"With Songs They Respond: The Diwan of the Jews from Central Yemen" (Jewish Music Research Centre).
In Yemenite Jewish society, the diwan is a collection of men's poetry, song and dance, passed on orally and in writing. This two-CD set from the Jewish Music Research Centre at Hebrew University is a particularly beautiful example of the genre (albeit without dance, of course). In the half-century since the Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel, their traditions have undergone several major changes, but the music is still quite lovely, ornate, pulsating and, on this recording, handsomely sung and played. As usual, the scholars at the JMRC have outdone themselves in the packaging of this set, which includes a hard-back book of some 200 pages in English and Hebrew. This is one occasion when the music itself is every bit as good to hear as it is to have preserved.
Available from Hatikvah Music, http://www.hatikvahmusic.com or call (323) 655-7083.
Simcha Kanter, "Lag B'Omer Live" (IgraRama).
Kanter's new CD is a live set recorded on the festive day of Lag B'Omer, which comes toward the end of the Omer period, a period of mourning and restraint. There is energy to this record that suggests the release that accompanies the cessation of 33 days of solemnity, and it is no small part of what makes the record rock. The repertoire owes a lot to Shlomo Carlebach, but also to Atlantic R&B classics of the '60s, especially when Mike Lee is soloing on alto sax with a sound redolent of the great King Curtis. Kanter says at the beginning of the recording, "We do things differently," and the opening strains of a reggae-powered "Shalom Aleichem" send a strong message that he's not joking. This music has a nice little kick to it. Those who are dismayed at certain trends in the Chasidic world will not be happy when they hear "Moshiach," although the number is one of the crispiest on the CD. As for the rest, a joyous addition to your Pesach table, even if it's a month before Lag B'Omer.
Available from http://www.simchakanter.com/.
Benjamin Lapidus, "Herencia Judia" (Tresero)
This is a gentle, genial album from the master of the tres, a Cuban folk instrument that is perched somewhere between guitar, mandolin and ukulele. Lapidus has included at least one Jewish number on each of his previous albums but this time the entire program is a seamless fusion of Afro-Caribbean and Jewish materials. The merger of Latin music forms with Hebrew liturgy is a pleasing one. There are also wonderful instrumental exchanges between Lapidus and guest Andy Statman on mandolin on two cuts and the gloriously shifting polyrhythms of an expert percussion section throughout. If the youngest guests at your seder table are tired of asking that familiar quartet of questions, let them hear "Las Cuatro Preguntas" and "Ma Nishtana" from this set, and it will undoubtedly spark new interest.
Available from http://www.treseroproductions.com/.
The Ramatayim Men's Choir, "400 Years of Synagogue Music" (self-produced).
This is probably an excellent men's chorus, and their choice of material ranges from Salomone Rossi's "Adon Olam," written in the 17th Century, to contemporary compositions by Zvi Talmon and Sol Zim. The arrangements are complex, sophisticated and clever and, as far as I can tell, well sung. And therein lies the problem: the sound quality of the recording -- at least on my copy of the CD -- is murky, the harpsichord accompaniment sounds piercingly metallic and shrill and the overall effect is to render the entire disk unlistenable.
Available from Hatikvah Music.
Cantor Anita Schubert, "D'vora Ud'vash (Honeybee and Honey)" (self-produced)
Schubert is the cantor at Temple Beth Sholom in Manchester, Conn., an imaginative composer and arranger who has chosen to showcase her liturgical settings for congregational and choral singing on a CD. She has a sweet lyric soprano voice, which this set shows off to great advantage, and much of the writing here is quite pretty. Depending on your tolerance for children's choirs, you might give this an extended listen. If you are looking for material for your own shul, you definitely should. Available from cdbaby.com/cd/anitaschubert.
"Sephardi Voices from Sarajevo" (Saga).
Another in the excellent series "La Tradicion Musical en Espana," this set of field recordings is a vivid reminder that in the embattled city of Sarajevo, there were Jews as well as Muslims, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. As anyone who has heard Flory Jagoda will add, those Jews have a rich musical tradition. Mind you, these recordings, made by the estimable Suzanne Weisch-Shahak, are of amateurs, mostly transplanted Sarajevans living in Israel, and the performances are anything but polished. Many of them make up in zeal for what they lack in technique and, as I have said of similar records in the past, the preservation of these musical traditions as passed down by people who lived them is of great importance.
Available from Hatikvah Music.