Berek and Amanda Awend Create Jewish Americana

promo c finalI love music, so I was eager to listen to a new Jewish music album by Berek and Amanda Awend. Boy was I in for a surprise! The songs I easily recognized, but when I first heard the melodies I almost didn’t recognize Ma Tovu and Shalom Aleichem. Far from the traditional Jewish melodies I expected to hear (okay, probably with some sort of twist), I felt like I was back driving through the hills of North Carolina, where mountain music mixed with a summer rain years ago, created a memory so sweet it has stayed with me. It resurfaced in the form of Jewish Americana, and though I admit it took a little adjustment, the new melodies are repeating in my head. I’m not quite ready to abandon my old familiar traditions just yet, but one of the great things about Jewish songs and prayers is that there is always room for a new melody!
Amanda Awend, who works as a preschool teacher at Adath and brings her music into the classroom, was asked to create a children’s blessing for every Friday night in the sanctuary. The idea was to help familiarize the parents with a melody and the words, so that it could become something not only to be sung in the synagogue, but that the families could bring it back to their own homes. Before long, Amanda and her husband, Berek, found themselves wanting to create a family record of good Jewish music that anyone could enjoy and that would appeal to people today. Debbie Friedman made Jewish music modern for her time. The Awends want to make Jewish music modern for now. They hope to appeal to those who may not be familiar with the more traditional melodies, and provide catchy tunes that will make it comfortable for parents with young children, to incorporate more Jewish prayer and traditions in their everyday lives.
For those familiar with the traditional Shalom Aleichem, sung around the Shabbat table on Friday evening, it may at first be strange to hear the familiar words with an unfamiliar melody. Yet, it’s the perfect song for Berek and Amanda to have included on their first album. Right away, the listener wants to join in singing, and the melody—even if Americana is not your favorite genre—is catchy and warm.
Berek always loved music. He played in lots of bands in college. He likes writing songs, creating his own melodies. He plays guitar, piano and keyboards. He likes all genres of music, but he likes the rootsy stuff—blues, bluegrass, country, gospel—best of all.
The Awends can be heard around town. They did a tribute to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? to a sold out crowd at the Ritz Theater. Amanda is a back-up singer for Fattenin’ Frogs, a local band that Berek plays with. Amanda has a theater background. Her mom was the one who gave Amanda her first guitar and started her singing at age 14. The Indigo Girls were her all-time favorite. She grew up in Nashville, and that folk rootsy, acoustic music feels like it is in her blood. Amanda’s friends were musicians and music just became a part of her life; it was such a natural thing, she isn’t sure if she wanted it to be or not. It just always was.
There are other musicians out there that the Awends admire, who are doing some of the same things that they are doing. They really admire Saul Kaye. He takes the Blues Style slide guitar and Dirty Old Delta Blues and mixes it with Jewish content, brings up Talmud and text, and what you get is Jewish Americana.
The Awends mixed their album in a little studio in their home. They have been promoting it around town and have made it available through all the major digital outlets: iTunes, Spotify, Facebook, etc.  You can listen to a track of Shalom Aleichem on their website:
Their initial hope was to get the album out and familiarize people with them, and with the songs. They hope to keep writing and produce more. They like the idea of impacting young parents to bring more Jewish traditions into their homes through their music. Matt Kalin, one of their former counselors at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, helped them produce their album. He was a major influence back at Ramah.  He is, himself, a major musician, and he helped them with pronunciation and to tighten things up musically. Ted Held, who they grew up with, also helped on the project. There was a real community vibe on the whole project, and that is just the way that the Awends like to do things. Mac Santiago, one of the best jazz drummers in town, plays drums on all the songs with the exception of Shalom Aleichem. Amanda’s mom can be heard as a backup singer. The Awends wanted to create a warm and peaceful feeling with their album; and they delivered!
Most special of all, when Amanda was singing and recording the children’s blessing, she was pregnant with their first child, Ezra. And Ezra was born during the last recording session! Featured on the cover artwork, the music is dedicated to him. And from his picture, you can tell, he will be a musician himself one day. In the meantime he enjoys listening to his parents, who hope to start writing some of their own Jewish music.
Like I said, this is not a CD filled with traditional Jewish melodies, but if you want something new, something fresh, and still something memorable and that resonates with our tradition and our customs, check this out. You could even ask them to send you a signed copy—someday it may be worth something! These two are sure to be sticking around and making music. To Ezra and his friends, these might easily become the ‘traditional’ melodies; and those other ones—they’ll be a nice variation on the old familiar tunes of home.