For lovers of Jewish Music the “British Invasion” has nothing to do with the Ed Sullivan Show or the names John, Paul, Ringo and George and everything to do with an elementary school rebbe who combined an ebullient personality and a engaging teaching style with a unique gift for composing songs that were musically “fresh yet familiar”–this combination resulted in a choir that has set the standard for choirs (and many composers) ever since the music of Yigal Calek and the London School of Jewish Song first made their way “over the pond” over 40 years ago.
While the novelty of realizing that NY doesn’t have a monopoly on great Jewish music was what got the group noticed in the beginning (remember this was the early 70’s when the Jewish music world was besieged by a ‘shtetl mentality” as in “if it’s not from NY its not Jewish music”*), Calek the choir leader was every bit as innovative as Calek the composer, case in point he was the first to integrate choreography, costumes and sketches into the group’s performances so audiences were treated to shows that were equal parts concert and “mini musical theatre”. In addition, he integrated himself into the act, going “from sideline” conductor to front and center singer/dancer with the ability to effortlessly match the troupe step for step and note for note.
While the groups “breakout” album was undoubtedly “London Meets New York”—a musical “meeting of the minds” that paired Calek’s songs with the arrangements and musicianship of a pre-MBD/Hineini Yisroel Lamn & Neginah, the fact is that Calek and the group had already worked their way into the consciousness of Jewish music lovers everywhere thanks to the 2 ½ albums which preceded it (Shimu Melachim,Y’kum Purkan and a ’45 single” with “Children of Silence–one of the earliest Soviet Jewry anthems, which featured an almost ethereal melody, simple yet poignant lyrics and in a twist that was “pure Calek”, verses the boys sang in French and Ivrit ).
From the first notes of their first album “Ma Navu” listeners immediately realized this was not your typical “NY Jewish Music album”, rather than open with a high energy “dance style” song and embellish it with a brassy if not brash, horn/rhythm section, Calek opened his and the choir’s “debut” with Tsali—an upbeat, yet not over the top tune that was augmented by a refreshingly sparse (for that era) arrangement featuring accordion/acoustic guitar/upright bass –in short, background instruments that would never overpower, overshadow or take the listener’s attention away from his choir.
Despite the fact there were no real “simcha songs” on it (composer-wise, Calek’s catalog is practically devoid of “dance hits”—in fact, while his material is still part and parcel of most every shmorg/cocktail hour and many a chupa, the fact he built an “iconic brand” without any requisite, high energy dance songs is testament to his talents. These talents are also why the debut album built a fan base thanks to songs like Shimu Melochim (which despite its minimalist arrangement had a feel which was clearly classical/cantorial if not symphonic) the poignant “Al Zeh Hoyo” and the song that started it all Tsali.
Even the album’s cover was a departure for the time—an era that was about big bold graphics in even bolder colors. Calek in true understated British style, opted for something a bit more sedate–a photo with him in the center (with glasses slightly askew) bookended by two guitars and the choir all dressed in blue shirts all standing in a snow covered field (my mother to this day “tsk tsks” at how could he have allowed those boys to stand out in the cold like that). Calek’s arms are outstretched over this expanse as if he’s acknowledging the title “Ma Na Vu”. If that wasn’t enough to pique the consumers interest a quick read of the back cover would undoubtedly do the trick, as comingled with names like Moshe were names like Aubery, Spencer…names that to “cosmopolitan” New Yorkers resounded of royalty…
While not an out of the park smash the album did well enough to spark a sequel—as well as a name change from London Pirchim choir to London School of Jewish Song—a change that was accompanied by the addition of a co-conductor, a J. Craimer who as it turns out, is the uncle of Shimon Craimer, one of Neshoma Orchestra’s premier vocalists and Riverdale’s most respected chazanim). This sequel became known as the “tztzis” album—namely because its cover looked like the “beged” part of tzizis (with the choir front and center). On either corner (at least for this first run) was attached a pair of tzitzis (complete with a requisite techeylet string—something that was clearly controversial in the early 70’s). Song and style wise Calek stayed true to form keeping the arrangements minimalist and the tunes eg Al Tishalel, Yekum Purkon and Halleluko unique.
From cover to content it was clear that Calek & co were clearly marching to their own drummer (ironic when you consider drums and ‘rhythms” in general weren’t a key part of his projects). Though between the tcheylet on Calek’s cover and the knit kipa on the Or Chodosh’s “Kipa” cover (which was exactly that; a round cover with a photo of a knit kippa on it) one would have to imagine that neither album would be as welcome in the mainstream today as they were back then when terms like “black hat” defined a color and an article of clothing –not a hashkafa and branch of Judaism.
But I digress (an ongoing problem with my writing, I know). Thanks to some behind the scenes machinations by the always ahead of his time Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum a’h, Calek and co, spent the summer in Camp S’dei Chemed where he met Yisroel Lamm (Rabbi Teitelbaum, the camp’s director turned his camp into a talent magnet with a staff roster that included everyone from Yisroel Lamm and Baruch Chait to Sheya Mendlowitz…just in case 6 amazing weeks in Israel weren’t enough of a draw). This meeting laid the ground for a collaborative project which was called “London Meets NY”—unless you turned the cover 180 degrees then in read NY meets London.
Because the release essentially coincided with a sold out concert tour it was the most eagerly anticipated album release the JM industry had even seen before—or for that matter since. Now at this point I could mention all sorts of stories about the machinations involved in getting tickets to these shows, or I can just say that the choir’s opening act was a ‘new’ up and comer who went by the name “Mordechai Ben David” ) and let you draw your own conclusions regarding just how “hot’ these shows were.
In any case—and despite the fact this was an era without email, I tunes, etc etc, the JM audience “knew” about 70% of the album’s content before it ever hit the stores. That didn’t stop stores from selling out in hours—if that. I personally remember being told “sorry one to a customer” by three Boro Park retailers who didn’t really care that they were helping me do a mitzvah as my cousin and parent’s tenants asked me to get them a copy when I went to get one for myself.
If today’s generation of JM aficionados would audition a copy, odds are they’d reread the above paragraphs with a mix of confusion and well, more confusion.
Because despite this being one of the largest sellers of its time—and the album with material so popular it resulted in not one but essentially 3 world tours, TV interviews and the kind of PR that any of today’s artists would be envious of (remember this was the early 70’s when ‘marketing” was another way of saying what you did at the grocery store), the songs unlike others of the era, don’t have the ‘kick” or “energy” that put artists & acts like MBD, the Rabbi’s Sons, DVeykus and of course Rav Shlomo, both on the map and the collective consciousness of JM lovers everywhere.
Yet despite this, Calek and the choir essentially invented the boys choir genre we know (and to varying extents, love) today. He “wrote the book” that’s been followed by everyone from NY School of Jewish Song (before you dismiss them, just remember they DID introduce the world to a certain new composer named Yossi Green) to Amudai Shaish, Miami Boys Choir and most recently YBC and NYBC.
And he did it all without overpowering horn sections, ultra fast tempos and all the other over the top trappings that are part of much of today’s JM scene.
How? My opinion? He was having fun—at least until his post “NY meets London” projects which all reflect more influences of the US (as in NY) Jewish Music scene—I’m sure they were still “fun” but when you listen to those songs against his earlier material you get a sense he lost his “autonomy” and as the saying goes “What do you call fun without autonomy? Work. To be sure, they still spawned hits eg; Shir Shir, etc, but given the fact it was almost 5 years between London meets NY and the follow up, the result (London Live) should have been grander…not just bigger.
Calek was an original in every sense of the word. He was a renaissance man that revived a genre that didn’t even know or realize how desperately it needed it. His poise on stage was always matched by a similar demeanor off stage. True there are those that say he wasn’t all fun and sweetness, but which parent or teacher no matter how exemplary, always is? And if you think trying to get your kids to study or do homework is a challenge, imagine trying to get 20+ kids to a level of polish and professionalism that will be worth hearing—and seeing…all while on a whirlwind tour thousands of miles away from home.
As the choir spent Shabbos with families in Boro Park (thanks again to Rabbi Teitelbaum), we davened with them in what was the 14th avenue Agudah’s downstairs Pierchei (youth) minyan and before you ask, yes they were instantly recognizable…but not because of their clothes, or pronunciation of the tefilos, but because of their decorum.
And no, it wasn’t a decorum borne from the uncertainty that comes when you’re the strange kids in a strange(r) place—in fact, once davening was over, they were pretty much like any other kids who called fries “chips” and baseball “cricket” (or was it “boring”?). We later discovered that Yigal (being a rebbe and all) instilled in his charges an understanding of what they represented –on and off stage. I’m sure he had his “challenging” ones and I’m hardly qualified to make a blanket statement about boys choirs and a boy’s psyche’. But I will tell you that virtually every 10-14 year old at that minyan felt like these were kids we didn’t want to be compared to –this despite our signature ‘NY Yeshiva” swagger and braggadocio. If any kids were entitled to spend Shabbos letting off steam it was them, but they showed by example that shul wasn’t the place for doing that.
So in no particular order what were/are Calek’s contributions to the wonderfully wild world of Jewish music? Here’s my top 12. Yes, I’m sure there’s more, but as I feel this is “geek like” enough, I’m not getting into a song by song analysis (for the most part anyway). If you don’t agree with any or feel I missed some please contact me c/o this website. Until then, here’s my
“CALEK’S TOP 12 CONTRIBUTIONS TO JEWISH MUSIC”
1) Giving It A Sense Of Style Not Just Song—The sketches, choreography etc, all proved that the boys were talented more than just vocally. Speaking of style, he also gave arrangers a chance to stretch their creative wings. Listen to ‘Nichsefa” on LMNY and you’ll hear Clave and other Latin percussion-esque sounds that were clearly part of the arrangement. Calek didn’t have a songwriting style as much as he gave songs he wrote a style.
2) Sensitivity— “Children of Silence” , “Pada”, “Shimu Melachim” and countless others all were “melodically nuanced”, many with 3 or 4 “parts” vs just the typically “high part” “low part” structure plus Calek’s “parts” were almost always pleasantly surprising rather than predictable.
3) The “Mashup Medley” : The group’s concert performances almost always featured a medley—that was actually more like a mashup—as in a group of songs (not always all Calek) that despite varying, tempos, styles and chords would—in Calek’s hands—become magically, memorably malleable…all while becoming even more musical—and kudos as always to Yisroel Lamm as his arrangements would invariably enhance Calek’s vision rather than merely accompany it
4) Choir As The Star—his songs (in the beginning at least) were almost always “sparsly” arranged with instrumentation than would ensure the vocals would never be over powered. This combined with his simple yet layered harmonies made for a listening experience that could be enjoyed on many levels
5) A Sound: “Legend” has it that Calek would only record in certain studios as this would give him the rich yet real choral sound he wanted. Listen to his earlier albums and hear for yourself, there’s a natural resonance and depth to the vocals that years later inspired certain choir leaders (and you know who you are) to seek out those facilities to record/mix certain parts of their projects…with varying results
6) A HASC High Point. When Sheya Mendlowitz announced that Calek was going to be a part of HASC –back when Sheya was still a part of it, initial reaction was raised eyebrows –until Calek together with a new choir took the stage and proved that lightning does in fact sometimes strike twice. Unfortunately a companion “London School” album which reflected a more contemporary musical sensibility didn’t fare as well which proves there is something to “sticking to the script”
7) Dedi: One of Calek’s side projects was the Pirchei Tzabarim a mid 70’s Israel-based choir that tried to recreate the magic of Jolly Old England is Jolly Older Jerusalem, the result which had Calek’s signature fit and finish didn’t resonate with listeners the way his other projects had, though the same couldn’t be said for one of the choir members, as it inspired a grateful Dedi…Graucher, who ultimately used it as a stepping stone to Graucher—uh greater, and louder things
8) Yossi Green; While Yossi Green gave us Yossi Green (feel free to ask him) and despite the fact their styles are to say the least different, (not to mention the fact that Yossi is a way more pertinent and prolific part of the JM world) Green (who met Calek when he was a budding composer/yeshiva student in London) considers these meetings amongst his first “breaks”.
9) The Jewish Concert As A Destination: Before Calek & The School non cantorial concerts were usually “a” thing to do vs “THE” thing to do. Calek and the choir changed all that—a lesson that even decades later wasn’t lost on Sheya Mendlowitz, Ding, Ohel and others.
10) Choirs Are Cool: Pre London Jewish boys choirs either backed up Chazzanim, and/or were used as affordable “home grown” entertainment for shul and yeshiva functions. Calek made it cool for kids to belong to a choir. In fact when Eli Teitelbaum decided to capitalize on “London Fever” by forming a choir (Kol Naim) for a Pesach concert/album. Hundreds of kids (and even more parents) from throughout the 5 boroughs (and parts of NJ) showed up at the Boro Park Y to audition in the hopes of being awarded a slot and really cool pull over sweater vest. That’s right hundreds of kids who were ready to give up the precious little free time they had all for two free tickets and a chance to say “I’m in the choir”. Kol Naim evolved into NY School which partially begat Amudai Shaish whilst in a related story a certain up and coming composer was discovering he could compose songs “the way other people breathe”
11) It’s Not Just About NY. Suddenly NY Jews were taken down a notch, sure we had the best pizza, Kosher King (a predecessor to Kosher Delight –so what if it was in the wilds of Coney Island?), the yeshivas that supplied camps with the coolest counselors, etc etc etc—in one fell swoop we lost our cachet as Jewish music’s entertainment incubator. Ok thanks to MBD, Fried and others we quickly recaptured it, but the fact that the #1 is Jewish music was an import not a domestic made us understand how GM felt when Toyotas started showing up on the road
12) Replacing The Iron Curtain With A Stage Curtain. One of the earliest by products of Glasnost JM-wise, was Calek and the Choir’s 1988 tour of the former Soviet Union. Yes they were preceded by (if memory serves) Shlomo, Sherwood and numerous Rabbanim, but the logistics of a Jewish Boys choir putting on a show stated with certainty that Glasnost was very real. Though one wonders how “Children of Silence” went over?