Sunday Cinema Explores Jewish Influence on Music Around the World

Over three Sundays in February, the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership presents a film series that traverses the world exploring the connection between Judaism and music. From India to New York City to Australia, Iraq and back again, the learning space on south Michigan Avenue presents Sunday Cinema, a mini-series featuring music-centric documentaries Mandala Beats, Body and Soul: An American Bridge and On the Banks of the Tigris. Films screen at 2pm on February 11, 18 and 25; we had the chance to check them out in advance of the program.

Image courtesy of Spertus Institute

A short documentary that premiered at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival last year (it clocks in at just about 45 minutes), Mandala Beats (February 18) tags along with Israeli musician Yossi Fine as he explores his recently discovered Indian heritage. Fine, a bassist who heads up the African/techno hybrid group Ex-Centric Sound System, was nominated for a Grammy in 1991 and continues a rich music career today. On discovering that his family extends to India, he travels there to learn more about this family line; along the way, he finds a strong Jewish influence in the country’s native music. Collaborating with India-based Jewish artists and local folk musicians alike, he performs at various outdoor festivals and brings his own jam style to the traditional tunes. Though the filmmaking is nothing exceptional, Fine’s creative openness and laid-back style offer an easy entry into his journey into his own background.

Using the most recorded jazz standard in history as a jumping off point, Body And Soul: An American Bridge (February 11) transports audiences back to the States to examine the Jewish origins of this first-ever torch song. As one of the most significant songs in an entirely American genre, “Body and Soul” was written by Johnny Green in 1929 and first recorded by Libby Holman, both Jewish. It would go on to become a melody beloved by jazz artists across generations as the bridge, that transitional phrasing between verses, offers some of the most riff-able measures in all of music. Perhaps to fill time, or perhaps (more optimistically) to offer a more holistic picture of the song’s origins, the film doesn’t actually spend a whole lot of time on the song itself. It delves into racial politics of the 1930s and explores the way “Body and Soul” and the various artists of the time (there’s a wonderful primer on Louis Armstrong) found common ground through music. (You can listen to a few different versions of the song on the film’s official website.)

Bouncing back across the globe for On the Banks of the Tigris: The Hidden Story of Iraqi Music (February 25), Sunday Cinema concludes with the feature-length documentary about Majid Shokor and his campaign to understand more about the Jewish history of traditional Iraqi music. The most edifying of the three films in the series, On the Banks… uses historical footage and personal anecdotes to chronicle the history of Jews in Iraq, how they were pushed out of the country as Saddam Hussein rose to power, and the pockets of Israel where they carry on their culture today. Now based in Australia, Majid travels to Israel to meet fellow Iraqi ex-pats who remember the Jewish creative minds behind of some of their most beloved folk songs, names that have all but been erased from history. Majid’s joy in meeting this community, connecting with fellow countrymen and bringing these songs to life in a special concert is infectious, a testament to the power of music to elicit emotions, summon memories and create community across religious and political divides.

Tickets to Sunday Cinema are a bit steep at $18 per film ($10 if you happen to be a member of the Institute), but each screening is paired with a post-film discussion pertinent to the subject matter to bolster the overall program. And if the films are any indication, there will be plenty to talk about. Tickets are available online here.

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