07.08.2019

The first-ever Festival of Jewish Arts and Music packs over 130 artists into just one day

Gabriella Cohen
Words by Augustus Welby

The inaugural Festival of Jewish Arts and Music comes to the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday September 8.

Over 135 artists will be taking part in what’s primarily a live music event, yet will also include discussion panels and storytelling as well as dance and drag performances.

FOJAM evolved out of the Shir Madness Melbourne Jewish Music Festival, which Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier launched in 2015.

“While Shir Madness had been a really successful, professionally run cultural music festival, most of the audience were baby boomers, over-65,” says FOJAM Artistic Director, Lior Albeck-Ripka. “It was really important to us to engage a younger audience and also open it out to people who aren’t Jewish.”

FOJAM offers 12-and-a-half hours of entertainment under the theme “Walk on the Wild Side”. The theme directly corresponds with the headline event, Transformer: A Tribute to Lou Reed. Musical directors Gabriella Cohen and Kate “Babyshakes” Dillon have put together a mammoth lineup including Chris Cohen, Emily Lubitz, Deborah Conway, Alexander Gow, Spike Fuck, Bella Venuti and Vivien Goldman to recreate Lou Reed’s landmark 1972 release. 

“It’ll be played in its entirety, from beginning to end, with an incredible cast of musicians and singers,” says Albeck-Ripka.

The Transformer event is the anchor of the festival theme, says Albeck-Ripka. “That’s where we started from, [asking] what did Lou Reed do? How did he break boundaries? Who else is breaking boundaries? How are people pushing at the edges within music, within society, to change the status quo? That plays into the artists that have been selected for the program.”

The afternoon centrepiece is Song of Songs, a tribute show conceived by Conway and Zygier that includes a number of esteemed Australian singers – from Paul Kelly to Alice Skye, Lisa Mitchell to Vika Bull – performing a song of their choosing by a Jewish songwriter or composer.

“That was their headline show for the past Shir Madness festivals,” says Albeck-Ripka. “When we came on board and kept them on as festival patrons, we decided to maintain that aspect of the festival, and it also shows the impact that Jewish composers and songwriters have had on pop culture and music over time.”

Alongside Chris Cohen and Goldman, there are a number of big international guests getting involved, such as Israeli dance music producer Noga Erez and American LGBT activist and TV producer Zackary Drucker.

“[Erez] was Double J album of the week in 2017. She’s got a new album coming out next year and she’s incredible and intensely political and writes about very intense stuff in her work,” says Albeck-Ripka. “We’re really excited that for both Chris and Noga this is an Australian exclusive show, and it’s also incredible that Chris is part of the Transformer tribute.”

Another intriguing event on the program is Why We Stand presented by Yorta Yorta man Neil Morris aka DRMNGNOW, a Triple R broadcaster, rapper and First Nations community activist.

“Neil is doing an exclusive, one-off performance focusing on the story of [Yorta Yorta man] William Cooper, who is the only person in the world to have protested about what was happening to Jews in Germany pre-war, in 1938,” says Albeck-Ripka. “There’s a famous night called Kristallnacht where Jewish shops, schools, synagogues were burnt and rocks were thrown through windows and books were burned. William Cooper led a peaceful protest to the German consulate in Melbourne and it’s the only recorded protest in the world, which is outstanding.”

Morris’ inclusion, along with that of fellow 3RRR DJ Paul Gorrie, represents the organisers’ efforts to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that the Jewish people have been lucky enough to come and make a home in.

“We want people to walk into this festival and know that they are actually in Australia and that we are on Indigenous land and so the first thing that people hear when they walk in in the morning is Paul Gorrie playing Indigenous music.”

Festival of Jewish Arts and Music takes over Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday September 8. Grab your tickets via fojam.com.