Sunday, June 13, 2010

Niggun Neshama - I Love It, But STOP Using It During Davening!

Niggun Neshama. Everyone's heard it, probably at a wedding or live in concert. In my unqualified opinion, it's one of R' Shlomo Carlebach's finest compositions that remained professionally unreleased during his lifetime. A personal recording or two has surfaced, though.

Shlomo Katz' bonus track from V'Hakohanim is a live recording from the first time Shlomo ever played the niggun - at a R' Shlomo yartzeit concert in Yerushalayim. This is always amazing to listen to.

Shlomo Katz is the artist responsible for making Niggun Neshama as popular as it is be really introducing it to the Jewish music world. I was privileged enough to be learning in Israel when he began his one-man campaign to get the Jewish world singing and dancing with this lively niggun, and let me tell you, hearing it that first year of its popularity was magical. We ran from concert to concert of Shlomo's to be able to hear the niggun just one more time.

Mind you, this was before it was played to death at every single wedding in America, Israel, and everywhere else across the globe. I was once at a wedding where they played it no less than three separate times. Whenever the dancing began to lull, they started up Niggun Neshama and everyone was back on the dance floor. Cheap trick, but it worked...

I once asked Shlomo why he never recorded the song in the studio for his album, and he replied that you simply can't capture that same power and energy found when the song is performed live. He was right, and while there are nice versions of Niggun Neshama that have been recorded (see below), they do lack that magic spark of the live concert performance.

Eitan Katz' acoustic version from Unplugged is quite nice, perhaps the finest overall studio recording of the niggun. There is just a sense of quiet energy that pervades throughout.

Yehuda Green's rendition from Land of Your Soul is probably the best studio recorded fast version. It definitely makes you want to get up and dance, but it's not the same as hearing it live...

Begin Rant

Yehuda! (click "Niggun Neshomele") took the song, jazzed it up, and made it lose all its natural appeal, IMHO. He even changed the vocalization to "Hai-dee-dee-yo-oh" - who knew that changing the "words" to a niggun would affect it so adversely!? Every other artist out there that tried to make their own spin fared similarly, ignoring the inherent greatness that is already there while trying to "improve" it - I'm looking at you, Ohad and the Kinderlach.

Worse yet is the chazanim who, in an attempt to be "with it" (this remark is particularly directed to the older gentlemen midde aged and above) who think it's hip to throw in this niggun while leading the davening in shul. It just doesn't work - not for Lecha Dodi, not for Kedusha, not for Anim Zemiros, nor any other time in davening.

First, you can't just sing Niggun Neshama without a guitar and expect to pull it off. It ends up being too fast, too high, or too repetitive. Niggun Neshama only works fully when it's in the hands of a master devotee of R' Shlomo's music, such as the first three artists I mentioned above.

Second, there are too many syllables in Niggun Neshama to put words to it. This is a problem similarly found with Shlomo's Niggun Nevo. The first part just doesn't fit, though the second does, believe me, I've unsuccessfully tried it out for Lecha Dodi. Anyway, the chazan attempts to cram the nai-nai-nais into words and ends up splicing syllables and vowels as he shoves the proverbial circle peg into the square hole. Now, not only is everything ill-fitting, but now the chazan isn't even saying the proper words of the tefillah, and that is a big no-no.

Although the heyday of Niggun Neshama's meteoric rise to popularity are long over, and it has rightfully established it's place as a long-time favorite, I still see chazanim mistakenly try to utilize it to this very day. Enough already! Enjoy Niggun Neshama for what its truly worth, but don't spit on it anymore with failed attempts to spice up davening!

End Rant


  1. I could not agree more!

    Not only that, but I'm getting sick of it at weddings and such - instead of getting more into the dancing when this song comes on, I have to go to the side until it's over. It's awesome, but overplayed; we need to put it on complete hiatus for a year or two, and then it can safely be brought back.

    [Side point: I'm also beginning to get that same feeling with Vezakeini at tisches/kumzitzes.]

    or HEAR HEAR!
    (whichever is correct)

  3. While I see your point and appreciate your opinion, may I beg to differ? The beauty of niggunim, like "Neshama," "Nevo," and countless others - Naftali Abramson's "Niggun Teveryia," Nachi Krohn's "Kineret Niggun" (why are they all named after cities in Eretz Yisrael?) just to name a few - is that they have no words, and are flexible. That's the fun of putting tefila, like Lecha Dodi, to these well-known and loved tunes. So what if it doesn't fit perfectly? The heart of tefilah is in the niggun (as exemplified by the Avodas haLevi'im) - if it gets the shul "rockin'," why not?

    But I do agree with FrumJewinYU - "V'zakeini" is starting to make me nauseous (not the words, of course... just the song/weepy girls singing it)

  4. Happy Medium - I agree with you. I think you've slightly misunderstood my point. I'm not *at all* against the concept of using niggunim for tefillah. What I protest is the improper usage of niggunim that DON'T FIT the words they are being adapted for, which leads to mispronunciation, addition of syllables, etc that utterly distort the meaning of the words in the tefillah. The chazan ends up saying no actual words at all, but just a bunch of spliced words that don't combine to properly make a sentence.

    Try putting Niggun Neshama or Niggun Nevo to the words of Lecha Dodi, using the initial staccato nai-nai-nai part for the verse and the second part for the chorus of Lecha Dodi. Sing it to yourself where no one can hear you - because it doesn't sound good at all. You are either forced to a) modify the pronunciation/emphasis of the words or b) modify the niggun.

    Neither outcome is really desired, since you won't accomplish what you set out to do, which is combine a beautiful niggun with a beautiful tefillah.

    The guys who "try to be hip" fail to realize this point, and plow through the davening merely for the sake of using the tune, in spite of the impacticality of making it fit. THAT is what I protest. I've seen it time and again, and these people don't know how to be a proper chazan.

    I have to disagree with one point you make, though: Words, NOT the melody, are the real heart of the tefillah. Distoring the words for the sake of a catchy tune is NOT right. I've always been particularly medadek on pronunciation, and have taught (lo aleinu) a number of men who were in aveilus how to be chazan. Proper pronunciation, pausing at commas, breathing at the right time, etc is very key. Btw, I'm not talking about chazanus, but merely serving as shaliach tzibbur.

    I'm also not a fan of chazanim who try to "show off" in this fashion, or belt out something just for the sake that they physically can (which isn't always the case). If a chazan is going to choose a creative niggun, he should make sure that everyone knows it, and that everyone can properly sing with him. Choosing Niggun Neshama fails the second part, because everyone ends up trying his/her best to adapt their pronunciation on the spot, and it just doesn't work. At least, I've never seen a chazan make it work.

    Whenever I try out new tunes for Lecha Dodi (I sometimes experiment when I am asked to be chazan at the Carlebach Minyan), I ALWAYS go over the tune in my head many times over (and sing it to myself as well) to make sure it fits and to make sure *how* it fits is easily understood/picked up in case people haven't heard it used before. The congregation shouldn't be scrambling to keep up with the chazan because he wants to be fancy - they should either know the tunes/how they fit or be able to quickly comprehend it within a verse or two.

    I honestly haven't heard "V'zakeinu" used *so* much. It became the "it" song in yeshivos/seminaries in Israel after my time, and have rarely been present at a kumzitz where it was sung. Though I have heard this complaint from others in recent times...


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