Atlanta Jewish Music Festival Packed With Local, International Talent

Israeli group Diwan Saz will play at the Variety Playhouse on March 21 as part of the main event at the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival.
Israeli group Diwan Saz will play at the Variety Playhouse on March 21 as part of the main event at the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival.
Credit Courtesy of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival

Tonight, the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival begins. In its sixth year, the festival spans over two weekends, packed with local talent to international touring bands.

As one of the victims of the recession, Russell Gottschalk couldn’t find any suitable employment when he graduated from college in 2007, so instead, he did this: “I did the crazy naïve, 20-something thing to do and said, I’m going to start a Jewish music festival.”

The music at the festival, however, is not solely the omp-pa-pa, omp-pa-pa of Klezmer beats. It’s a mix of singer-songwriters, rock-n-roll, ska, interfaith orchestras, jazz and even rap.

Gottschalk clarifies what exactly the festival defines as Jewish music: “We classify it as a form of artistic expression by a self-identified Jew, so we put the onus on the musician. If you are saying you grew up as having a Jewish lifestyle and having Jewish traditions … then the music should reflect your personal narrative.”

From concerts at the Variety Playhouse to an interfaith dialogue at Emory, the festival features events all over town.

Zale is having the release of her solo album at Steve’s Live Music on Saturday. She recorded the album, “Fortress,” over three days in Louisiana with a group of musicians she cold called a few weeks earlier.

“I became obsessed with ‘The Walking Dead’ soundtrack, and there was this band called Baby Bee, and I contacted them, and I was just like, ‘Man, do you guys produce?’ And they said, ‘Actually yeah, we actually do produce, and why don’t you come on down, and we will make you a record.'” 

She grew up in a conservative Jewish household, and says even though her music is secular, everyone who comes to her concerts knows she’s Jewish. For one, her T-shirts have a hamsa.

“I think my music comes from a Jewish place innately because I am Jewish, and my heart is very Jewish, so it’s definitely there in a big picture sense,” she says.

Amongst the rock and ska, there is at least some Klezmer music, or at least a variation of Klezmer music.

Roger Ruzow founded the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra

“The idea came to be in the basement bar of the Highland Inn about six years ago,” he says. “I had an idea about Afro-pop and Afro-Cuban and then I thought, ‘Why not Afro-Klezmer?'” 

His partner in crime, band member and contributing songwriter, Jeff Crompton, initially thought the band was a horrible idea.

“My plan was to go to the first rehearsal, and it would be so bad it would fall apart … but then, by the end of the rehearsal, it was like, ‘Roger, this is the best music you’ve even written,’” Crompton said. 

The group has two albums. The most recent, “Abdul the Rabbi,” features Jewish-inspired, Atlanta-based titles like “Toko Hills Kiddush Club.” It also features some rap over the Afro-pop, Klezmer beats.

They will be playing at the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival’s stage at the Hunger Walk on Sunday.

The main event at the Variety Playhouse features two Israeli groups: Yael Deckelbaum and Diwan Saz.

Diwan Saz is an interfaith group of musicians. The founder, Yohai Barak, described the nine member group: “Some of us are from are from Galilee, we have a rabbi from Jerusalem, an Arab-Christian singer, we have a nine-year-old Bedouin boy, one from Turkey.”

It’s a harmonious group coming from a dissonant region, playing a cohesive fusion of Turkish, Arab and Jewish music, based on improvisation.

But Barak said it wasn’t an intentional interfaith mission that brought them together.

“Often music is a way of connecting, even above words,” Barak said. 

A list of all the events at the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival is here

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