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Let My People Go - A Jewish and African American Celebration of Freedom
Living in our fragmented world, veteran African American folksinging couple Kim and Reggie Harris have always conveyed a central message in their hundreds of yearly musical performances and educational workshops – we are one! While celebrating our many differences, such as race, religion and nationality, we are all part of humankind and must work toward peace, freedom and understanding through activism, solidarity and faith in the human capacity for goodness.
Let My People Go! presents a memorable analogy in song and spoken word between the story of the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt in the 13th Century B.C.E., as retold at the annual Passover Seder meal, and the African American struggle toward equality in America as exemplified by the mid-Sixties Civil Rights Movement, in which many Jewish activists were involved. No preaching, no heavy-handed didactics – this is an uplifting and enlightening celebration of accomplishment through action.
The CD’s rich tapestry of music and history is the outgrowth of a friendship forged at a late ’80s Phil Jackson-led basketball camp between musician/activist Reggie Harris and Jonathan Kligler, then a rabbinical student and now the spiritual leader of Kehillat Lev Shalem, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in upstate New York. Their relationship grew to include their families, the Harrises’ attendance at the annual Kligler Seders, and the concept for this collaboration: that oppression, struggle and hope are a common ground between the Jewish and African American communities.
Let My People Go! seamlessly interweaves songs in Hebrew from the Passover Haggadah, the book chronicling the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, with traditional Black Spirituals carrying the ideals of equality and freedom, and songs from the Civil Rights era by Phil Ochs (“What’s That I Hear”) and Freedom Singers Marshall and Matt Jones (who perform their respective compositions “In the Mississippi River,” a gospel-blues about the three Civil Rights activists slain in 1964, and the CD-closing statement of faith and purpose, “I Won’t Turn Back”). There is also a moving poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “I Have a Million Nightingales, set to music by Jewish cantor Linda Hirschhorn, and a new composition by Kim and Reggie – “Freedom Road” – that summarizes the unquenchable desire for and journey toward equality and self-determination.
Interspersed with the songs are spoken firsthand accounts of watershed events in the modern civil rights movement: African American activist Juanita Nelson, describes her desegregation battles in Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati; Rabbi Arthur Waskow tells of his lifechanging encounters with Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1964 Democratic National Convention; musical and humanitarian activist icon Pete Seeger recounts the evolution of “We Shall Overcome” from a spiritual to a late 19th Century union rallying cry to its eventual use as a civil rights anthem and statement of determination; WRPI folk radio program host Sonny Ochs recalls her late brother Phil’s commitment to justice and equality in many of his songs.
An appropriately varied musical cast was assembled for the CD: augmenting Kim and Reggie’s exuberant lead vocals and glorious trademark harmonies, Rabbi Kligler’s rich baritone, and Reggie’s exemplary acoustic guitarwork is a melting pot of co-celebrants that includes folk musicians/educators Bill and Livia Vanaver, keyboardist David Sancious (formerly of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) and lead guitarist John Platania (Van Morrison, Don McLean), among others. Clarinetist Peter Davis adds a high-spirited Klezmer sound to several tracks, and Rabbi Kligler’s congregation adds vocals to the celebratory “Ilu Finu” and traditional spiritual “I’m on My Way.” In keeping with the family-oriented spirit of the project, Rabbi Kligler’s wife, Ellen Jahoda, recites the sonnet at the base of the Statue of Liberty on a medley of “The New Colossus” (the poem), Irving Berlin’s melody “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” and the African American Spiritual “Motherless Child”; his 11-year-old daughter Timna chants a thousand-year-old Jewish declaration of faith, “Ani Ma’amin,” that leads into a gospel-flavored rendition of “We Shall Overcome” featuring a hopeful rap by Kim and Reggie’s teenaged nephew, LeVonn Brown.
The Harrises and Rabbi Kligler present music from Let My People Go! at select festivals, concert appearances, community gatherings, and workshops in upcoming months, and a DVD of their live presentation is in the planning stages.
About Rabbi Jonathan Kligler:
Born in White Plains, NY, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler has been bringing people together through song, dance and joy for more than 30 years since his days as a teenage songleader at summer camp. Kligler’s eclectic resume includes professional mime, children’s performer and teacher of improvisational dance. Ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia, Pa., Rabbi Kligler has been the spiritual leader of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, Kehillat Lev Shalem (which means “the Congregation of the Full Heart”), in Woodstock, NY, since 1988.
Rabbi Kligler has two previous CDs to his credit: a live concert recording of American and Israeli folk songs called Songs of Love, Hope and Courage, and Come My Friend: Songs and Blessings for Shabbat (with Zoe. B. Zak).
1. B'chol Dor Va'Dor (In Every Generation) / I'm On My Way
2. Ha Lachma Anya (This is the Bread of Oppression)
3. Avodim Hayinu (Slaves We Were)
4. In the Mississippi River
5. Remembering Phil Ochs (spoken)
6. What's That I Hear
7. The New Colossus / Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor / Motherless Child
8. Democratic National Convention 1964
9. Mah Lecha Ha'yam (Sea, Why Do You Flee?)
10. Man Come into Egypt
11. Ilu Finu (Were Our Mouths Oceans of Song)
12. Let My People Go: Story of an Activist's Life (spoken)
13. Freedom Road
14. I Have a Million Nightingales
15. Venomar Lefanav (Let Us Sing a New Song)
16. We Shall Overcome: Evolution of a Song
17. Ani Ma'amin (I Believe) / We Shall Overcome
18. I Won't Turn Back
|“With passion and conviction . . . Kim and Reggie Harris, accomplished gospel singes, and Jon Kligler, who leads a synagogue in Woodstock, New York, do a wonderful job of rekindling that old-time feeling in which there was not only hope for people to gt along, but a darned good reason they should do so. And the music here is a nice smattering of spirituals and religious songs, as well as poetry set to new music. . . . More than a throwback or a trip down memory lane, though, this album is an uplifting reminder that more work needs to be done before everybody can get together.”
– Dirty Linen
|“The tone for the album is set in the first track, a medley of ‘B’Chol Dor Va’Dor,’ a song taken from the Passover Haggadah that stresses the importance of every generation knowing the Passover story and applying its lessons to their own time, and ‘I’m On My Way,’ an African American spiritual that repeats the lesson that every generation must know that it is part of the ongoing struggle for freedom. Throughout the rest of the album, in more Haggadah songs, more spirituals and a number of contemporary compositions, the common themes of freedom and liberty are celebrated. The breadth of the musical settings is broad, sometimes incorporating more than one musical style. ‘Venomar Lefanev,’ for example, has a Sephardic arrangement but Peter Davis’s clarinet adds a klezmer flavor. A common message of hope and belief is found in a medley of ‘Ani Ma’amin’ and ‘We Shall Overcome,’ that combines arrangements from both traditions and before reminding us, via a rap by LeVonn Brown, of the songs’ contemporary relevancy. This CD is a very moving collection of songs and stories. . . . [An] exciting celebration of common values expressed in song."
– Sing Out!
|“. . . Let My People Go: A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom is a felicity worth savouring. It is an inspiring fusion of traditional songs from the Pesach seder, African American gospel songs and spirituals and the occasional Civil Rights-era reading. The collection will resonate with anyone who enjoys the lyricism of the sweetly sung, familiar melodies of the Haggadah and the deeply resonant harmonies of black gospel song. . . . The work is a collaborative effort of folksingers Kim and Reggie Harris and Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, all of whom have richly entertaining voices. But the record features many more voices, young and old, and benefits from the high-calibre musical arrangements.”
– Canadian Jewish News
|“Don’t write this off as a documentary set. While ‘a Jewish and African American celebration of freedom’ might not appeal to Ashlee's fans, the music on here starts out as music that was the soundtrack of the Jews rebelling against the Egyptians through Civil right anthems. With a back up crew that is loaded with stellar names like Pete Seeger, Tony Levin and others from all across the spectrum, this is as important a set as something like the tribute to Stephen Foster. Everyone is up for the task of keeping this from being a museum piece and it's certainly an ear opener for adults with consciences. Certainly a left field entry but a great reminder that the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
– Midwest Record
|“If you’re looking for something different and meaningful, check out Let My People Go! A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom. The CD celebrates freedom, combining Jewish and African-American traditions. . . .While the album especially will appeal to those two groups, it can be embraced by anyone who appreciates what those struggles cost and the benefits they provided to all peoples. The album’s power also lies in its ability to touch listeners individually as each one struggles with his or her personal oppressors.”
– Word & Way, Jefferson City, MO.
“Thankfully, the Let My People Go! CD doesn't wallow in nostalgia or provide a ‘greatest hits’ soundtrack from the good old days. The music and the performances are decidedly unsentimental, and everywhere the touch of new musical influences and innovations give even the golden oldies of the civil-rights movement a fresh patina.”
|“There are plenty of connections between the Jewish and African-American people. Both have been oppressed and enslaved during history, and many Jews were involved in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This album is as much a celebration of that time as it is a political statement of solidarity in song, cantorial chant, and spoken word reminiscences. At times quite extraordinarily lovely, as on 'Venomar Lefanav (Let Us Sing a New Song),' with its klezmer overtones, or 'I Have a Million Nightingales,' it can also turn deeply spiritual, as on 'In the Mississippi River.' It's definitely not a background disc, but one that comes back time after time, showing different facets with each track, all coming together to paint a picture. In its own small way it’s glorious, if low-key, the type of record that brings a glow of satisfaction (as is the case with everything Kim & Reggie Harris do).****”
– All Music Guide
“This lively multi-ethnic tribute to the human spirit in song and story makes for an invigorating and stimulating 72-minute CD. It’s steered by well-respected singers, songwriters and storytellers Kim and Reggie Harris . . . and carries on the folk tradition of preserving important songs from the past and adding meaningful new songs from the world around them, while recognising and embracing different ethnic traditions into a common folk heritage. . . . The individual treatments are exuberant or heartfelt as relevant, with sincerity and warmth of genuine expression a hallmark of each and every performance; good use is made of the various ethnic idioms . . . The concluding “I Won't Turn Back” is at once profoundly moving and defiant . . . Integration and integrity, indeed, are the primary characteristics of this imaginative, intelligent and virtually self-recommending release.”