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Music Unlocks The Soul

02/02/2023 09:00:49 AM


Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

As a Rabbi, one of my roles is to lead prayer services. In Judaism, like in many religions, there are a huge varieties of ways we pray, ways we structure worship, varieties of liturgy and music. If I had a choice of what kind of service to attend, it would consist purely of wordless melodies, in Hebrew, niggunim, melodies to which we just sing, “lai, lai, lai” (not Hebrew! “Lai, lai, lai”, is just a version of, “la, la, la”!). These wordless melodies were pioneered by Hasidic Jews a few hundred years ago, the aim being to find the joy of God in every moment. You repeat the simple melody many times over, it becomes a mantra, you get lost in the music, you move away from your regular mental state, and break through to something beyond; God, or another consciousness.
The Hasidic leader, the Piazetsne Rebbe said, about a wordless melody, “it is one of the keys to the soul that will awaken it and its feelings. Through it, one can open one’s soul, letting some of it emerge”. Music can do many things for us but it can certainly unlock the soul, let us feel real, raw emotion, and express our deepest longings while connecting to another realm.
The following are three of my musical memories which have led me to this conclusion:
In 2003, I was living in Queens, New York. My wife, Sarah and I had befriended a couple, Justin and Cory. Cory was Jewish, Justin was Irish. One weekend, he invited us to a free concert at the South Street Sea Port in lower Manhattan, to listen to his favorite Irish band, The Frames. We went along because we liked Justin and figured that, if he loved The Frames, they would be worth listening to. We arrived a couple of songs into their set and were immediately struck by their humor and authenticity but that was not the core of my memory. In the middle of the concert, I looked over to Justin. He was totally bound up in the music, swaying, eyes closed, beatific smile on his lips. Even though Ireland was thousands of miles away, he had been transported there. He was home. Music unlocks the soul.
Last year, I was perusing social media about my North London-based soccer team, The Arsenal. I don’t know about your sports team but The Arsenal don’t have an obvious team song or anthem that the whole crowd sings. Last year, though, a relatively unknown singer, at least to the wider world, Louis Dunford, released a song called ‘The Angel’. In it, he sang about North London, where the team is based. The song begins with an imaginary walk around the neighborhood: “As I walk these streets alone, through this borough I call home, upon the baron fields of Highbury 'neath the stadiums of stone…”. It’s chorus seems unremarkable: “North London forever, whatever the weather these streets are our own…”. Nevertheless, the song went viral, the crowd at the stadium took it to their hearts, and, before the most recent game, I was watching, tears streaming down my face, as a mass of my fellow soccer fans sang this song just before kickoff. I was not physically there but, even from afar, it turns out that music unlocks the soul.
My final, musical vignette. Picture a starry night in the English countryside. Kids from our London synagogue are gathered around a bonfire as part of a residential weekend. Making friends forever, the students had been singing, praying, and eating together, bonding over different aspects of Jewish life. I could see the effect on their faces as they sat singing around the campfire. As the flames rose into the night sky and everyone gazed up at the stars, we sang and our spirits merged. Music unlocks the soul.
Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783