Check Your Ego At The Door
Joey Weisenberg uses nigunim to reach new spiritual plateaus, and he’s happy to take you along for the ride
According to Joey Weisenberg, a Philadelphia-based multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, music is holy. It’s a tool with the potential to help a person transcend ego, and on some level, to access the divine.
“The musical path is extremely full of spirit,” he says. “Any musician knows—whether you’re avowedly secular or avowedly religious—you know that your job is to get out of the way. The better musician you are, the more you get out of the way of the music. You try to remove your ambition so that the music can speak directly through you.”
Those ethos are also Weisenberg’s animating spirit, which are central to his work as the founder and director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute. For well over a decade, he’s been leading communal musical events centered around wordless melodies, or nigunim, that—when the spirit is willing—trigger powerful, transcendent spiritual experiences. He leads these gatherings with the Hadar Ensemble, an eclectic group of instrumentalists and singers, as well as with community groups and others willing to try. He’s also recorded seven albums of original nigunim, and has collaborated with many others as well, many of whom are also associated with his work with Hadar.
Weisenberg is an accomplished instrumentalist—he boasts prodigious chops on just about anything with strings—although his experiences with nigunim have had a profound affect on his playing and approach.
“Sometimes, with the things I practice a lot—I’ll work to be able to play very difficult lines or whatever—but then, what’s really called for is one, nice, beautiful note,” he says. “It’s a different approach, and the nigun reminds me to think in that way. Nigunim are not generally fast and flashy. It takes a lifetime of singing to be able to sing a nigun, but not a lifetime of practicing your chops. It’s a different mentality. If you try to put chops over that, it actually doesn’t help. It can get in the way of the melody.”
In his understated way, Weisenberg shines even when keeping out of the way. I recently spoke with him from his home in Pennsylvania. We discussed the unlikely parallels between Hasidic nigunim and the blues, learning to appreciate the contributions of even the weakest member of an ensemble, creating nigunim as part of a community, overcoming institutional resistance to more active forms of worship, and the debut-like quality of his upcoming Bandcamp livestream.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Milwaukee. My family has been there since before the Civil War, although my grandmother came directly from Germany. I grew up in the Jewish community in Milwaukee. My grandfather had been a fan of all the different branches of Yiddishkeit and so even though he grew up in the classic Reform tradition, he became a Hasid of the Twerski Hasidim [the current rebbe, Rabbi Michel Twerski, the Hornosteipel Rebbe of Milwaukee, has been the head of the community since 1973]. My wife also comes from the Twerski community. We’ve had the full range of Jewish background, with a fair amount of frum-keit [Orthodoxy], and also a fair amount of reaching across the boundaries.
Were you exploring Jewish music at that time, too?
I first encountered Jewish music with the cantor at the shul I attended. But as a teenager I was able to spend time with the Twerskis, and hearing them singing nigunim was a huge treat. Sometimes Rav Michel and his older brother, Abraham—who they called Shia—would sing together and it was really magical. Getting to experience that as a teenager was something that I’ll never forget.
Did you study music in college?
I went to Columbia University and dropped out of pre-med. I became a music major and then a musician. I did end up getting some kind of degree in music, but at Columbia it is more of an intellectual degree. Whereas I was getting my real music education by playing in bars and with all kinds of musicians from the time that I was a young teenager and then continuing in New York. I started off playing music in blues bars in Milwaukee—I started playing gigs when I was about 12 or 13—and there are so many generous musicians there who would encourage me to play and show me the licks as we were going. That was a totally different atmosphere from the religious world—totally different sets of priorities—but the music, both the blues and the nigunim, are both from the heart. I connected very deeply to them both. Very much not intellectual music, very heartfelt, very soulful, beautiful. You put everything you have into just a few notes.
When did you go to New York?
I got to New York in 2000 and spent a year there before 9/11. After a year or two of being in New York, I was starting to meet a lot of musicians and was starting to play gigs. I was even starting to make some money, because we were playing gigs that people paid for. I had gotten paid from time to time in Milwaukee, but it was always about the love of the music. I encountered a whole new breed of musicians in New York. They were very accomplished musicians and they were very much about doing the job. But aside from that, there were so many amazing musicians in NewYork—and there still are—and I really got my education from being able to play with them.
What’s your principle instrument?
I grew up as a guitarist and harmonica player, but in New York, the thing I played the most was mandolin. There are about 3,000 amazing guitar players in New York, and maybe three or four good mandolin players. It was possible to play with a lot of people on the mandolin, and to be able to play in all different kinds of styles, with people from all over the world who play different kinds of music.
The Jewish music scene in New York was already exploding when you got there. Were you a part of that crowd and was that your introduction to klezmer, and other types of Jewish music?
My introduction to Jewish music was most strongly from being in the religious Jewish world where people sing—as well as at camps where people sing—but I also had a lot of friends who were in the downtown scene. I was more a part of the burgeoning klezmer scene, and I was brought into it by my teacher Jeff Warschauer. He taught me how to play the mandolin when I was about 20, and opened up a lot of music for me. What I liked about the klezmer scene was that everybody was really supportive. Nobody was trying to be too cool. There were some phenomenal musicians in that scene, including Ben Holmes and Michael Winograd, who are my generation, and it was different from the jazz scene. In the jazz scene—which I was trying to play in a little bit, too—people would take away other people’s instruments at jam sessions if they felt they weren’t hanging or making it. I got really upset with that attitude towards music. That cutting quality. I wanted music to feel more like everyone can find a place at their own level. There will be some virtuosos and there will be some other people. But we’re all working together to make a community of music.
Did you find that with klezmer?
I learned a lot from that attitude. I’ve been out of the klezmer scene to some degree for a while, but I really learned that attitude from Jeff Warschauer and Michael Alpert. They’re great musicians, but they’re really great teachers. They can sit down with a room full of people and the entire room comes alive with song and study. That was really exciting to me, and I learned that skill from them. Jeff gave me my first job teaching klezmer music at KlezKanada when I was 21. I got to teach for a number of years up there. It was that attitude of empowerment. On the one hand, they needed teachers, but on the other hand, they believed that it was important to get younger people to learn the tradition and to start teaching it. That opened up doors that have continued my entire life so far. I have a performing side of me, and I also have a teaching side. The teaching side is where I think the most critical thing is to allow everyone to get in at their level and to find their way of making something beautiful. Oftentimes for me that involves singing, because everyone can participate with their voices without the years of training that’s required for an instrument.
In your videos, you see people from across the spectrum. Some are virtuosos, but lay people are very involved as well. Is it singing, specifically, which is the vehicle to break down barriers and allow inclusivity?
Everybody has a voice. We all have various capacities of tuning and so forth, but everybody can open their mouth and come out with an expression. And there are times where the expressions that are less in tune are more profound. That’s the beauty of the nigun. It can be tuned up and sung with exceptional clarity and beauty, and it is also the raw communal Jewish spiritual expression. When you get enough people together and they are all singing, it is super powerful, no mater what its degree of musical perfection. It requires a different way of being musical. It requires a broader sense. It’s not just about getting things to sound right. It’s about getting them to speak from the neshama [soul].
Meaning that it feels right as opposed to sounding right.
These are both good things. Sounding good is a good thing, too. But I love the organic quality of being in a community and singing with everybody. There are times when somebody will come in with a terrible voice—can’t sing in tune at all—but it lifts up the entire group. That person has an energy that lifts up everybody into the heavens.
When did you start doing singing circles?
My first serious musical community moment was in the early 2000s. An organization called Hadar was getting started. I was really excited about Hadar at the time—I still am, the Rising Song Institute is the Hadar Rising Song Institute—we’ve grown up together. It was Shavuos in 2003 or 2004 and it was five in the morning. Elie Kaunfer, who was one of the founders of Hadar, asked me to take the final session of the night. Some people stay up all night long studying Torah on Shavuos, and the idea is that it’s awesome if you can make it all the way through to the morning. He asked me to sing at the last moment of the night for an hour. I sang with 40 people and we sang the same nigun. We just kept going and going and singing and singing and it was so beautiful. It was that moment when I realized, “This is something I can really get into. I want to see this happen in the world.” One of my priorities became to try to give people tools to learn how to make music themselves. I wrote a book, Building Singing Communities, because Jews like books. If you can give them a book, it becomes official. Outside certain centers of Jewish life—outside of the Hasidic world, in the mainstream Jewish world—there is still a lot of convincing to do that song is not just a frivolous, outside activity.
Is there resistance or is it that some people just don’t get it?
Major resistance. Less so now than when I was getting started 15 years ago, but major resistance because Jewish life was seen largely as a passive activity. You come and you watch somebody else do something at you. Singing is the opposite of passive. It requires you to enter the picture, and that is deeply uncomfortable for a Jewish community that largely prefers—especially in those generations—largely prefer to pay somebody else to do things for them. Singing requires no payment, but it requires the investment of one’s own soul, and one’s own heart into it.
That’s probably intimidating.
It is. It requires a vulnerability that I think ultimately is exactly what’s needed. But it takes a lot of coaching just like any other type of vulnerability.
Do you prepare these nigunim in advance? How much is improvised? How much evolves over time before you record them?
When I started off, I would only sing very old melodies. I didn’t feel that I had the gravitas—dot dot dot—to make my own. I wanted to rely on the strength of those old melodies that had been around for generations or even hundreds of years in some cases. But when my first son was born 12 years ago—I have four kids now—he never would go to sleep. I’d be up all night singing to him. What I realized was that in those months and years, I wrote hundreds of nigunim. I would put him to sleep, and then I’d come out and I’d quickly write it down. It became a fountain of nigunim—like the river of fire that flows through each of our minds, that the angels are born from—and at that point I started teaching some of my own melodies. I realized that if it’s coming out like this, I’ve got to let it into the world.
And then, maybe five years ago, I reached a new frontier where I wanted to be on the same page as everybody in the room. If I was going to be on the same page, I had to also not know what the nigun was going to be. In that case, I would gather people close together, hum a few notes, and start composing a nigun on the spot. It’s become something that is like the dearest activity. One of my favorite things in the world is when you have a deeply focused group of people around you—it is almost like taking a jazz solo or taking a blues solo—you start composing and your job is to remember what you just did. Then you do it again, and that becomes the first section. Then you go a little higher, and you make that the next section. Then you go a little higher, and you make the next section, while all the time trying to remember the first two. Then usually, like the ladder of song that the angels go up and down on, you put the B section again at the end and it brings you back down to start over again. It’s possible to compose a nigun when you have the right people around you who are with you and giving you connection.
Do they have input in terms of crafting the melody as well, or do you try to guide it?
Sometimes. Sometimes we’ll say, “How’s it going?” And somebody proposes that it is too hard to get to the next section without a bridge, so you have to add a note or two to get there or something.
So it’s informal. You’ll stop and talk about it. It’s not that you just go with it, no matter what.
Sometimes. It depends on what it is. There are some moments of inspiration that are so intense that you have to just let it take its course, because that’s where the melody is coming out and you have no control. When you have a lot of control in composition, that’s craft. And when you let go of control, that’s inspiration. All musicians work somewhere in between craft and inspiration. But when you have a moment of inspiration, you have to let it go, because those are the most amazing melodies. They are real. They come out without even your intervention.
They pass through you.
Yeah, and you’re not crafting it. You’re just letting it into the world from the river of song. You take a little scoop out of the river of song that’s in many of our minds, and you bring it down and let it into the world.
Do you record these sessions, is that how you remember them?
I used to write them down, and then people started recording them. Sometimes, if it wasn’t on Shabbos, they’d record it and I’d forget about it. And then years later they’d say, “Remember that time when we were all sitting together and the doorbell rang and the notes were [sings] ‘dooo-dooo,’ or something like that, and then you composed a nigun on the spot with those notes as the beginning?” I’ll say something like, “Ooo, I do remember that, but I don’t remember the melody.” They’ll say, “Here’s how it went”—because they took the time to remember it. It is almost like I was the creative channel for that moment and they took it and ran with it, and it became something they sing at their Shabbos table.
But you forgot it.
I forgot it [laughs].
Are the harmonies in your music planned or do they happen more organically?
I used to through-compose some things, but I realized that the harmony singers were almost—since they’re really fine singers with great musical ears—they’re almost always going to do something better spontaneously than I am going to be able to write for them. That goes for all the musicians in my bands. I realized that I wanted to spend more time working with musicians who were willing to sit down and remember the music and come up with their own music around it, which is the role I played on lots of other people’s albums, as opposed to writing it all down. One thing that really bothered me on the New York music scene was that everyone was addicted to their musical scores, and they could never remember anything. The art of the nigun is staying with something long enough that you internalize it and it becomes a part of you.
You have a livestream coming up on Bandcamp. What’s that about?
On July 28 I am recording an album with two of my favorite musicians, drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Daniel Ori, and I am going to be playing a lot of electric guitar. It is a project that is born out of COVID in the sense that I am used to having bigger bands with larger ensembles and harmony singers. This time the guitar itself is going to be playing lots of the harmony parts. I’ll play three part harmony with myself and with the rhythm section. I am looking forward to it. It is a way more exposed personal take on music than I’ve been doing in some ways on my last seven albums. What we’re doing is we’re going to be live-streaming the recording session. On July 28 you can actually watch us as we are making mistakes and as we are getting it right. It allows people to not only hear the finished product but to understand how the creative process works.
Will the audience get to see you do multiple takes?
I hope so. We’ll also be recording for a few other days, and if people want to see more they can come the night before as well. That’s something they can sign up for on my website. If you want to see two nights of us doing it, you can do that as well. It’s part of our general game plan of trying to not only put out final products, but to always bring people along through the journey. We think that’s the most fun and sometimes most beautiful part. We’ve learned that we can trust that there will be enough good things that it’s going to be worth it. I am looking forward to playing with Richie. We’ve been playing together for years, and he’s a very accomplished jazz drummer. He’s played with Herbie Hancock and Esperanza Spalding, and so on. And Daniel Ori is just super awesome bass player. He’s played on some records that I’ve been producing lately. For me, in some ways it feels oddly enough like a debut, because there is less cover [laughs]. There are fewer amazing other musicians, so it’s a chance to come out of the woodwork, even in my own music.
For clarinetist David Krakauer, klezmer music is more than an art form, it's how he can be a light unto the nations.