Dreams of stardom dashed, L.A. cantor Hillel Tigay turns to Jewish spiritual music

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LOS ANGELES (JTA) — In 1999, Hillel Tigay was one half of the now defunct Jewish rap group M.O.T., which stood for Members of the Tribe. On songs like “Kosher Nostra” and “Oh God, Get a Job,” Tigay’s “Hebe-hop” alter-ego, Dr. Dreidel, riffed on such timeworn subjects as Jewish gangsters and gelt-minded mothers.

Nearly 15 years later, Tigay, 43, is still taking his musical inspiration from the Jewish experience. But with his latest project, “Judeo,” the rap-inspired send-ups of Meyer Lansky and Yiddishe mamas have given way to heartfelt Hallelujah choruses and the ancient sounds of Middle Eastern instruments.

“There is nobody more surprised by this entire project than me,” said Tigay, sitting barefoot in his wood-paneled living room in West Los Angeles. “If someone had told me 10 years ago that I’d be doing this, I would have laughed like Sarah in the Bible story.”

Now a cantor at the progressive Los Angeles congregation Ikar, Tigay’s latest musical undertaking is a CD of Jewish spiritual music, sung in both Hebrew and Aramaic, that he hopes will cross over into the spiritual and world music markets. Like M.O.T., which Tigay describes as a kind of “performance art,” this latest project is concept-heavy. Set for a Dec. 11 release, “Judeo” is based on Tigay’s interpretation of what music might have sounded like 2,000 years ago at the Temple in Jerusalem.

While the Bible describes the instruments played — cymbals, drums, lyres and reed flutes, among them — as well as the Levites who sang Psalms during sacrifices, there is, of course, no way to authentically reproduce what the music would have sounded like in the Second Temple period. After its destruction, the rabbis forbade Jews from playing instruments during prayer services as a sign of mourning and the music was lost.

“I had two choices,” Tigay said of the album. “Either go for historical veracity or go for real beauty and resonance, and for me it was a no-brainer.”