For most Jews, the line “By the rivers of Babylon” conjures the poetry of King David’s Psalms. For David Gould, the words come with a Jamaican accent, thanks to the numerous reggae artists who have set the classic lyric to music as part of the Rastafarian faith’s liberal sampling of Judaism.
Those crossovers between Jewish liturgy and Rastafarian theology motivate Gould, a 48-year-old musician who for nearly two decades has been making Jewish-inflected reggae with his ensemble The Temple Rockers.
The group’s latest album, “Festival of Lights,” has dropped just in time for Hanukkah and features covers of classics like “Rock of Ages,” “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” and “Sevivon Sov Sov.” Sung in a lilting Jamaican voice and accentuated by the mellow grooves of reggae horns and bass lines, the record is sure to add an infectious melodic sizzle alongside the frying pan at any Hanukkah party this year.
Gould, who played bass in the reggae band John Brown’s Body from 1997 to 2002, had his Jewish-meets-Jamaican revelation in 2000 while on tour in Davis, California. Though Gould no longer considers himself a practicing Jew, he was raised attending a Conservative congregation on Long Island, New York. When one day he found himself humming “Sim Shalom,” he realized the ancient blessing worked well as a reggae tune.
“I started working out chords on an acoustic guitar and imagining bass lines and horns as if indeed it were a reggae rhythm,” Gould recalled, speaking to The Times of Israel by phone from his home in Ithaca, New York.
The synergy between Gould’s Jewish upbringing and the Jamaican music that captivated him as an adult unleashed a slew of creative ideas to pair traditional Hebrew prayers with reggae music.
“My mind was flooded with all these different melodies I knew when I was a youth,” Gould said. “The Temple Rockers is the perfect project to work with all these melodies that don’t have a rhythm, for which I can take this music [reggae] that was close to my heart.”
The musical project’s first incarnation was called “Adonai & I,” a riff on the Rastafarian expression of “I and I” in place of “You and I,” which refers to the belief that all are equal under Jah, the Rastafarian deity. Gould changed the group’s name to The Temple Rockers in 2009 after the original provoked some controversy in Orthodox circles, which consider the use of “Adonai” appropriate only in a sacred context.
The new name is a double entendre — not only to “rock the temple” by setting Jewish liturgy to a reggae rhythm, but also to get one’s temples rocking, or head nodding, along to the music.
In 2009, The Temple Rockers tackled the Exodus, whose story of redemption from slavery resonates deeply in the Rastafarian faith, with their debut album, “Feast of the Passover,” and accompanying remix, “Dub of the Passover.” (There will also be a dub version of the Hanukkah album, “Festival of Dub,” due out on November 30.)
Gould arranges the music, plays bass, and engineers the recording sessions. For live shows, he relies on a rotating cast of up to a dozen musicians drawn from the Ithaca and Boston music scenes — including Gould’s sister, a trumpeter who has played with Yitzhak Perlman, and the Japanese-Jewish son of a rabbi.
Key to The Temple Rockers’ sound are the Jamaican singers who bring a vocal intonation essential to any authentic reggae recording. On the 12 tracks that make up “Festival of Lights,” Gould employed Linval Thompson, Wayne Jarrett, and Ansel Meditations, three singers from Jamaican reggae’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s whose discography is full of references to Jewish tradition.
“Wayne Jarrett has a song called ‘Brimstone & Fire,’ which is the story of Passover, and many songs that refer to the 12 Tribes of Israel or Israelites,” explained Gould. “They all really love the connection, but I don’t know if it’s as interesting to them as it is to me.”
Gould made three trips to Jamaica to record sessions with the vocalists. A stickler for the warmth of analog sound quality, he used two-inch reel-to-reel tape rather than today’s digital recording techniques.
“It was really fun to teach them to sing in Hebrew, which is challenging for folks who have Jamaican patois as their main language,” Gould said. As with many who are new to the language, the guttural “kh” sound proved the trickiest.
For Gould, this project has become his life’s work. It’s the ideal blend of his religious childhood upbringing and his adult faith in the power of reggae music ever since he saw the Jamaican band Burning Spear at a Boston concert in 1995.
“The closest thing to religion I had ever experienced was seeing Burning Spear live,” Gould said. “I had never felt so prayerful and moved by something before.
“What drew me to reggae was musical,” he said. “But as I got deeper into the history and culture, I found a strong Jewish connection realizing there’s so much overlap in the music, culture, and beliefs of Rastas and Jews.”