As bluegrass music moves ever closer to the mainstream of America’s and the world’s cultural mainstream, influences from outside the southeastern US will continue to mold and reshape its sound. Already bands in Europe and Japan are distinguishing themselves by writing and performing new bluegrass in their native languages, essential in it being accepted as part of a region’s lingering heritage.
One group of loyal bluegrass supporters who have been involved since the beginning, but who are only recently embellishing our music with their own cultural artifacts, are Jewish Americans, inheritors of among the richest and deepest cultural traditions in world history. Perhaps for fear of inciting anti-Semitic tensions in the rural South, only rarely have we heard a prominent Jewish counterpoint to the Gospel music that has been a part of bluegrass since Bill Monroe’s earliest recordings.
In our modern, more-interconnected world with its strong Christian embrace of Jews and their nation of Israel, those fears may seem less pointed, and more instances of Jewgrass, as I’ve heard many Jewish grassers in the northeast describe it, coming to the forefront.
One couple who are grabbing this bull by the horns are Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, the husband/wife team who form Nefesh Mountain. This talented duo is both bringing the sounds of bluegrass and old time mountain music to Jewish congregations, and introducing liturgical themes from Jewish worship into performances for more general audiences.
Their upcoming self-titled album, due on May 20, displays their highly-effective blending of these two spheres on music they have written or arranged. Assisting are top bluegrass artists like Sam Bush, Scott Vestal, Mark Schatz, Rob Ickes and Gary Oleyar. Songs are presented in both English and Hebrew, but with an authentic sound of the mountains.
Nefesh is a familiar Hebrew word that roughly translates to the English word soul, in the sense of animating spirit. It serves as both an appropriate cross-cultural band name, and an inside reference for fellow Hebrew speakers at the same time.
Doni says that she and Eric mean to show the relatedness of all people and music with their songs.
“We’ve found that bluegrass and old-time music welcomes and embraces all people, and through music and spirituality, has the capability of connecting us all together. At its core, bluegrass is a pure, honest, and loving art form with humanity that people of all backgrounds really respond to.”
They have released a video in advance of the album for the song, Esa Einai. It’s taken from an ancient Hebrew prayer, set to a haunting, pentatonic melody with Eric on banjo.
Look for Nefesh Mountain’s debut release in May. You can visit them online.