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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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A cantorial reggae singer

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When I was a child in Kitchener, Ont., children in the Talmud Torah were asked to lead the concluding prayers of the Shabbat services while standing on the bimah. It was a glorious time. One of those children had a distinguishing voice, an angelic one. His name is John (Uncle Jonny) Strauss. Today, he is a reggae star.

Jon has singing in his blood. His mother, Shirley, was a professional singer and taught the girls their bat mitzvah songs. Years later, Jon was mentored by the cantors Efraim Sapir and Tibor Kovari and had, what he called, “the honour” of working with the late composer Srul Irving Glick. “He was a real inspiration for me in terms of Jewish songs and prayer.”

To this day, Jon, 52, leads Shacharit services on Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Musaf services at Beth Tikvah Congregation. He has written music for some of the Musaf service. Jon said he enjoys being a cantor and finds it “very spiritual and helps me connect to God when I am singing to Him.”

In 1990, Jon wrote and recorded a single with a reggae legend, the late Sugar Minott. This is when his reggae career began. Jon, who runs a chain of menswear stores by day, said he liked the message reggae music was sending, which he qualifies as “soulful” and, in fact, he makes a correlation between Jewish song and prayer and reggae, melodies that emanate from Jamaica.

“Both styles are spiritual, conscious forms of music,” he said. “If you listen to some of the great reggae singers from the past like Burning Spear and Dennis Brown, you can hear a cantorial style in some of their music and singing.” Since the days Jon fell in love with reggae, he has seamlessly made the transition to becoming a performer in that genre. A couple of years back, I saw my childhood best friend sing at the Lula Lounge in Toronto. All his family was there. The music was original, and the musicians and instruments were all real. I was amazed watching Jon dancing on the stage with Caribbean backup singers. There he stood, a cap on his head, looking very Jewish, belting out words of freedom and love as they would be on the island of Jamaica.

In between songs he talked and expressed his message of unity of all personkind and the need for change. In his own words: “I hope to break down racial barriers and help people grow. I want my music to mean something; to make a difference.”

And indeed it does. Jon does not shy away from any topic. His debut album, Singing With Legends, features a song called My Sister, about his sibling, Robyn, who died March 27, 2001. The song focuses on Robyn’s life, not her death, and states: “Full of life, so sensitive, her heart so big she’d always give… she was… she was taken way too fast, the emptiness will never pass, her memory must always last… She was… she was, she was, she was, she was my sister.”

Most recently, Jon sang with the acclaimed rock steady and reggae vocal trio, The Heptones. On Jamaica Day 2012, Jon sang his heart out in front of 2,000 reggae lovers.

On Oct. 21, Jon performs at the Rokaz Easy Edition, an evening that includes reggae superstars Horace Andy and Big Youth from Jamaica. For more information, call 905-547-9491.

Jon Strauss. Chazzan. Reggae singer. Lover of humanity.

Avrum@veahavta.org

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