Creative Alliance, B’nai Israel Kick Off New Sacred Music Series

Innov Gnawa (Provided)

When one thinks of sacred music, cantorial music or gospel might come to mind. But black Moroccans playing Jewish music from Africa?

That’s exactly what will kick off a new sacred music series presented by B’nai Israel and Creative Alliance on Saturday, Oct. 21. “Innov Gnawa – Sebitiyin: The Jewish Songs of Gnawa” is the first in what will be known as Lombard and Lloyd.

“What we want to do is showcase sacred music in the broadest sense,” said B’nai Israel Rabbi Etan Mintz.

Concerts — all of which will take place in B’nai Israel’s sanctuary — later this year include klezmer-jazz performer Andy Statman and experimental cantorial music by Judith Berkson. 2018 will feature non-Jewish sacred music.

It’s part of an overall effort to turn one of America’s oldest synagogues into a cultural hub.

“For some time we’ve been strategizing how to create a cultural arts center based out of our historic synagogue just like Sixth & I in D.C.,” Mintz said. “We’re hoping this becomes something larger — that it starts as a series of concerts but [that] the synagogue is transformed into a center of creative arts and cultural arts downtown.”

The series received a grant from the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund for the Enrichment of Jewish Education as seed money.

Creative Alliance performance director Josh Kohn loved B’nai Israel’s sanctuary when he first saw it on a historic tour of the Jewish museum after he arrived in Baltimore. And he’s looking to do more events outside of the Creative Alliance — past events have been held at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts at the Owings Mills JCC and the Maryland Institute College of Art. With some prodding from a Creative Alliance regular and B’nai Israel member, Lynne Farbman, and later, the seed funding in place, the partnership was born.

The first performance should be powerful.

“We have this synagogue that has this beautiful Moorish-looking sanctuary and we have this black Moroccan group playing Jewish music of Gnawa,” Kohn said.

Around the time the funding was secured, Kohn was in New York speaking with New York-based Innov Gnawa’s manager.

“She introduced me to a leader of the group, an older gentleman, who explained that when he was growing up in his community in Morocco, it was mostly Jewish,” Kohn said. “There were cities in Morocco that had 60 percent Jewish populations. These same cities had large Gnawa populations. … You have those two cultures living together for millennia.”

The Gnawa people are black Moroccans originally brought to Morocco as slaves, Kohn said. The concert explores the rare Jewish canon of this ritual trance music.

“We forget Jews are everywhere and have all colors and have all sorts of cultural and musical output,” Kohn said. “This is music the Jewish populations played and made its way into the Gnawa repertoire.”

For more information and tickets, visit

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