A New Worship: Armon Bizman 

Sam Golden transforms Tucson Shabbat services with modern musical interpretations

click to enlarge music_main_armon_bizman.jpg

Even in religious traditions that stretch back millennia, there's still room for modern voices. For the last few years in Tucson, Jewish Shabbat prayer services have regularly included newly commissioned music to uplift the traditional texts.

Armon Bizman, written and arranged by Sam Golden with Bob Hanshaw, brings new melodies and musical accompaniment to the prayer service. Commissioned by Temple Emanu-El's Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon to energize the Shabbat, Armon Bizman has been performed monthly since 2013.

This week, Golden (on guitar) and Hanshaw (on bass), with Seth Vietti on drums and Chris Herald on saxophone, will perform a special Armon Bizman, both to celebrate the release of the songs on CD and as a finale before Golden moves from Tucson to St. Louis.

The journey—from writing a couple songs at Cohon's request for Hanukkah services to putting together the full prayer service—has been a musically rich one for Golden.

"My goal writing the songs was to make the music sound timeless," he says. "I wanted to make music that was non-specific but really unique, something that's hard to pinpoint to an era or location they come from, like they could be ancient chants or modern rock songs or anything in between."

Golden wrote the music to incorporate a wide range of sounds, including the classical composer Franz Schubert, contemporary African band Tinariwen, American rock music and nods to music with distinctly Jewish roots, such as Eastern European klezmer and sounds from the Sephardic Jews of Spain and Northern Africa.

"I wanted to include a huge set of influences, basically all the musical influences of my life, but still make it cohesive," Golden says.

Before the Armon Bizman project, the music that accompanied Jewish prayer services mostly carried the influence of the late Debbie Friedman, a folk singer-songwriter who in her own way brought a modern flair to the traditions starting in the early 1970s.

"The music has been reinvented over and over again," Golden says. "What's been in vogue the last 50 years or so has been acoustic, folk, gentle sing-along stuff. There's no edge to it at all. So I wanted something that appeals to the younger generation and people who listen to more eclectic music."

Golden knew the music had to both speak for itself and convey the essence of the prayer service, so he let stand prayers that don't traditionally have musical accompaniment. Others, which already have various musical arrangements, he sought to transform and update in a way that engaged with the past and moved away from what is typically in the reform service presented with just an acoustic guitar.

"Not only was the service new and energetic, but we retained the traditional elements that people could hold onto," Golden says.

Typically, modern Jewish music suffers from the same flaws as contemporary Christian praise music, Golden says, finding an audience only in believers and, in general, mockery otherwise. The challenge was to separate Armon Bizman from the realm of "religious music" and present something that could stand on its own musically.

"The only other Jewish music I've heard is really gimmicky, like parody songs of top-40 hits. As far as I can tell, nobody is trying to write cool, meaningful music like this. From what I know, it's unique," Golden says.

Performances started at Temple Emanu-El and continued there for about two years, during which time Golden says he worked to "calibrate" the set, cutting some songs while adding others to ensure the piece worked as one whole. As Armon Bizman solidified, the service moved to the Historic Stone Avenue Temple downtown last year to better reach a younger audience.

"It's a really diverse audience, especially for a synagogue. It's a huge mix of ages and backgrounds and it's not even all Jewish people," Golden says.

Composing Armon Bizman, Golden poured over translations of the Hebrew prayers to infuse the sound with a tone and feel that matched the words. The name Armon Bizman (which Hanshaw suggested) translates to "A Palace in Time," a term used by a 20th century scholar to describe the Shabbat as a safe haven in modern life. The Shabbat service is meant to guide worshippers into the day of rest, reflection and prayer.

"A lot of the songs have a certain meditative aspect, but it's not all low-key," Golden says.

The first song of the Armon Bizman set is "Dodi Li," with a jaunty, bounce and chant that leans toward on the Eastern European influence. For the uninitiated, it's the song that most resembles "Hava Nagila."

Other songs stray far from that sort of expected sound. "Adon Olam" sounds thoroughly modern, almost avant-garde in its blend of jazzy saxophone and psychedelic guitar sounds. Another composition, "Mi Shebeirach," thrilled Golden so much that he took the music, put English words to it and reformatted it as a song for his rock band Sun Bones. "Arms," with nearly the exact same arrangement as "Mi Shebeirach," appears on Sun Bones' self-titled 2015 album.

"Everything supplements and feeds on everything else," Golden says. "Writing any song helps me to become a better songwriter with all songs."

Some of the Armon Bizman songs can be arranged many different ways, Golden says. The congregation's children's choir has sung a few without Golden, but others are more complex, fitted to Golden's voice and the specific instrumental ensemble.

"I've been thinking about writing alternate versions that would be more applicable to whoever wants to sing it," he says.

Golden and his ensemble performed Armon Bizman once in Phoenix already, in January to 350 people, in what was the first Shabbat service in 40 years at the historic and recently restored Beth Hebrew Synagogue downtown.

This Friday's service is the last Armon Bizman service before Golden moves to St. Louis—and the first since the songs have been produced on CD—but he expects to continue with performances once or twice a year during visits. Moving to St. Louis could, in fact, serve as a test of whether the Armon Bizman songs could find life at temple services outside of Tucson.

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