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Carlebach gives new life to American Jewish music

Neshama Carlebach preserves the legacy of her father Reb Shlomo’s music of new melodies for old psalms and prayers. Neshama Carlebach preserves the legacy of her father Reb Shlomo’s music of new melodies for old psalms and prayers.
By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / March 11, 2011

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In the niche market of American Jewish music, Neshama Carlebach has already reached superstar status. She has sold about a million CDs and has toured constantly for nearly 20 years, playing everything from 5,000-seat concerts for Jewish executives to weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Now, she has set her sights on reaching a mainstream audience — a difficult goal for Jewish music performers. In recent years, only the Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu has made the transition from a Hasidic and Orthodox base to a wider, secular group of fans.

“It’s only a matter of getting the word out,’’ said Carlebach, whose first name means “soul’’ in Hebrew. She will perform tomorrow night at Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, and again Sunday night at the Boston Jewish Music Festival at Temple Emanuel in Newton.

When Carlebach talks about music, nearly every sentence relates to her late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — the most prolific writer of Jewish music in the 20th century. Almost all of her material is culled from his vast catalog. Known as Reb Shlomo, the ordained Orthodox, Hasidic rabbi wrote thousands of songs, and created new melodies for age-old Hebrew prayers and psalms that can be heard at nearly every prayer service at Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues in America.

In the 1960s he was the closest thing to a Jewish superstar in the rock and folk circles, performing at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1966, and singing on other occasions with Bob Dylan and Nina Simone. The song that earned him the most praise was “Am Yisrael Chai’’ (“The People of Israel Live’’), which served as an anthem for Soviet Jews before the end of communism.

Carlebach, 36, has released seven CDs since launching her career in 1993. At the time, she had dropped out of college in order to tour with her father, and spent nine months on the road watching him perform. Reb Shlomo, who strummed an acoustic guitar onstage and mixed versions of his original Hebrew melodies with Torah commentaries and tales of Hasidic miracles, emphasized the need for people to focus on bringing more love to the world.

After her father died in 1994 at 69, Carlebach stepped in and played the gigs he had booked. Along the way, she beefed up her band, stayed on the road, and, in 1997, released “HaNeshama Shel Shlomo,’’ a CD of duets with her father that was recorded weeks before his death. The music, which blended her father’s baritone voice with her sultry tenor harmonies included some of Reb Shlomo’s greatest hits, such as “Ana Hashem’’ (“Please, God’’), and “Y’hi Shalom’’ (“Let There Be Peace’’). That album found an instant audience — selling several hundred thousand CDs. Since then, she has continued to refine her father’s songs, adding different harmonies. Her latest CD, “Higher & Higher,’’ features the New York-based Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir — which will perform with her in concert this weekend.

Carlebach sees her work with the choir as a natural evolution of her father’s music. “It’s about breaking down barriers,’’ she said, noting that her father’s first album in 1959 included a group of background African-American singers. On her latest album and in concert, the choir sings Reb Shlomo’s English and Hebrew lyrics. “The music is incredible. They are the best singers, by far, that I have ever worked with.’’

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who founded the Jewish Renewal movement and was a close friend of Reb Shlomo’s, believes Carlebach’s versions of her father’s songs take the music to a higher level. “There’s a great deal of fidelity to the intent and the religiosity of his music and when she is there singing it, her heart is just like her father’s heart,’’ said Schachter-Shalomi.

Onstage, she plays mostly with a four-piece band, which includes drummer Mark Ambrosino, her manager and the president of her label, Sojourn Records. Like her father, Carlebach also delivers words of Torah in between songs, with the hope of spreading her father’s message of unity, non-judgment, and love.

Ambrosino, who has played with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Whitney Houston, believes Carlebach has a stage presence and message similar to the other big-name performers he’s gigged with. “She has that very, very unique gift where she can get on stage in front of one or two thousand people and move them to the point where everyone in each individual seat feels like they’re the only person in the room. It’s a rare trait and she has it,’’ he said.

Carlebach says the songs, which are Jewish prayers, help her fans access their feelings — despite the fact that many don’t understand Hebrew. “Singing is like praying twice,’’ she said. “We’re all striving to hear something, to get some sign, to connect somewhere. And I don’t think it’s specific to any one religion or any one race or any one place on the world. It’s all of us in the world — we’re ready for something to move us.’’

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.

NESHAMA CARLEBACH

At: Shalin Liu Performance Center, 37 Main St., Rockport, tomorrow, 8 p.m. Tickets: $50-$100. www.rockportmusic.org, 978-281-0739; and at Temple Emanuel, 385 Ward St., Newton, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $20 (advance), $25 (at the door). www.bostonjewishmusic festival.org