When Tamas Wormser was a boy growing up in Budapest, his father took him to the Dohany Street synagogue, the largest shul in Europe. Even though he grew up in a family without much connection to the Jewish religion or culture, Wormser says the cantor’s singing enthralled him.
“I never, ever heard anything like that,” Wormser says “Music has the power of going straight to your heart. That was the first thing that connected me to something unknown.”
How fitting that one of the biggest projects in the filmmaker’s career is an exploration of Jewish music around the world. Wormser, who now lives in Montreal, spent the last seven-and-a-half years flying to Jewish communities around the world, to places as distant as Mali and Uganda.
In The Wandering Muse, which opens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto on Dec. 5, Wormser focuses on 11 musicians wrestling with their Jewish identity. This tribe of artists is diverse, with musical stylings ranging from traditional klezmer to blues and hip-hop.
The subject of Wormser’s film is: what is a Jew? Since music is such a strong part of Jewish identity, the director says the art form is a great way to communicate the multiplicity of Jews around the world.
“I thought the best and the most fun way to present that [identity] is through music,” Wormser says. “It transcends time and it carries the soul.”
The featured musicians have varying political and religious beliefs, yet music helps to bring each one closer to his or her faith.
In Tangiers, musician Vanessa Paloma sings tunes written by Sephardi women passed down from the times of the Spanish Inquisition. In Berlin, musicians Daniel Kahn and Psoy Korolenko perform protest songs from czarist Russia and Nazi Germany in their sets. In New York, Basya Schechter looks for musical inspiration from around the world as she studies to be a cantor.
In one of the film’s most fascinating sections, Wormser visits Putti, a village in Uganda where the citizens sing about Jerusalem and the chosen people. Putti’s inhabitants, the Abayudaya people, chant prayers in Hebrew and hope to connect with Israel.
The community is currently looking to convert to Orthodox Judaism. Wormser tells The CJN he is thinking of making a film about the Abayudaya people.
The Wandering Muse also focuses on a sad reality for many Jewish musicians: there are few cultural bodies around to support them.
Wormser says the audience for The Wandering Muse is not just Jewish.
“[The film] breaks the stereotypes,” he says. “Many people have a very definite opinion of what or who is a Jew. What it means to me could be the opposite of what it means to you.”
The documentary only cracks the surface of what Wormser discovered in his journey, he says. This month, a website, the Wandering Muse Jewish Music Network, will be launched with the goal of bringing together Jewish musicians from around the world. The site intends to be a platform for the public and Jewish musicians to connect, and will showcase more than 250 original video clips.
Some of the original footage that will appear on the site – some 10 hours worth of material – comes from artists in the film, as well as the Jewish music scenes Wormser discovered in places such as Argentina, Yemen, Cuba and Afghanistan. New Jewish artists can join the network with their songs, stories and video content.
One of the featured musicians in the film is Canadian, Montreal’s Josh Dolgin, who goes by the stage name Socalled. Dolgin got into klezmer music when he was looking for samples to use in hip-hop songs and came upon a collection of Yiddish records. Today, he mixes hip-hop and klezmer during his live shows, syncing prayer with a party vibe.
Wormser also filmed some of the documentary in Canada, at performances from the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto. (Ashkenaz will present The Wandering Muse screenings in Toronto).
Very little of The Wandering Muse was filmed in Israel. This is appropriate for a film about Jews in the Diaspora, searching for their spiritual centre – a group that Wormser counts himself among.
“I’ve always had a strong identity but it was not related to religion or culture,” he says. “I guess I have a sort of outsider point-of-view. I feel like I belong to this archetype of the wandering artist somehow.”
The Wandering Muse plays until Dec. 9 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.