Joshua Nelson: The prince of Kosher gospel

Nelson performs in the 2009 comedy 'The Yankles.'

Joshua Nelson says it isn't much of stretch to transform a Jewish prayer into what he calls a "Kosher gospel" song. It's all about adding a little soul, a little syncopation; swinging the words to a certain extent. About taking cantorial chant — that high-register reach towards the heavens; sharp and ecstatic and ancient — and marrying it with another ancient tradition: gospel music.

Nelson has been was fascinated with the music of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson from an early age. He turned what he calls "an obsession" into a calling card: Nelson appeared on Oprah in 2004 as one of her Next Big Things, performing "How I Got Over" a la Mahalia, and he'll take part in a Jackson tribute at Carnegie Hall Oct. 24 (presumably following a red-eye from Indy). In a wide-ranging interview lightly edited for space and clarity, Nelson spoke about Jewish identity, the non-religious roots of what's now called gospel and, of course, Mahalia. Nelson will open this year's Ann Katz Festival of Books and Arts with performances Oct. 22 and 23 at the Arthur M. Glick JCC.

NUVO: You made a connection between the gospel tradition and Jewish liturgical music while you were studying in Israel.

Joshua Nelson: Right. It happened in Israel at the Great Synagogue, one of the big synagogues in Jerusalem. I was listening to the choir and the cantor. The choir was behind a big cover, so you could just hear their voices, and they sounded exactly like the voices in a Mahalia Jackson album. And I said, "Wow! That's the sound I was looking for when I was doing tribute to Mahalia Jackson as a kid." Before that I didn't really think it was plausible or even possible to marry the two; it had never entered my mind. And then when I heard the choir singing, I thought: That has a very unique gospel element in it.

NUVO: What led you to make that comparison? What's the connection between traditional Jewish music and Mahalia Jackson?

Nelson: Well, it's hard to say what traditional Jewish music is because there's so many variations of traditional Jewish music. You have klezmer, which is not necessarily even Jewish. You have the cantorial style, which is more of a classical way of singing Jewish music. And that's just in the European realm of things.

There are lots of Jewish musics that we don't ever hear: Indian, Ethiopian, Yemenite, Moroccan, Egyptian. It's sad that people only know of one style of ethnic Jewish musical sound. I'm breaking down the stereotypes of who or what a Jew is and how he is to be perceived. It's very big, because the "what is a Jew" question always comes up. For me, if you're accepted as a Jew and you are a Jew, then you're a Jew. I don't do the pedigree thing, because, especially in reformed Judaism, it's not necessary.

And what I do in my explorations is explain gospel music from its heritage point of view, from its African tradition and not from its Christian perspectives. The components of gospel music existed even before Africans became Christian. They were singing field songs; they were singing the blues. So those who became Christian took their music, and it shaped and developed as time and social situations dictated. It was a sort of musical escape, as has always been the case in the African tradition: working, singing, relieving the stress. It has never been a solely Christian phenomenon; it has always been an African expression.

There are lots of Jewish people who love gospel music, but they feel a little guilty because of the Jesus references. So now, they can really experience Jewish music with that same feeling and know that it's representing Jewish life and Jewish prayers.

NUVO: And your work is in line with a movement to modernize Jewish worship music.

Nelson: We get e-mails from Jews who are visiting the country from Australia, from England, asking to be directed to a synagogue that does kosher gospel. Slowly, synagogues have e-mailed us for music, and, in the next 20 years, I can see it, not replacing folk music, but adding to it. There's this horrible, sad belief that when composers write Jewish music, it has to sound a certain way. And when we do that, we kill the spirit, we kill the creativity. Once you determine it has to have a particular sound, you can't do anything else.

NUVO: So Judaism has always had a hybrid aspect, just as your music is something of a hybrid.

Nelson: Right. There are some scientists who believe the Hebrews themselves were not some separate race of people, that they were actually a group who became the Hebrews from within the Canaanite culture. Everything Jewish from ancient times reflects the Canaanites: the temples, the music, the choir. Nothing is original.

Jewish music is a collaboration between indigenous culture and the workings of the religion. We eat kosher collard greens and kosher fried chicken at our house. Someone would say: How is that Jewish? And it's because it's kosher, not because it's any particular food. There are folks that think gefilte fish and lox and bagels are Jewish foods, but they aren't; they were first eaten in Germany. I did an experiment. I went to Rome to the synagogue, and I was curious to see what the names were on the seats. Would they say Goldstein and Goldberg? And when got there, it said names like Mozelli and Tuccelli.

Another thing is that, in these concerts, Jewish people jam. I don't know who ever said Jewish people have no soul. Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong: they were always championed by Jews. We Jews, we know good music.

NUVO: You adjust your program for different audiences, right?

Nelson: Well, some Jewish numbers that we do, it's so down-the-middle that all audiences will appreciate it. But when we know were going to have an African-American or Christian audience coming, we'll have a little bit more Mahalia Jackson. I was on the Oprah Winfrey show for sounding like Mahalia. And Mahalia Jackson was the first one who did a kosher gospel concert, when she went to Jerusalem to perform. She said, (in Mahalia Jackson's voice) "Baby, what am I going to sing to these people; I don't want no one to run out." They said, "Mahalia, just sing 'Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho." She said, "'Cause these are Jews; I don't want no one to run out of Mahalia's program."