Take One Jewish Oudist, Add Sudanese Muslim Singer, And Stir Gently


Zach Fredman didn’t set out to make a political statement. He just wanted a band whose sound he could love.

A fifth-year rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary, Fredman is the leader of Epichorus, a beguiling 10-piece band that plays a sweetly lyrical mixture of Middle Eastern modes, jazz-inflected rhythms and East and North African instruments, performing mostly Jewish sacred texts in Fredman’s settings. The band will be celebrating its first CD, “One Bead,” with a performance on Saturday, April 6 at 8:30 p.m. at 92YTribeca (200 Hudson St.). The CD is available at http://epichorus.bandcamp.com.

“The beginning of the band was purely musical,” Fredman says earnestly. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics.”

But the state of the world is such that when a predominantly Jewish band — even one led by a Jewish oud player whose role model is the Nubian master Hamza el Din — takes on a Sudanese Muslim co-lead singer, everyone takes it as a statement about the Middle East.

“All of that has been after the fact,” Fredman says. “But it has taken on a life of its own.”

Rather like the band itself.

The Epichorus (a pun on the Hebrew word for heretic) got its start in a rainy night jam session four or five years ago when Fredman first encountered Shir Yaakov, now the musical director at Romemu, a Renewal congregation on the Upper West Side. After a wary beginning, the two became friends, and the band was born.

After listening to a recording in which el Din was backed by a Sudanese women’s chorus, Fredman became convinced that the band should find a Sudanese vocalist to complement Yaakov’s singing. He eventually found a YouTube clip by a Brooklyn-based singer, Alsarah. The two had coffee, and a conversation that was supposed to be 15 or 20 minutes long lasted close to three hours.

“She’s a wild spirit, very articulate,” Fredman says of Alsarah, admiringly. “She grew up singing music as a folk musician, but she has a degree in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan, so she knows African music at that level, too.”

Alsarah had some initial “qualms about being a Muslim singing Jewish prayer music,” Fredman says, but the blend of voices is as natural as a heartbeat.

As for the “political” nature of the collaboration, Fredman says that there are some inevitable tensions but that they are actually fueling the musical side.

“Alsarah is pretty unabashedly pro-Palestinian, and she has some internal anxiety about this project,” he admits. “There’s a couple of Israelis [in the band] and a couple of rabbis. I’m upset at the assumption that all Jews are Zionists or Zionists of a certain stripe. I’ve noticed that a lot more because of this project.”

He’s more concerned with the musical atmosphere in the band. Although his own listening is centered on the classical music of the region, and the band has eschewed the obviously incorrect addition of, say, Indian percussion, Fredman also acknowledges that the presence of jazz flutist Hadar Noiberg and electric bassist Daniel Ori pushes the sound in different directions.

“The players bring who they are to the group,” he says. “They bring the fullness of themselves. That might downgrade the pureness, but the other piece is more important.”