways that benefited each.
The concert was part of a multi-day festival that the organizers billed as intended to “further a greater appreciation of Jewish culture” and “to connect through music.”
On those counts alone the joint performance succeeded, as (at least) two musical worlds were brought together.
As Nelson told the cheering, mostly older crowd, which he finally was able to pull to their feet for the encore, “I got Jewish soul and African soul.”
“It’s a great big world out there,” he proclaimed.
“Let’s all enjoy it!"