Liturgy with a Latin beat
Georgetown University 'jazz guy' updates Shabbat service
by Paula Amann
When Jose Antonio Bowen began mulling a new setting for "L'cha Dodi" last fall, he interwove two strands from his own heritage.
Starting with a mode or musical scale with roots in Eastern Europe, he threw in a mambo rhythm from the Caribbean. The result: an infectiously syncopated hymn of welcome to the Jewish Sabbath, with intervals for jazz solos by instrumentalists.
"Going to services is supposed to be an emotional experience -- powerful, dramatic, moving," said the Caestecker Chair of Music at Georgetown University, who calls himself "a jazz guy primarily."
With his new "L'cha Dodi," Bowen has completed a Jazz Shabbat he began writing 15 years ago and will be recording onto compact disc, due for release in late spring.
He will lead the musical service on Feb. 21 at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, on Feb. 28 at the District's Temple Sinai, on March 28 at Temple Emanuel in Baltimore and at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall on April 6. The Washington-area services will draw on the talents of cantors, adult choirs and children's choirs of both local temples, along with Germantown's Congregation Or Chadash and Kensington's Temple Emanuel.
Mingling cultures seems as natural as breathing to Bowen. Born in Woodland, Calif., to a secular Jewish father from Central European stock and a Cuban mother, he grew up in Fresno, with stints in still-segregated Atlanta, Spain and Italy.
The soundtrack of his boyhood, he says, pulsed with the dance tunes of Spanish Harlem's Tito Puente, the crooning of Havana-born Celia Cruz.
He would go on to earn a bachelor's degree in chemistry and masters' degrees in music composition and humanities, before completing a joint Ph.D. in musicology and humanities -- all at Stanford University.
Today, Bowen juggles his academic duties at Georgetown with directing the music program and the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (C.H.A.R.M.) which he founded at the University of Southampton, England.
During three decades as a jazz musician, he has performed with such legendary players as Dave Brubeck and the late Stan Getz.
And as he goes about his day, walking the dog or taking a shower, he finds new melodies and rhythms coming into his head.
Bowen has written such secular works as a Pulitzer-nominated symphony and a film score. His Jewish compositions range from The Garden, a song cycle based on midrash about Adam and Eve, to his Klezmer Service arranged for cantor, adult choir and children's choir, recently released on CD.
When composing his "Mi Chamocha," a hymn to liberation from Egyptian bondage, Bowen reached for something celebratory. He emerged with a salsa setting, replete with "screaming" trumpet solos.
"You risked your life going to services" in the time of Rabbi Akiva when this prayer first appeared, explained Bowen. "Let's experience the unbridled joy in our being free."
He reads the familiar "V'havta" (translatable as "And you shall love") as a love song to God and composed a melody that aims for that feeling.
Temple Sinai's Cantor Laura Croen says her choir has enjoyed learning Bowen's settings to such Shabbat standards as "Yismehu."
"It really catches your attention and wakes you up, because it's easy to let the prayers of our liturgy become routine," Croen said. "This just shakes it all up ... in a wonderful way."
In Jewish liturgy, says Bowen, there is a productive tension between kevah, which refers to the fixed texts of the prayers, and kavanah, which means intention, or as Croen puts it, "the soul behind it."
"Music demands instantaneous and exclusive focus like prayer," Bowen said.
And new musical settings encourage such focus, suggests Rodef Shalom's Cantor Michael Shochet, who is glad the 60 youngsters in his children's choir are having the chance to work with the nationally known composer -- and temple member.
"I want to expose the congregation to the diverse musical repertory that's out there," said Shochet. "If you sing the same music week after week on Shabbat, you lose the kavanah, the spark that gives the prayers life and maybe even new meaning. Jose's music is part of that repertoire."
At Kensington's Temple Sinai, Cantor Rosalie Boxt sees a parallel between the impromptu style of Bowen's jazz compositions with that of the traditional cantor's craft.
"So much is improvisional even though the music is written down for us," Boxt said. "There's a sense of freedom when we do the solos that reminds me of chazanut, traditional davening, because there's a text, certain musical rules to be followed, but the chazan [cantor] is free to express the text as he or she is so moved."
And lest traditionalists still shudder at the merger of Jewish liturgy with jazz riffs, Bowen argues that composers have always drawn from the popular music of their time.
"If all you have is tradition, you petrify and die," Bowen said. "You have to change; there has to be innovation."
This story was published in the WashingtonJewishWeek
on: Thursday, February 13, 2003