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Beyond 'Dayenu': What's Your Music Of Liberation?

An engraving of Moses crossing the Red Sea by 19th-century German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.
An engraving of Moses crossing the Red Sea by 19th-century German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.

Tonight marks the first night of Passover, the commemoration of the Jews' liberation from slavery. Like millions around the world, I'll be sitting down to Seder to celebrate, in my case with a completely religiously and culturally mixed-up mishpocheh. I'm not Jewish, but Passover is one of my favorite nights of the year. With all of its rituals, this holiday takes eating mindfully to a whole new and incredible level, with every foodstuff, prayer and movement geared towards revisiting and renewing the ancient story of bitterness and then emancipation.

Ancient Jewish sages like Maimonides say that those who lengthen or elaborate upon telling the story of the Exodus are worthy of praise. Regardless of one's personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof) or cultural ties (ditto), taking time to think and talk together about enslavement and liberation seems like an honorable pursuit, whether it takes the form of poring over the recently issued New American Haggadah, piecing together bits of various texts or pulling out wine-stained Maxwell House haggadot.

In the same spirit of open-sourcing the celebration, I've been on a search for new music to draw out the Passover themes. Undoubtedly tonight's seder will feature at least one half-mumbled chorus of "Dayenu," and for many at our own family table, that will be quite enough. (Har har.) But what else would make for good Pesach music?

I recently went back to a release from the massive Milken Archive of Jewish Music series of music for an instrumental by Yehudi Wyner called Passover Offering. The composer says it isn't a narrative work, but instead offers "reflections and meditations on certain situations."

There's the Biblical narrative of Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt, not to mention Verdi's "Va pensiero," also known as the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," from his opera Nabucco. I personally find a lot of contemporary Jewish music unbearably corny — and I can happily live with that particular bias of mine. But for those not similarly afflicted, there's The Maccabeats' Les Misérables-themed Passover mashup. (They're not the first, either; the Israeli version of Sesame Street, called Shalom Sesame, already mounted "Les Matzarables.") An exception is The Klezmatics; check out their collaboration with singer Joshua Nelson on "Shnirele, Perele," which, while not strictly Pesach-related, is pretty great.

On a less literal level, Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" remains a classic, and there's "Liberation" by the Pet Shop Boys, which feels pretty timely right now. But I'm still looking for other inspirations, especially for a gathering of folks for whom the traditional songs aren't, well, traditional.

What's your best bet for Seder-worthy sounds? Tell us what you'll be spinning: we're at @nprclassical on Twitter and nprclassical on Facebook.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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