This winning combination of heart and intellect are what world band Epichorus inspires within curious listeners. Initially, you should expect to get lost in the exotic, meditative beats and richly layered sounds on debut album “One Bead.” But soon you’ll find yourself digging deeper into the story, especially when you realize the two (perfectly harmonizing) leads are a rabbi and a Muslim.
Zach Fredman, rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary and the band’s founder, says, “I didn’t see this as a political move. It was always a musical choice.” For this musical project, Fredman chose the voice of Alsarah, who is Sudanese, to accompany that of Shir Yaakov, musical director at Romemu. The warm relationship between bandmates shines clearly, especially in tracks like “Libavtani,” where voice and instrument slowly melt together and appear inseparable.
Worshipful, the Epichorus also convey an intimacy that feels interpersonal, rather than simply between a deity and a devotee. The project’s inspiration stems from Solomon’s Song of Songs. The original verse reads, “You have ravished my heart, my beloved bride, you have ravished my heart with one glance, with one bead of your necklace” (4:9). As to the band’s name? Inspired by the Hebrew word, “אֶפִּיקוֹרוֹס,” meaning “heretic,” the band’s nominative inspiration stems from the world of outsiders even as they praise.
Despite his insistence that the partnership with Alsarah is not political, Fredman realizes that it is difficult to untangle the inherent connection between art and politics, especially in work like this. It often feels as if Israel is center stage in world news. American presidential candidates won’t stop talking about the relationship between the United States and Israel, and its significance in the Middle Eastern stage. Epichorus is powerful, in that it shows us that maybe when talking about tensions between Jews and Muslims doesn’t lead to reconciliation, music can be a vessel for that deep-rooted cultural connection.
In a recent interview with New Voices, Fredman explains, “People think of Arabic and Jewish life to be so separate, but the Jews have lived in Arab countries for thousands of years. Judaism is tied up to Arabic culture and its roots.” Fredman believes that the smallest of things, the things we often throw aside as insignificant, can in fact ravish us, and change our world. Music may not solve problems, but it can support the mood for change. It becomes readily apparent that while Epichorus is not directly crying for world peace, they do believe their music will do more than just provide a soundtrack for busy lives.
The moment Alsarah, the Sudanese singer, opens her mouth to sing “Nanaa al Genina” she shines and reminds the listener how the smallest thing, even listening to a track on your iPod, can change your mood–even your opinion. Without the ability to physically see the singer, and the obvious cultural differences between bandmates, the listener can truly appreciate the craft at work. Some listeners may get lost in the North African musical influences. Others may relate to the Arabic voice and flute: those haunting ancient sounds. In some way, this diversity is reflective of a wider trend of openness within liberal Judaism. Fredman himself originally came into Jewish practice by way of studying eastern religions. He decided that the trick to create a vibrant, liberal Jewish community, and better understand prayer itself, was through music. Fredman satisfied his own spiritual cravings with the “right sound.” He found this in the vocalist Alsarah, whom he discovered on a late night Youtube search.
Since then, Epichorus has gained a following among various communities: musical, political, spiritual and meditative. This success is a testament to the liberality of much of modern Judaism, and the unique ways Jews of all stripes seek to inject their worship with new vitality through the spark of other faiths.
A personal digression: Living in Midtown Manhattan, I routinely feel distracted and removed from my actions. When I am running to class or work or Shabbat meals, it sometimes feels as if the business of the city suggests I close myself off, rather than open up, in order to successfully live in the chaos. When I chose to share this in our interview, Fredman explains that this indirectly matches his own experience.
So much of life, he says, is about closing ourselves off from others in order to protect ourselves from the rest of the world.
“We crave the opposite of this too,” he adds. “To be able to be open to everything, both the beauty and the sorrows of the world. But this is scary and we need things to help us get to that place. I think our music does that.”
As the city routinely drains me, I am rejuvenated by track such as “Oud,” “Nay” and “Taqsim Violin.” These songs, which are the most seasoned and entertaining on the record, soothe like heat from a warm blanket, or the last breath in a yoga class. I follow Fredman’s fingers as they dance around the strings of the instrument. It is a kind of choreography.
Many may label Epichorus an “interfaith” band, but Fredman believes that the Epichorus is something new. Yes, its band members are rooted in different faiths and cultural backgrounds; and, yes, they hope that their music may one day unite their unexpected listeners. But more importantly, Fredman reminds his listeners that sometimes the best thing to do is simply listen.
If music be the food of peace, play on.
Epichorus’ debut album, “One Bead,” is now available for purchase on iTunes and Bandcamp. Its physical album release will be in January 2013.