Limmudniks raise the roof

By David Lasserson, August 28, 2008
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Over 600 people went wild under the stars in the Peak District last weekend.

All over Britain this summer, a range of festivals - from Glastonbury to V - has been serving up serious musical entertainment. Limmudfest 08, which took place last weekend in the Peak District, was no exception.

The summer incarnation of the popular Limmud winter conference brought over headline acts from Israel and the US, giving an impressive range of contemporary Jewish music. Making the biggest noise was Tel Aviv's instrumental funk outfit The Apples, who pumped out their furious dance set in a Sunday-night showdown, with 2 DJs sharing the stage with live instruments. Earlier in the day they had led sessions on their favourite record labels and the intricacies of the current music scene in Tel Aviv.

An acoustic approach to oriental Jewish music was provided by Israeli singer Smadar Levi. Born and raised in the border town of Sderot - where her mother still lives -- Levi grew up speaking Arabic with two different inflections: Moroccan from her father and Tunisian from her mother. Now living in New York, she relishes her freedom to play with musicians from different cultures. Her sensuous, eclectic repertoire of Ladino, Arabic and Hebrew songs beguiled the crowd, which erupted in cheers when she jumped off the stage to dance with them.

Levi is a frequent performer at New York's Sephardic Music Festival, whose mission statement proclaims: "Give people the opportunity to learn and enjoy this rich, sensual tradition that has the power to make hips shake and souls soar." The festival is the brainchild of Diwon, aka Erez Safar, who, like Levi, had made it to Limmudfest DJ-ing into the small hours, he produced a Jewish music festival in miniature from his mixing desk, as samples of obscure Tunisian and Yemeni chants fused with contemporary beats. Diwon, together with hip hop phenomenon Y-Love, had so enjoyed being part of the mixture of learning and performance at Limmud's winter conference, that both returned for Limmudfest.

Once again, Y-Love's committed, politicised use of quotation from source texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, combined with rhymes in English addressing contemporary inequality and prejudice, thrilled younger participants: "It's been years since reconstruction and it's still built wrong! That's why I rhyme in Aramaic, this is Babylon!"

Y-Love's call to action chimed with Limmudfest's programme of sessions urging participation in political and social concerns, from creating welcome packs for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to lobbying for the return of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

A record of more than 600 participants were at Limmudfest. They braved the heavy showers to pitch canvas, greet the day with yogic sun salutations, attend more than 200 study sessions, and dance under the light of the moon. For David Hoffman, responsible for music programming, the widening success of the festival is great news. "As Limmudfest grows, we have the ability to expand the scope of music we provide. This year we had music happening throughout the day."

All sorts of sounds continually wafted over the festival site. At teatime, the crowd could simply relax to be serenaded by soulful Canadian singer-songwriter Jen Charlton, or by London-based Ladino band Los Desterrados. Meanwhile, in a separate field, an ecstatic drumming session led by US percussionist Akiva the Believer inspired audience-members to grab a drum and make a great deal of their own noise. Anyone who fancied singing after dinner could go to Tent Achla for the JCC Tribute Troupe's renditions of Simon and Garfunkel classics, which created a soulful choir out of a nostalgic audience.

Music was not the only artform on the agenda. Jewish Book Week hosted a session on crime-writing, with novelists Matt Rees and Sophie Hannah. In keeping with a volunteer-run event with the emphasis on participation, there were plenty of hands-on arts sessions - from physical theatre workshops, in which would-be actors could create five-minute ensemble pieces using a Jewish theme, through to mezuzah-making and drawing for religious Jews.

Head of programming Deborah Brooks, heavily pregnant and resting on a haybale at midnight, looked on proudly at the dance party in the Sababa Tent. "I wanted there to be something for everyone, at every time of day." Limmudfest 2008 once again suggests that when Jews get together in the great outdoors, they can make a truly joyful noise.

    Last updated: 4:07pm, September 10 2008