Listen to the young and learn

2009-08-18 00:00

 

“I want to see successful musicians incorporating the sound of children and youth to share their visions for the future,” singer and music educator Chana Rothman said after her recent tour of South Africa. The dream came out of her time spent sharing her knowledge with children and young people in the communities of Kayalitsha, Soweto, kwaMashu (where she worked “with the most soulful and prophetic high school pupils”) and the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

Rotham’s trip was funded by Limmud, a Jewish conference at which she spoke about her role as a Jewish musician. In addition, Rothman organised extra-curricular activities, in which she could share experiences with young people in disadvantaged communities and, in turn, listen to their stories. “The music I heard coming out of these communities was amazing,” she told me on our way to the Valley of a Thousand Hills. “It’s really a short leap to go from their singing culture to creating songs that have their own messages, which really need to be heard on a wider level.”

Which brings Rothman to her dream, an idea she says started brewing wildly in Cape Town a few weeks ago. “I want to see more established musicians coming from these backgrounds, because adults just can’t come up with the same kind of music,” she says. To explain what she means, Rothman starts to sing a Jewish teaching: “The old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions. And our lives shall rise up to the sky. We must live for today, we must build for tomorrow. Give us time, give us strength, and give us life.”

“So,” she says, explaining the interpretation by a Jewish musical icon named Debbie Friedman, “the young shall see visions and work towards them and we need to see the world through their eyes. I believe the only way the world’s going to listen is if well-established musicians give them an endorsement and work with them. Many successful musicians have come up through the ghetto, the township, so I have the assumption that they’d want to give back.”

Rothman is not your ordinary musician. Her style is unique, but her balance between being a performer and a music educator of children, gives her that added touch. “Children are so energising,” Rothman (34) says. “People always think I am a lot younger than I really am and I believe it’s because I work with children. It keeps me really young.”

The musician, who was brought up in Canada, fuses folk music with progressive worldbeat, incorporating Hebrew prayer and reggae beats as well as breaking out into hip-hop in the middle of a song. “People deserve fresh, original, thoughtful music that reflects our changing world,” says Rothman, who credits Michael Jackson as her original muse. “And if it’s done well, it becomes universal.”

Rotham, who is a language person (she speaks French, German, Italian, English, Hebrew and Yiddish), also used music as a tool to travel with. It was her tour of Nepal, walking with a guitar on her back through the Himalayas, which truly opened her eyes to world music. “When I arrived in villages, there would be all these checkpoints where officials checked your passport and visa. They were very stern,” she says. “But then they saw my guitar and they’d point to it and ask me to play – it completely broke down all the barriers. I learned this mountain song of theirs, which I started playing a lot. Villagers would flip out when I sang it and they’d all start singing. They really felt happy to hear someone out of their culture singing their song.”

When Rothman went to New York to start her music career, she discovered how hard it is to be successful. “It’s a very commerce-based place, where arts and making money sit together all the time, making it very hard,” she says. “I feel I have built up a community of people who support each other, but even within that it is very competitive. You have to worry about how many people come to your show, because all the venue owner cares about is money, they don’t care about how you play.”

Rotham struck it lucky in 2007 with a music entrepreneur who had a taste for Jewish music. “The Knitting Factory founder, Michael Dorf, really liked my music and wanted to make me an album,” she says. “He brought on board C Lanzbom, an incredibly talented recording artist, who got Sheryl Crow and Kelly Clarkson’s drummer, Shawn Pelton, to record with me,” she says. The result was We Can Rise and it propelled Rothman onto radio waves and music festivals around the U.S. She now plays to packed audiences around New York state.

Rothman juggles her time between her music career and teaching music at a Jewish school in Brooklyn. “When I play music with kids, it’s not about selling albums. It’s about finding their messages, about what they want to say, about empowering them,” she says. “But when I perform for adults, it is about sharing my message. It’s very clear in my mind: music education is one thing, my music career another.”

However, Rothman says her two careers feed into each other. “The way that I am when I perform is very informed by the way I work with children,” she says. “I know a lot of people like to just come and perform — to give and receive as the performer. That doesn’t work for me.”

Rothman uses the word “workshop” as an excuse to get close to young people. Writing on her blog www.chanarothman.com of her experience in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, where she worked with students at the SEM Trust, Rothman says, “I facilitated or participated in a beautiful cultural exchange disguised as a songwriting workshop”. And so it was in Cape Town’s Crossroads district, where she worked with peer educators called the Future Fighters. “These guys sparked a huge call for me as these are the songs we should be hearing on the radio,” she says. “One of them took some major initiative so I invited him to join me in a show at the Zula Bar. It was incredible. Mfundo, who has a booming voice, came with two youth advisors, who were both incredible singers. One of them, Megan, sang Miriam Makeba’s Click Song, which I knew and could play along to. That has got to be the highlight of my time in South Africa.”

And so it was, at Zula Bar, that Rotham truly found what she was looking for: a talented musician sharing the stage with disadvantaged young people with an incredible passion for music. A dream has started to blossom for Rothman and we South Africans are part of it.

WHAT IS THE LIMMUD CONFERENCE?

Jews from around South Africa gathered in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg this month for intensive discussions, debates and celebrations of all things Jewish under the banner of “Limmud”. Meaning both “to teach” and “to learn”, the word Limmud is an approach to cross-communal Jewish education that started 29 years ago in the UK. Within a few short years, it was embraced by Jewish communities in Australia, North America, the Baltic States and Europe and is now enjoyed by Jews throughout the world.

Recognised as the Grahamstown Festival of Jewish learning and culture, Limmud South Africa has attracted more than 100 presenters of 140 sessions covering religious texts, history, philosophy, Israel, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, economics, music performances, theatre and Jewish film.

Read Chana Rothman's blog on Michael Jackson here.

Watch the video here:

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