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Jewish Soul Music

Neshama Carlebach and the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir want to give people something to hold on to

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Neshama Carlebach performs what has been called Jewish soul music. She sings about peace on global and personal levels, advocates all-encompassing love, espouses the joy of family, and promotes a caregiver's attitude toward the world.

She also keeps alive the musical tradition of her late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, one of the most-prominent Jewish songwriters of the second half of the 20th century. Her father performed Jewish-based folk music for people of all backgrounds, and his daughter has carried on his legacy since his death in 1994.

The soulfulness in her work is, perhaps, no accident: Her first name means "soul" in Hebrew. Her music concerns a prevailing quest for spiritual fulfillment and robustly sets her father's lyrics and melodies in a contemporary pop and rock context.

Quite simply, Carlebach, 37, wants to help heal the world with her music.

"The world needs healing. That is my ultimate dream; that is my inspiration and the reason that I wake up to do this work," she says during a recent phone interview from the home in New York City she shares with her husband and two young sons.

In the course of speaking with Carlebach, one realizes that her worldview and her music are inseparable. She says "it all comes down to this: There's no need to ever not be kind. I mean, why bother? Anger is the most-debilitating thing in the world. It takes more effort to be angry than it does just to let it go."

She takes nothing in life for granted, and when complimented on the power of her voice and music, she is genuinely humble. "You have no idea what it means to me to have someone tell me that what I do moves them. It's amazing to me."

Carlebach's message is about affirming life, and her music accomplishes the same. Her recent albums are beautiful, to be sure—but they rock furiously, too, in large part because of the fervent commitment behind her positive messages. The occasional wailing guitar lead, rubbery soulful groove and furiously pounded piano seem to emanate from a richly human place, where the spirit resides.

So it makes sense that Carlebach would seek out a gospel choir to collaborate with for her album Higher and Higher, released in 2009 on her independent label, Sojourn Records. That group, the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir, from Bronx, N.Y., is on tour with Carlebach, and it will share the stage with her and her band on Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Fox Tucson Theatre.

It will be Carlebach's first concert in Tucson. "I haven't been to Arizona much at all. I think I've played there twice in my career, but never in Tucson yet."

Carlebach acknowledges that, outside of the Jewish-music community, she is not well-known. She compares her career to the Dr. Seuss story Horton Hears a Who!

"You look down, and there's an entire world that you might have overlooked, and nobody knows about it on the upstairs world," she says. "That's kind of what the Jewish world is. I've been a celebrity, quote-unquote, or at least a successful musician in my own world, but in the greater world, people have no idea this is going on underneath."

She admits, though, that she has a built-in audience, thanks to the Jewish community and the groundbreaking music of her father. "In my career, I have been very, very blessed in my work. Anyone who comes to hear my music, for that, I am always desperately grateful.

"You have to be authentic and continue to give something worthwhile, or people won't want to listen. It's a validation of what I do whenever anyone comes to my concerts, so I don't want to sound like I am ever complaining about my career."

Carlebach just released her eighth album, a children's CD titled Every Little Soul Must Shine, which features lullabies in both Hebrew and English. Like most of Carlebach's recordings, it features several compositions by her father.

Known to his fans as Reb Shlomo, the elder Carlebach performed for more than 40 years. Although she always sang, his daughter studied to be an actress. When she was 15, she began singing for fun with her father, whom she called her best friend. This offered her the chance to be around him more often.

"He was never around very much at home, but he called every day. I always knew where to reach him wherever he was in the world. I still have his AT&T phone card."

Their collaboration can be heard on the album Ha Neshama Shel Shlomo, which shows him passing the torch to his then-19-year-old daughter. She left college in her second year to perform on the road with him.

They were on tour together in Canada in 1994 when he passed away unexpectedly. "When he died, he had a whole year of shows booked. People asked, 'What happens now?' and, 'How will we go on?' And suddenly, I had a career. It was a really strange experience. I think I felt nothing for a very long time."

She took over Reb Shlomo's concert obligations, continuing to perform his songs out of sorrow and guilt—but that was soon transformed into happiness. She has dedicated her career to her father ever since. "I saw how much people needed him and how much they depended on him, like he was their water. And I didn't want him to be forgotten," she said.

Reb Shlomo's philosophy about performing has influenced his daughter's. "My father would travel around the world, and he'd say, 'I went to Australia for one day, and I went to India for one day, and I went to California for one day,' and he'd say, 'If I touched one person, it was worth it.'"

When she discusses her father's career, and her own, Carlebach knows what matters. "It's all about touching one person. We don't know why we're here on this planet, but if you can give somebody something, one thing to hold on to, to me, that is the whole point. Maybe that is the reason we are all here."

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