With their second CD release, Kochi, the San Diego Jewish Men’s Choir offers a unique take on traditional Jewish music. Blending Sephardic songs, Israeli folk songs, and other traditional Jewish tunes with instruments from India, the choir celebrates the community of Kochi, an historic Jewish enclave along the southwest coast of India. This mixing of song, with roots in Eastern Europe and Iberia, and the instruments of the Asian subcontinent is intriguing, enchanting, and often strikingly beautiful.
Some believe that Jewish traders and sailors first inhabited Kochi all the way back in the time of King Solomon and that Jewish exiles settled in India during the sixth century BC, following the destruction of the First Temple. While the facts of these early settlements are sketchy, history firmly affirms that Jewish settlers arrived in India after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD. Sephardic Jews, expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, arrived in Kochi in 1492.
Unlike the bloody history of persecution and pogroms throughout Europe, the Jews of Kochi lived harmoniously with their Indian neighbors. It was only during the time when the Portuguese took control of this region of India that this community became outcast and mistreated. The Jewish population of Kochi was never very large and, due to emigration to Israel after the Second World War, their numbers had dwindled to around 100 mostly aged individuals by the early 1970s. With few women of childbearing age remaining, it is almost a certainty that this historic community will fade into history.
The San Diego Jewish Men’s Choir has been making beautiful music for nearly 20 years. Under the direction of Ruth Weber, they are one of the finest vocal ensembles San Diego has to offer. And here on this disk they give an outstanding performance. It is difficult to capture the richness of a choir in a recording, but this disk—recorded in New York, India, and here in San Diego at Studio West—will not disappoint those who have had the pleasure of hearing these men sing live.
The singing and vocal arrangements of these ten songs remain in the realm of western choral music. So, at times, the Indian instruments simply add a bit of south Asian flavor, as when tablas accompany the choir on “Mir Adir,” a traditional wedding song, or when the choir sings “Bendigamos Al Altisimo,” a post meal benediction and my favorite song on the recording.
At other times there is more of a melding of the sounds of the sitar, the tablas, the santoor, and the singing. For me, it was not so much the Indian instruments but the rich mix of the bass guitar and processed sounds, the basis of most Bollywood soundtracks, when the music sounded both Jewish and very Indian.
Kochi is a pleasure from beginning to end, and I give my highest endorsement. It will most certainly be a pleasure for anyone who loves the rich heritage of Jewish music or who enjoys good choral performances.