New-look arts festival with a wild side

The Festival of Jewish Arts and Music took over the Melbourne Recital Centre with a day-long celebration of music, performance and storytelling.

Singer Alma Zygier performs her jazz favourites at the Festival of Jewish Arts and Music (FOJAM) at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Photos: Peter Haskin
Singer Alma Zygier performs her jazz favourites at the Festival of Jewish Arts and Music (FOJAM) at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Photos: Peter Haskin

WITH 135 artists performing at the inaugural Festival of Jewish Arts and Music (FOJAM) at the Melbourne Recital Centre last Sunday, the program offered plenty of variety. 

Formerly known as Shir Madness, FOJAM festival director Lior Albeck-Ripka created a 12-hour event with music, dance, concerts and panel discussions covering everything from the mainstream to the marginal.

Melbourne turned on a wet and wintry day, but thankfully all the events were indoors, with only the food stalls serving falafel and other tasty snacks nestled outside the main entrance. 

America’s Punk Professor, Vivien Goldman (left) in conversation with singer-songwriter Deborah Conway.

The Recital Centre’s foyer was the festival hub, with music constantly being played in one corner designated as the Festival Club.

Singer Alma Zygier drew applause as she performed jazz favourites and her own compositions with her four-member band in a busy day that included two sessions at the Festival Club along with appearances in Song of Songs and joining big band YID! in concert. 

One of the first performances on the FOJAM bill was by veteran bassoonist and composer George Dreyfus, who took a musical trip down memory lane with his quartet performing his compositions for the TV series The Adventures of Sebastian the Fox (1963) and Rush (1974). 

Dreyfus, who recently turned 91, even burst into song during a couple of the pieces in the Salon, which was filled to capacity.

Bram Presser turns back the clock as punk band Yidcore performs.

The centrepiece event of FOJAM, Song of Songs, saw a dozen Australian singers take to the stage to perform their favourite songs by a Jewish composer or songwriter.

Song of Songs had been a hit in the past two Shir Madness festivals run by Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier, who curated this 70-minute concert in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

Well-known singers included Kate Ceberano performing Paul Simon’s classic Homeward Bound, Paul Kelly singing Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel, iOTA giving new voice to Do Re Mi’s Man Overboard, Clare Bowditch paying tribute to Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al, Harry James Angus in an energetic rendition of Sabotage by the Beastie Boys, Lisa Mitchell singing Carole King’s A Natural Woman, and Alice Skye with Billy Joel’s Vienna. 

FOJAM’s theme was to feature artists who, to quote the title of rebellious American Jewish singer Lou Reed’s hit song Walk on the Wild Side, did not fit the norm.

A headline event, Transformer, saw singers including Conway, Emily Lubitz, Alex Gow and overseas guests Vivien Goldman and Chris Cohen perform Reed’s iconic second album Transformer in full in a one-hour concert.

Bassoonist George Dreyfus performed with his quartet.

Jazz pianist Tal Cohen, who was born in Israel, finished school in Perth and now lives in the US, played compositions from his two albums as well as fan favourites in the Festival Club. 

For much of the time experienced saxophonist Greg Osby, who appears on Cohen’s latest album, joined him on stage.

While music was a major feature of FOJAM, with the program also featuring the eagerly anticipated comeback of punk band Yidcore led by Bram Presser, and Israel hip hop singer Noga Erez wrapping up the festival, there were also lectures and panel discussions with authors and songwriters.

Earlier in the day Erez took part in a discussion on songwriting with Goldman and Chris Cohen moderated by Presser and explained that as a child growing up in Tel Aviv she liked to listen to her parents’ Beatles albums.

In 2017 her song Dance While You Shoot was used by Apple in an advertising campaign for its music streaming service.

Noga Erez performing.

“I like to express ideas and my feelings through music,” she said. “I think of myself as a child of globalisation and not just of Israel.”

Another panel discussion of Art, Identity and Nationhood featured Los Angeles actor-producer Zackary Drucker who worked on the award-winning series Transparent and is a trans woman.

Also on the panel, moderated by Keren Leizerovitz, were Melbourne author Lee Kofman, choreographer-dancer Israel Aloni and Israeli drag icon Asis D’Orange.

Drucker said it was important for TV series to create complex human characters that viewers could relate to.

“Storytelling is the best way to reach people and to create empathy. Transparent was a crucial series that provided a tipping point in the transgender debate,” Drucker said. 

Veteran singer Paul Kelly appeared in the Song of Songs program at FOJAM.

Goldman presented the keynote address on Jews and the counter-culture while the dance program featured Gideon Obarzanek’s Circle Dance, performed by Australian dance company Yellow Wheel, and Aloni’s My Body, My Nation. 

Albeck-Ripka told The AJN this week that she was thrilled with the response to the festival, which attracted about 1500 people.

“The festival was buzzing and the atmosphere in the Recital Centre was electric,” she said.

Festival Producer Jesse Lubitz added: “We are thrilled with the turnout for FOJAM. We set out to create something that made the community feel proud, challenged and connected, and we achieved it.”

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