Shouting From the Rooftop

February 25, 2019

Susan Watts in conversation with Toni Shapiro-Phim

Interview with Susan Watts, Artistic Director of  Soul Songs: Inspiring Women of Klezmer[1]

All photos by Alan Lankin unless otherwise noted.

Susan Watts:

When I hear klezmer music, I become filled up with joy and wonder, filled to overflowing.

Klezmer is Eastern European Jewish folk music. It is music that Jewish people in Eastern Europe, before the Second World War, lived by. They danced to it; they celebrated to it; they cried to it; they had brisses[2] to it. They lived it. It lived within them. And that’s what klezmer music is.

Of course my personality infuses my playing. But I can’t really say how.

Because you have to hear it and then you know it’s my personality. I play around with time, with my sense of time. I kind of move time around. I swoop and swoosh in between notes instead of each note having a particular mark: “This is C; this is D; This is F.” It’s more like Ceeeeee [her vocals go higher and lower]/Deeeeee [vocals coast down and up]/Efffffffff [higher and lower].

Why call the project Soul Songs?

I decided to call the show Soul Songs because, well, when I mentioned earlier how I feel when I hear klezmer music, that’s also how I feel when I play klezmer music. It’s this welling up of feeling; this overwhelming goodness. That’s your soul. That’s my soul being touched. These are songs that touch the soul. The other reason I called it Soul Songs is because this is the musical soul of a people. This – klezmer -- is our collective nishuma [Yiddish for ‘soul’].

 

Why women?

I love women. I love them. I love working with them. I love being friends with them. I just love the energy, women’s energy. I love how we communicate together. It’s just different from how we communicate with men. At least it is for me. I feel a kinship with women that I don’t really feel with men. And I wanted to gather up these women to celebrate this kinship and to play klezmer music and to have that overwhelming fullness of our soul in one night.

Why these women?

Well these women are exceptional women in the klezmer scene. And that’s why I wanted them in this concert. When I was asked to think about this project and I knew I wanted to have all women I just made a master list. Like, Who are these women? Not thinking about instrumentation; not thinking about anything else. And the eleven women who you see on stage are the women I thought of (plus me). Because they are amazing. I had three violinists. Well, in a band you don’t need three violinists but these are three special violinists. You know, you’ve got to have Deborah, you’ve got to have Alicia, you’ve got to have Cookie. You gotta.

It’s not so much, why these instruments? It’s why these women. I mean of course I needed a rhythm section, but there were these women there to accomplish that, too.

About the show itself: new compositions, poetry, etc.

I wrote some new compositions for Soul Songs. I wrote Loshn Hore, which is a fun little ditty about loshn hore, which is, for those of you who don’t know, “talkin’ smack about people.” So, Loshn Hore has a whole section in which instruments are really getting down and dirty with each other. It’s not a traditional piece with an A section and a B section; repeat A. It has it’s own logic. Then I wrote Der Letster Freylekh, which means the last freylekh. So that was the last freylekh of the night. I wrote a waltz, Waltz With Me. And I wrote My Mother’s Delicious Rumba, which is about my mother’s delicious rumba. About her drumming.

I wanted each song to be different. I wanted each to say something different. I didn’t want them to be too similar.

Well, my mother, the drummer, had this beautiful way of touching the drums. This beautiful way of hitting them and making the drums sound so spectacular and she played a rumba, a 1950s rumba that melted my heart. And I wanted to write a song that she could play her rumba to. I wrote this song when she was alive, yeah, so she could play her rumba to it. Because she passed, in the show we have a recording of her playing a rumba. And we play along – the band plays the rumba – so we get the full meaning of My Mother’s Delicious Rumba.

Elaine Hoffman Watts joined Soul Songs through image and sound, photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim

In terms of getting the fodder for the spoken word and poetry and for the torah trope and the other different things that take place in the show, I wanted this show to be about these spectacular women, so I thought, “Let me ask them a bunch of questions.” And it wasn’t just questions that I asked them. I said, “Fill in the blank: Klezmer and……” I said, “Fill in the blank: This you should know about me…” and they filled it in. I said, “Name some strengths of women who you admire.” “What is your philosophy of music?” I wanted to find creative and meaningful ways of presenting the answers to these questions to showcase these women. To talk about their philosophies of music. To talk about what they uphold as strengths of women. Incorporating these things into the show was my impetus for asking these questions so I could make art with and about these women.

About imagining the possibility of setting words to the torah trope

It just came… the torah trope came in a flash! It came in a flash. It was like, I’m looking at this list – and it was a gantze (huge) list of, you know, strength, courage, perseverance, artistry, creativity… It was just a list of these positive qualities they’d mentioned, and I’m like, “What am I gonna do with this list?!” And I labored over it for days and weeks and I thought, “Oy Oy Oy, What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?” And all of a sudden, like a flash of lightening, “Put it to the torah trope!” It worked.

On collaborating with Jenny Romaine[3]

The reason I wanted a visual aspect to the show was because I wanted it to be more than a concert. I wanted it to be a greater experience. I wanted the audience to be enlightened. I wanted them to be challenged. I wanted them to be entertained by something bigger than music alone. Visual things are not my strength, but I always knew I wanted there to be a visual component.

I love the way Jenny Romaine makes things look. I just love her look and I love her aesthetic. It’s playful and imaginative, and it’s out of the box and off the hook. And I just wanted that to be part of Soul Songs.

I thought the visuals – the sets and costumes and slides -- were perfect. And the portraits. That was Jenny Romaine’s idea, too. She said, “Let’s have Tine Kindermann do the portraits.” And I was like, “Oh my god, Jenny Romaine, you’re so amazing!” I thought all the visual elements, together, added another dimension. And I loved the dimension that they did add.

How did you feel wearing that coat?

I loved wearing the coat. The coat was awesome! The coat was like, [slowly, in a very deep voice] “Put on the coat of Soul Songs: Inspiring Women of Klezmer.” The coats, yeah. They were very cool. 

On the messages that the collaborating artists sent her right after the show

I think that one of the things that was a common response to the week that we shared together, the process of creating, being with each other, eating together, working through things, was how meaningful it was and how close it brought us. And, you know, that is exactly what I wanted. When I dreamed of this project, and I dreamed of this project long beforehand, I dreamed that it would be a special week, that it would be like an artists’ retreat. Now, I knew these women were amazing; I loved them. But to have us all together I thought would be exponentially WOW. And so, it worked. And I was so amazed. Everybody just went deeper. They went deeper with their musicianship; they went deeper with their creativity; they went deeper with their intimacy with relationships; they went deeper with the knowledge of themselves.

And I find that that’s what happened to the audience, too. Because I’ve heard so many responses from the audience – how they were touched, how they have been affected, how it wasn’t like anything they’d ever seen before, how it wasn’t just a regular concert – but it was something that… They don’t even know what it was. “What was that?!” You know, but, it was something that touched them. It was something that gave them power and agency. And that’s what happened to the musicians, too. I think that so much of the energy that the audience got from the show came from the culmination of that week that we musicians had spent together. We brought forth to the people our soul songs. 

On being a first-time artistic director

Well I didn’t know I could do Soul Songs: Inspiring Women of Klezmer. I had never done anything like that. I had never put a show together with a set and drama and audience participation and songs and spoken word and Yiddish poetry and you know… I had never put something together like that ever before. That kind of amazed me that I did it. [laughs]

Soul Songs isn’t just a concert. It’s kind of like a one-woman show within a concert, with ten other women. So it’s layered. I’ve always wanted to do a one-woman show. But I didn’t want it to be all about me. So I had a one-woman show about other women. These other women. So that’s how that went down.

In terms of the rehearsals, I mean, things that could have been roadblocks weren’t. So when you ask, were there challenges, yes, there were challenges, but nothing that stopped anything or nothing that got in the way or that thwarted a positive forward movement. But there were moments when everybody wanted something a little bit different. There were moments when the composer wanted something in particular that maybe the other artists didn’t want. There was a learning of how to give and how to take and how to respect somebody’s artistic decisions and creativity. Everything was overcomable.

On the impact of the murder of people at the Tree of Life Synagogue on the Soul Songs audience[4]

You know, every century since like the beginning of the Jews, somebody’s been trying to kill us. Somebody’s trying to annihilate us. During the Holocaust a whole culture of a people was killed. It was knocked out. A whole culture. Their places of worship. Their places of gathering. Their way of life. What was important to them. Everything was destroyed by hatred.

And what we have now, countering that, is a growing enclave of people who want to say, You know what?! We’re alive. And we’re going to take the strength and the power of those people who were killed and of that community that was killed and we’re going to lift up their memory as a banner to our staying power. That we’re going to continue the soul of those people. We can’t do exactly what they did. Klezmer is different in our lives now. Our lives are so totally different from what was happening in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. But you have people who are trying to keep this spirit alive. Ashkenazic Jews[5], we all come from this. We all have the same battered and hurt past. We also have the same love and we also have the same passion that these people had for each other and for community. We’re taking that energy, taking that spark and saying, You know what?! We’re here and we’re moving forward. We’re making new art. We’re making new poetry. We’re making new music. We’re making new dances. And that’s what both Soul Songs and my Philadelphia-based non-profit organization, Community Klezmer Initiative, are about – making newness from the ashes in honor of and in direct relationship to the history of our people.[6]

About the Soul Songs community master class

Photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim

Well, I thought that klezmer artists coming to Philadelphia, spending time with our growing community of klezmer musicians was just amazing. And why did I think it was amazing? I thought it was amazing because these artists are very learned. They’ve studied the ethnomusicology of klezmer. They’ve studied recordings of it. So when they’re imparting wisdom about klezmer, it comes from somewhere and something deep. It comes from a profound knowledge. And an intense longing to understand. So, to come into a situation where people want to receive that, is very special. And so it was an exceptional night.

Audience response that came to Susan via email:

I wanted to share this note I received soon after the performance: “Of course Soul Songs was sensational. And the coats were to die for. As they drifted upwards toward the heavens, everyone in the audience touched the garment, felt the garment. The effect, what remains, is really inexplicable. It was intimate, warm, cozy, dare I say, ‘a hamisch [homey] feeling.’ I know I’ve been touched deeply by something very special, as was every audience member. The event went far beyond the magnificent music, singing, the instruments, the phone conversation, the visuals, and the presence of drummer Elaine Watts.”

Final word

You asked earlier, Why women? One of the things that was always important to me to address with Soul Songs was that for too long, well, for as long as we have been women, our voices have been muted. We’ve been told to be quiet, to be demure, don’t make too much noise, don’t laugh too loud, don’t eat too much, don’t do anything out of this little non-threatening box that men put us in. And what was so important to me was giving these women the space and the stage to have their voices heard. To play too loud, to shout their ideas from the rooftop. To say, “This is my voice, this is my art. This is who I am in all of my splendor. Listen to me. Let me touch you.”

 

[1] Souls Songs premiered on October 28, 2018, in Philadelphia. This interview was conducted, edited and annotated by Toni Shapiro-Phim.

[2] A bris is a Jewish circumcision rite.

[3] Jenny Romaine is a New York-based director, set and costumer designer, actor and puppeteer, and co-founder of the visual theater collective Great Small Works.

[4] A gunman slaughtered 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the day before Soul Songs premiered.

[5] Ashkenazic (or Ashkenazi) Jews are generally descended from Central and Eastern Europe, and associated with specific cultural practices including cuisine, worship, language (Yiddish), and so on.

[6] The Community Klezmer Initiative, founded by Susan Watts, focuses on building klezmer culture. As she explains, it is “dedicated to building a community in which people can express their communal secular Jewish roots in a warm embrace. To be able to learn and play the music together, to dance and learn Yiddish and experience all that klezmer culture gives us.” Check it out at https://www.klezmerinitiative.org/about .