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Cantorial Student Fronts Contemporary Jewish Band
Jessi Roemer thinks she knows what people are looking for when they go to a concert, and it’s not just to hear their favorite songs live or to check out a new artist.
What people really want, she says, “is to have their molecules restructured a little bit. If you hit the right frequency in the meaning and the music — in the melodies — what happens is the molecules in people’s bodies start to move more in tandem with each other.”
The 46-year-old cantorial student and leader of Sonic Theology, a nine-piece band that plays her contemporary Jewish compositions, can even cite an academic reason for that indescribable feeling best summed up by the 1974 Kiki Dee hit, “I’ve Got the Music in Me.”
She recounts how one of her instructors at the Philadelphia-based Jewish Renewal movement’s ALEPH Cantorial Program explained the transporting potential of spiritual music. “He talked about how the Chasidic musicians really perfected the art of the niggun: Even without words, they created a sonic theology — they made the walls of the rooms vibrate” wherever they would chant.
Those attending Sonic Theology’s next concert, which will take place this weekend at Studio 34 in West Philadelphia, will get a first-hand taste of Roemer’s style of wall-shaking, roof-raising and spirit-raising songs.
Roemer grew up in Silver Spring, Md., surrounded by Jewish music and musicians. Her mother was a cantor as well as a member of the long-running klezmer band, the Fabrangen Fiddlers.
But Roemer was set on a career in literature, getting an MFA in creative writing at Brooklyn College and beginning to teach the subject. “I grew up amid a sea of Jewish musicians, people who were very involved in the chavurah and Renewal movements, and who were engaged in Jewish culture and music,” she recalls. “I was surrounded by people who were taking Jewish texts and sources and integrating all the aspects of their world into that, but I didn’t think about consciously choosing to pursue those as a career path until much later.”
That’s not to say she absented herself entirely from the world of Jewish music. She began playing the guitar and singing when she was still in grade school. She was a song leader at Habonim Dror Camp Moshava in northern Maryland as a teenager, and she performed in different small venues while living in Jerusalem during most of the 1990s. But she says that it wasn’t until she moved to Philadelphia and began raising her two children with her partner, Josh, in the last decade that she felt the time was right to move from teaching literature to getting into the family business, a move that was influenced by conversations with her mother.
Before her mother’s death in 2010, Roemer says, she talked with her about the ambivalence she felt in moving forward with a musical career, both in and out of the synagogue. “She said to me, ‘Maybe part of the reason it’s hard for you to feel strongly about it right now is because you’re not immersed in it. Why don’t you try it and see how it feels?’ ”
Roemer took her mother’s advice and enrolled in the ALEPH program in 2011. Almost immediately, she recalls, what she was learning in class influenced her other music. “Once I started taking classes, it really jump-started my composition writing again, which had stagnated after my Jerusalem stint,” she says. “Being immersed in these ancient prayer modes that stretch so far back really got my musical brain working.”
Roemer’s songs incorporate the influences she has picked up along the way: the American and Eastern European sounds surrounding her family’s chavurah and Renewal groups; the Sephardi and Middle Eastern rhythms prevalent during her time in Israel; and the folk music of artists like Pete Seeger, Holly Near and Joni Mitchell. “I start with texts that are ancient and rooted in Jewish tradition, and then I try to interpret that through a combination of these styles,” she explains.
Her songs become even more eclectic once they have been rehearsed and embellished by her multicultural bandmates in a collaborative process. “I’ll start with something that is rooted in Jewish text, and they’ll take it to 10 different levels,” she says. As an example, she brings up a tune that will be included on her upcoming, as-yet-unnamed album. “Our tune, ‘Kadosh,’ starts with a couple pivotal phrases from the Kiddushah. There is a repetition of Kadosh, the high point of the prayer, and it uses a couple other phrases of the prayer. Then it goes on to explore, in English, a worldview of how you can see everything as holy — the whole world is holy.”
Roemer says that being a cantorial student and a bandleader at the same time has proven beneficial for her work in both disciplines. “My cantorial work feeds the musical performance work and vice versa,” she says.
Considering she has almost reached the halfway point of her six-year cantorial program while simultaneously writing songs and performing with her band — not to mention recording material for Sonic Theology’s debut release — it seems that the sum of Roemer’s musicality is greater than its parts. “Once I started studying the art of davening leadership, the stuff you’re doing in that — being fully present enough to become a vessel, to allow everyone in the room to become more present — that is exactly what stage performers do; they invite you to join them in an experience. And my experience of collaboration with the musicians has really enhanced the way I approach service leading — it’s now easier to accentuate the prayers because of my work with the band.”
IF YOU GO
Saturday, Feb 22 at 7:00 p.m.
Studio 34, 4522 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia