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Though he claims credit for creating the musical hybrid that he calls “Jewish Blues,” Saul Kaye credits the initial concept to a divine inspiration. “I think that ideas download to like a thousand people around the planet at once,” he says, “and then somebody runs with it.”
The notion of combining stories from the Torah with American blues music was “downloaded” to Kaye in 2007, but he at first resisted the calling. “I ignored it,” he admits, “largely because my association with Jewish music was not good, and I think that’s true for many people. I really wanted to do it justice on both levels, to pay homage to the blues masters who I love and respect and also to pay homage to my tradition and its stories with integrity.”
The San Francisco-based singer-songwriter has since released three volumes of Jewish Blues, which he defines as “a natural marriage of the music of African-American slaves of this country with the history of Jews as slaves in many countries.” He’ll perform that mash-up tonight at the Gershman Y to kick off the first Philadelphia Jewish Music Festival, which takes place in a number of venues across the city over the next eight days.
Born in South Africa but raised in the States, Kaye discovered the blues at the age of ten when a tape called “Blues Classics” arrived in the mail, just one selection in a batch delivered from one of the then-ubiquitous record clubs. “It had Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, and Percy Mayfield,” he recalls, “and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had never heard anything like that.”
By melding this sound that had made such a profound effect on him with the stories of his cultural tradition, Kaye discovered a way to create a more expansive, emotionally effective music. “The music isn’t about my life and my dramas, which gets boring after a while,” he says. “The stories and lives of the people in the Torah are phenomenal. I have more material to work with than I could write about in twenty lifetimes. I really want to make music that hits people in the kishka, and I feel like the blues does that.”
If you go
Philadelphia Jewish Music Festival
Carol Miller (May 2, 7 p.m., Gershman Y): The legendary radio DJ recounts stories from her four-decade career, including introducing Bruce Springsteen to NYC airwaves.
Chana Rothman (May 8, 7 p.m., World Café Live): The singer-songwriter fuses folk reggae, and worldbeat rock.
Michael Feinstein (May 6, 7:30 p.m., Free Library): America’s premier interpreter of the Great American Songbook, Feinstein discusses and performs songs by George and Ira Gershwin in this sold-out performance.