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Tuesday, September 09, 2008



Last week, I was privileged to attend an amazing tribute to an amazing musical personality: Moshe - better known as Musa - Berlin. I would like to share a few aspects of his talents with you below. Much of the material was adapted from a Hebrew article which appeared in the HaTzofeh website called Manginas Chayav, the Melody of his Life.


The Niggun [Melody] of his Life
Musa Berlin is celebrating his seventieth birthday, together with the celebration of the Jubilee [fiftieth year] of his performing as a musician, and this is an excellent reason to pay tribute to the man who has been described as "the greatest Klezmer musician in the world."


In 1958, a young soldier, Musa Berlin, arrived at the wedding of a good friend. After the chupa, a moment before the traditional Seuda [festive meal] of burekas and chicken, his friend, who knew that one of Berlin’s hobbies was to play clarinet, convinced him to play a bit in front of the group, to add to the simcha. Embarrassed and shy, Musa found it difficult to refuse his good friend’s request. So he got up onto the table and began to play, accompanied by the enthusiastic applause of the group, who wouldn’t let him descend.
Fifty years later, says Berlin jokingly, he is still standing on the same table and playing, non-stop. After fifty years, many now see Berlin as the greatest Klezmer player in the world, and as one who radically changed the face of traditional Klezmer music. In honor of his fifty years of fruitful and widespread work, on 2 Elul at Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem, there was a concert of special tribute to Berlin, with the participation of many artists, public figures and family members. Among them were his Talmid Muvhak [distinguished disciple], Klezmer musician Chilik Frank; his daughter Odelia, who plays keyboard; his son Elyashiv, a drummer; Chizkiya Sofer, an up-and-coming Carlebach singer and guitarist; and many other outstanding musicians and speakers.

"I do not feel any difference between then and today, thank G-d", says Berlin, "these fifty years passed totally fine as far as I am concerned. As long as I breathe, I will continue to create. I don't have any special sentiments, perhaps except for the feeling of knowledge and experience that I have accumulated during the years, which I did not have when I started out on my way."


This year, Berlin is not only celebrating fifty years of creativity, but his seventieth birthday as well. He was born in 1938 in the Shapira neighborhood of South Tel-Aviv, into a Chassidic home that identified with the HaPoel HaMizrachi. Its ambience was Chassidic. He testifies that he received his musical background from his home. To this day, at times Berlin can picture scenes from his youth that were filled with Chassidus, Shtiblach and Chassidic Rebbe’s courts. "I used to go to Tishes on Leil Shabbos [Friday nights], there were amazing prayers on the Yamim Noraim [the High Holidays], and chazzanim [cantors] of renown who came [to pray] almost every Shabbos," he recalls.


In the heady days of the 1960s, one of the people that influenced Berlin, as well as many other religious musicians, was the great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who even became a good friend of his. "I was one of his original followers. The moment he arrived, my friends and I chased after him, and from year to year, we learned his melodies. Initially he did not know who we were, but later, a connection was made which continued until his death," recounts Berlin. "He came from a pure place, and succeeded to get to the youth in a way that even other great Rabbis did not. After his concerts, we would go with him to the homes to which he was invited.

Bo’i Kalla Shabbos Malch’sa is a new album by the well-known Klezmer artist, Musa Berlin. It brings us the special music that typifies the many years of Musa Berlin’s work. The new album contains nineteen melodies around the theme of Kabbalas [welcoming the] Shabbos, featuring many various melodies from the Lecha Dodi prayer. The album can bring a wonderful Shabbos ambience into one’s home, especially during the hours just before Shabbos, when preparations are at their peak intensity.
"The present album is a collection of thrilling melodies as they were performed - live. In contrast to studio recordings, it's possible to hear in these melodies, the feelings that the musicians had at the time that groom and bride were before them, and from the thrill and excitement of those moments, the musicians allow themselves to give extra embellishment or to burst out with a tone or harmony that is not routine – and this is its beauty" – says Moshe (Musa) Berlin.

Distributed in Israel by Gal-Paz, one can hear Musa’s rendition of Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s Hisna’ari niggun here. A discography of ten Musa Berlin albums can be found here.


But perhaps my favorite Berlin album is a recording that was made in 1992 called Sulam, which means Ladder. Musa’s clarinet is vividly enhanced by the wonderful flute playing of the late Roman Kunsman z"l, as well as the lovely violin of Gregory Lev. Here is a brief review, adapted from the Klezmershack website.

[Sulam, L-R: Leib Rigler, Gregory Lev, Musa Berlin, and Roman Kunsman]

Moshe [Musa] Berlin & Sulam / Klezmer Music from Tel Aviv, 1992.
It is mind-blowing that this is Moshe [Musa] Berlin's first recording. It has certainly been one of my favorites for a lot of years. Recorded in Germany with a versatile ensemble that includes the late Rafael [Roman] Kunsman on flute (leader of Israel's most famous 1970s jazz band, Platina) and others equally stellar, the real star here is Berlin, whose clarinet soars through traditional melodies that often sound just a bit different from what we are more used to in the United States. The repertoire also ranges from traditional Eastern European to klezmer to modern Chassidic. Some of that has to do with the concept of the "Meron" tradition. Meron is a town near Tzfat (Safed) in Israel's north. During the 16th century, the world's major Kabbalists - men like Rabbi Yitzchak Luria [the Arizal] and Rabbi Yosef Karo - shaped much of what we now know as Jewish spirituality in Tzfat. Today's Meron tradition likelier harks back to the Chassidic influx of the 19th century, but even so, these tunes, as played by Berlin, embody a spirituality and grace that is seldom captured - or even understood to be part of klezmer. Even when the band plays familiar tunes, as on the "Yiddish Niggun and Dances" with stitched-together melodies from "Belz" and "Oifn Prepetchik", featuring solos by Kunsman, there is a grace and skill to this playing that is rare. Sadly, Berlin is not only the extraordinary klezmer from Israel, but possibly the only klezmer from Israel worth listening to. Given skill and soul this deep, that's enough [GRADE: A+]

Musa, what is your opinion about your being called 'the greatest Klezmer musician in the world?'

A. "From the technical aspect of [playing] the instrument, without a doubt, there are musicians with a better technique than mine, like Giora Feidman. From the aspect of presentation, maybe I have something exclusive. You know, the melody that really excites me most is the melody of Rebbe Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov. This is a melody of the departure of the soul, and you really see the soul leaving. I played this at a memorial for Rav Shagar zt"l recently, and the audience was stunned; people were moved to tears.
"Looking at my life in retrospect, I can say that the Almighty guided me, to meet all sorts of people. Every time that I met someone, I tried not to contradict him, but to listen to him. This is secret of my success. If one of the young musicians wants advice from me, I would say: don’t oppose Hashem, allow Him to lead you, do not be obstinate. Take care to be open-minded and not contrary. This is secret of success."
Wise words from a very wise and talented man. We all wish Musa another fifty years of wonderful music and success, till 120!

Be encouraged.
Amazing to think of doing the same work and still loving it for 50 years.
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