When Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg take the stage, they blend the sincerity trademarked by many folk duos with biblical themes. The results, complete with plenty of finger-picked banjo chords and words of praise, are a distinctly Jewish-American spiritual hybrid.
“We are taking authentic old-time, bluegrass and Appalachian Americana sound and blending it with Jewish spirit,” says Zasloff. “We sing upbeat songs with ruach [soul] that make you want to get up and dance, and slower songs that are very pure and honest. Our music expresses all sides of spirituality — the joyous and the more prayerful.”
Lindberg and Zasloff met six years ago when Zasloff, a former preschool music teacher with a background in Jewish studies and theater, formed the Mama Doni Band.
The group won the Simcha Award for “inspiring joy through music” in competition with more than 100 bands at their debut performance at the 2008 International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam. When she returned to the States, Zasloff’s music took off, drawing about 100 annual nationwide gigs. And thanks to a Streit’s Matzo endorsement deal, Zasloff’s punim has appeared on more than a million boxes of unleavened bread for each of the last four years.
Three albums and one EP later, Zasloff began composing liturgical music, contemplative Jewish spirituals and other songs for her fourth album, “Emunah.” Like the much-beloved Jewish folk singer Debbie Friedman, who died in 2011, Zasloff’s tours quickly expanded to include synagogue gigs as well as summer camps, supplementary schools, and family concerts.
At the same time, she joined forces to co-write “Get Cooking! A Jewish American Family Cookbook & Rockin’ Mama Doni Celebration with Rachel Harkham” (Behrman House 2012).
She also released a holiday DVD and companion CD, which landed her third Parents’ Choice Award. Two audio books of Bible stories and the “Sing Along Aleph Bet” book (Behrman, March 2016), penned by both Zasloff and Lindberg, have rapidly followed.
As her repertoire evolved, Zasloff and Lindberg began performing widely as a duo, composing and arranging songs with a distinct Jewish sensibility that borrows from authentic American musical traditions. As Nefesh Mountain, their rendition of “Shalom Rav” won the NewCaje New Voices competition in 2015. “Nefesh Mountain,” their eponymous collaborative album as husband and wife of a year, includes a guest line-up of Nashville greats. It debuts this month.
‘The music got ahead of us and we got deeper’
“The music got ahead of us and we got deeper and expanded where we were going, but it happened before we realized it,” Zasloff says. “We had to call it something else.”
The publication Bluegrass Today called their album a “highly-effective blending of these two spheres on music they have written or arranged. Assisting are top bluegrass artists like Sam Bush, Scott Vestal, Mark Schatz, Rob Ickes and Gary Oleyar. Songs are presented in both English and Hebrew, but with an authentic sound of the mountains.”
These days, Lindberg serves as the Musical Director of the Mama Doni Band, as well as the producer and engineer for Mama Doni Productions Studio. Over the years, he co-wrote, produced and performed on Zasloff’s albums Shabbat Shaboom, Emunah, The Acoustic Jewish Holiday Collection, and Mama Doni’s Jewish Holiday Party DVD Soundtrack. Their Mama Doni and Nefesh Mountain recordings are widely available online.
Besides guitar, Lindberg also plays banjo, dobro and mandolin, integrating these instruments into the duo’s unique Jewish sound.
“For centuries, bluegrass and old-time music have been embracing the Bible and creating a powerful vehicle for spirituality,” Lindberg says.
Zasloff and Lindberg now tour both as a duo and as a larger ensemble with two new band members, one on fiddle and one on upright bass. Their four-piece band recently appeared on the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour, which is broadcast from Lexington, Kentucky to more than 90 million homes. Via email, the two were able to share some of their views with The Times of Israel just ahead of the release of their recent album, “Nefesh Mountain,” which debuted this week.
What motivated you to create this music?
‘We wanted to make an album that makes us feel whole as American Jews’
We set out to make this record out of our love for being Jewish, our love for bluegrass, old-time music, and Americana music, and our love for each other. We wanted to make an album that makes us feel whole as American Jews and that also speaks to the many other sides of ourselves that make us who we are. We also wanted to create a sound that can be a bridge between the Eastern world of more traditional Jewish culture and tradition, and the Western world of music, instrumentation, melody, and harmony.
What do you like about your new project?
We love the whole process. We love every song. We love the truth in our story. From writing the material in our own home, to the tracking and recording of the songs at the amazing Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville, to the ultimate creation of the final product. We love that it is a true representation of who we are as people, Jews, and as husband and wife. As artists you can’t really ask for much more than that.
What struggles are involved with integrating Jewish content with other musical traditions?
There is a huge misperception about “Jewish bluegrass” or “Jewgrass” that we have to overcome. People automatically assume it is a “joke” or silly music — we are not doing a parody. This is real soulful honest true bluegrass mountain music… it takes a minute for people to stop laughing when we tell them Jewish bluegrass. But once they hear us and understand this, they immediately understand we are doing something very different and they feel our honesty.
‘We are not doing a parody’
We want to make sure that we are truly honoring scared Jewish texts and traditions as we explore new ways to share them with the world. We are intent as well on being honest and true with playing music in the American bluegrass canon with its own language and instrumentation.
In what way is Nefesh Mountain also a love story?
We began playing music together in our “kids-and-family band” as Mama Doni, and along the way really became each others sole inspiration for writing songs and collaborating. Our mutual love for bluegrass and country music, and our Jewish backgrounds, gave us the common ground to embark together on this “journey to Nefesh Mountain.”
What inspired this album?
Nefesh Mountain really came about by accident. We were inspired to lead Shabbat and other worship services and wanted to dive deeper into the prayers… and when we started writing, it all poured out with the bluegrass, old-time and acoustic undercurrent that is now Nefesh Mountain. We realized over time that we had something here that was different and that we could offer the Jewish world something fresh and honest that comes from our hearts.
How did you come to the name Nefesh Mountain?
Mountains are so symbolic in both Jewish history and the bluegrass world. From Mount Sinai and Masada to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Rocky Mountains, we are all humbly searching for spiritual connection. We long had a vision of standing on a mountaintop with outstretched arms declaring who we are. It feels so real and true to call out to the universe from the top of a mountain. So, there it is, our mountain, Nefesh Mountain, the place, the platform, the world where we can be ourselves and speak our truth and share our “mountain music” it with the universe.
How did you end up collaborating with other artists?
We felt that sonically and musically it was important to have a full bluegrass band be the foundation for the album. We wanted to have a real American bluegrass sound that was respectful to the genre. The musicians on the record, Sam Bush on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, Mark Schatz on bass, Scott Vestal on banjo, and Gary Oleyar on fiddle are not only unbelievable players in their own right. They also happen to be the guys who have defined and even redefined the genre over the years.
What is your vision for Nefesh Mountain?
Our goal is to spread our love for Jewish traditions and culture, and bluegrass music, to all that are open to hearing it. We want the music to help bridge and connect American traditions and history with ancient Jewish ones. We also want to spread the message to really be yourself, and to be proud of exactly who you are in your own skin, even if you don’t seem to fit in sometimes.
Who are some of your musical influences?
We have many influences from the Jewish worlds and bluegrass worlds alike, as well as from rock, folk, jazz, and classical musical forms. Ultimately, we are inspired by any artist who is very uniquely themselves, who makes music on their terms and is proud to share what their vision of the world is. Also, we are always inspired in a huge way by the people that we are fortunate to meet on the road: rabbis, cantors, congregations, fellow musicians, and friends.
‘Music plus prayer has a profound impact for us and helps us get to that place of love’
How does your music facilitate spirituality?
Music has transcendental attributes that can help us forget ourselves and become one with the world around us. It helps us let go of our petty problems and be present with our surroundings and universe. Music plus prayer has a profound impact for us and helps us get to that place of love, trust, understanding, and oneness.
Our music encourages people who never dance in public to all of a sudden get up and dance. It helps enemies become friends. It helps friends become loved ones. It helps heal entire communities in times of sadness and loss. It makes us feel connected to each other, helps us make spiritual connections, and connects us to the world we live in.