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‘Ruth Ave’ takes tradition into new neighbourhood

  • MattandBreindy1
Breindy and Matt’s music is not your grandparents’ niggun (Jewish melody or song), while still being impeccably traditional. A refrain on their new album, a pensive but ultimately uplifting work of melodic folk-electronica, is as likely to be inspired by Radiohead or The Shins as by Litvak melodies.
by SIMON SHEER | Aug 30, 2018

The album is deeply rooted in Jewish culture (ancient texts and folk melodies). Just as Klezmer or Sephardic tunes remodelled the cultural forms swirling around them into a uniquely Jewish form, Breindy and Matt have created a new yet entirely authentic Jewish sound.

The duo live together in a Johannesburg apartment. This is more than a matter of creative convenience, it is where the married couple raise their two children. It’s also where they recorded the album, Ruth Ave, which references the home studio’s address.

Their sound has shifted significantly from their previous album, which had more of an acoustic folk feeling. This had less to do with any kind of preconceived notion of what the songs should be like, they said, than the process through which the album emerged.

Creating a full album in a domestic space is, inevitably, intensely personal. Breindy explained that the album’s sound is literally a part of their lives. The music developed organically, part of the ebb and flow of their daily life. Matt might lay down a beat, say, and Breindy would make time to sing over it.

The interchange took them to new musical terrains. “Jewish music is very focused on melody,” Breindy explains, “after all, a niggun is a melody. Matt infuses the melody with these other sounds.”

The production introduces a bright, sometimes artfully eerie, sonic palette to the vocal arrangement, as well as a strong rhythmic structure. The overall effect is surprisingly bright; sometimes deceptively so, given the profundity of the music.

Matt explained that the album unfolds as a tale of redemption. The opening track, Mizmor Le’Dovid, is about faith during difficult times. If you listen carefully, you can hear the song fading into sounds of the night time, into the darkness of the unknown. We hear the refrain of Modeh Ani (the morning prayer) as the album transitions into an awareness of a new dawn. We are then confronted with a cry to be saved, a yearning to be redeemed. Ultimately, we hear verses from Isaiah foreseeing the arrival of the Moshiach, transcending hope to arrive at a place of trust.

This review risks making the album sound heavy, but that is only because I am trying to describe with words an effect that is achieved with sound.

The Hebrew lyrics, possibly unfamiliar to some, allow listeners to really focus on the music, not to become overly concerned with resolving neat meanings in the songs.

But how did Breindy, a rabbi’s daughter, end up reshaping Jewish melodies for a contemporary audience? Why does Matt, who grew up in a secular Jewish household, make songs about faith and redemption?

It becomes less mystifying when we realise that each grew up in an environment that encouraged creative curiosity.

Breindy’s mother is a classically-trained pianist who would take her children to the theatre. Her forebears include renowned chazans and composers. Growing up in an orthodox household exposed her to traditional Jewish culture from an early age, but it was also a household that prepared her for an encounter with a whole world of musical influence.

Matt was born into a home that nurtured creativity. His father is an architect. His mother made sure all her children took music lessons. They cultivated a creative streak in each of their children. It is thus no accident that his parents’ appreciation for their children’s pursuit of self-expression included allowing Matt to go to yeshiva.

Breindy and Matt both studied at Wits University, but they met later, bonding over a shared love of music.

At that time, Matt ran a record label, and Breindy was looking for someone to produce her record. It turned out to be more than an artistic stroke of good luck.

Now, if you’re lucky, you can catch them live. (In line with the requirements of Kol Isha, these performances are for women only). But, anyone can get their music.

  • Go to breindyandmatt.com for more information.

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