Mirushe ‘Mira’ Zylali reviews Loolwa Khazzoom’s new album.
The Aramaic-language piyyut ‘Yah Ribbon “Alam”’ ends with a prayer for a restored Jerusalem. Written in the late 1500s by Rabbi Israel Najara, the then-rabbi of Gaza, it has been sung for four hundred years as a Shabbat hymn – that’s 21,000 Shabbatot. On Shabbat, God asks us to restore ourselves and truly rest – rest being restorative and divine. This song is also one of three piyyutim that feature on Loolwa Khazzoom’s new album, Shaddai, released in June.
When I first listened to the album, I felt awash in a light blue colour. Shaddai induced the same physical feelings that listening to my grandma’s Celtic Woman albums did: a warm and floating, excited peace. I was brought back to being a kid humming along to an elven song in The Lord of the Rings for the hundredth time, improvising words. I found myself swaying, drifting, and above all, calmly breathing. I allowed my imagination to wander. I was able to dream, visualize, and be lost in thought.
For the past year, I’ve studied piyyutim in the hopes of better understanding and engaging with Jewish liturgy in my own life, not only in contexts specifically structured around religious time. Judaism is, in so many ways, a primarily oral tradition. While we have texts that we refer to time and time again, the aspects of Judaism that we carry with us, everywhere we go, is the power of our voice – especially to appreciate and sing about our feelings. Singing is something that can be done whatever the circumstance, with or without a text – just like dancing or breathing deeply. It’s about the singer remembering.
Khazzoom’s voice is sinewy; it ebbs and flows in time with piano improvised by Mikkel Lee Meyers, rippling against shifting piano strokes. Initially conceived to serve as meditative music for her upcoming Take Your Dance Meds! class, the making of the album brought back Khazzoom’s memories from her previous work on Dancing With Pain. Khazzoom taught the Dancing With Pain technique for dealing with chronic pain after a life-changing accident and found other individuals seeking a space to heal and stretch.
‘The thing was, people would like, come to this class to manage their physical pain,’ Khazzoom explains. ‘But they’d be giving me this feedback that it was helping with their emotional pain. They were leaving my class feeling healed in more than one way. The choice of Shabbat piyyutim struck me as synchronous with her intent that a participant in her class would feel restored after a session. Almost everyone is aware of scientific evidence and anecdotes that mindful meditation and physical exercise can help mental health. Shaddai is likely to become the musical journey surrounding many gatherings focused on meditation and mindfulness.’
While it’s not the focus of the album, I also noticed themes of self-acceptance and honouring of women ancestors. Women recording piyyutim has become increasingly common, and so has meditation surrounding Jewish mindfulness and mysticism. Sometimes the two collide, as with Khazzoom and singer Victoria Hanna. Today, women singers engaging with piyyutim often reinvent them to speak to their personal relationships with music new and old. In Khazzoom’s case, the improvised harmonies in Shaddai come from her real-life memories of improvisational harmonization with her late mother. Hearing a woman sing Iraqi piyyutim, with what felt like spiritual input from a beloved mother, is a part of what made each track read like a soothing lullaby and call to self-care.
Via her inclusion of harmonies, Khazzoom also challenges predominant narratives surrounding diffusion and production between cultures. While an individual questioning Khazzoom’s right to take up such space, she is just doing what comes naturally to her as a person raised in multiple musical cultures, who enjoys all of them. Because Khazzoom is unquestionably Iraqi, it is her right to take her music in whichever direction she wants; the same goes for other artists inventing and reinventing piyyutim. This sense of ownership makes me feel more accepting of the aspects of American culture I may have taken on while the generation before me may not have. Khazzoom is at home syncretizing her Iraqi, Danish-Welsh-Irish-American, and American inspirations; so we all should be. Innovation isn’t the antonym of authenticity, but rather, a part of what makes someone, or something, authentic.
Khazzoom also stresses the importance of chosen family during our talk. The people I believe in…We’re creating a family, says Khazzoom. Race, religion, ethnicity, I don’t care…they’re people with integrity, they’re people who do the work…they heal themselves, she concludes, referring to the initiative needed to begin techniques such as Dancing with Pain or Take Your Dance Meds. Khazzoom’s musical work frequently touches on themes of taking the reins of one’s life; self-direction; as well as the examination of social and personal issues via a lens of combined Iraqi Jewish music and punk musical genres. While Shaddadi is softer, it still calls us to work and to break away and rest, in turn – and balance. I can easily see yoga and meditational classes not run by Khazzoom utilizing the cavernous and rushing sound she has created with Shaddai.
During an indefinite global pandemic, I feel a call to connect with my ancestors in the way that Khazzoom does every time she sings an ancient melody that has undergone various changes and innovations over time. If we are alive today, at some point, we likely have an ancestor who survived a major plague period – similar to the pandemic we’re experiencing now. They sang from their windows to one another; they lived through some of the 21,000 Shabbatot between Rabbi Najara’s writing of his famous piyyutim, and their many incarnations until today. A chain of survival, restoration, self-preservation and elasticity informs the history and tradition that Khazzoom steps into to create the Shaddai experience that flows around us. Hopefully, a listener will be carried by its tunes to a safer, calmer, and healing shore – one where we, like Jerusalem, are restored with care.
Shaddai Chants on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/artist/5AWunwJVyQ81Uvk1Wfen8F?fbclid=IwAR2ydXPpv319BEO1moL0C4uUXLf321f0YKPVrcnhWsbuHdejU33DkxxksQQ (it’s on all streaming platforms).
Loolwa’s music website https://khazzoomusic.com/.