“Music is a language of the soul…it brings joy, it brings hope…Singing is a spiritual thing”.
Lipa is a singer and guitarist based in Manchester. He was born in Toronto and lived in London and Israel before his family moved to Manchester around 2003. He mainly plays at events within the Chassidic community in the city, but he has also travelled to perform in places around the UK, including London, Leeds and Liverpool, and abroad, in Ukraine and in Israel. He is best known for leading kumzits musical gatherings and for performing at religious festivals, but he also uses music to engage in outreach in hospitals, performing for patients to bring them joy and comfort.
LIPA’S MUSICAL LIFE STORY
Lipa comes from a family of music lovers. His father is a chazzan [cantor], his brother plays guitar, and his whole family enjoys singing. Lipa started performing at weddings and events from a young age and, by the time he reached adulthood, he knew he wanted to pursue music as a profession. Growing up in the Chassidic community in Golders Green and attending a ‘very religious’ Jewish school in Stamford Hill in London, Lipa’s musical upbringing encompassed Chassidic chant and song as well as some wider Jewish repertoire and this remains his focus as a performer today.
“I grew up in a very religious family. So, in my family, we just listened to authentic Jewish music. We were never actually introduced to anything else. I’m quite happy with that because I like this music and it’s me. For me, that’s what music is – it doesn’t matter which music it is, it’s about which music does it for you!”.
As a teenager, Lipa went to a yeshiva [a Jewish school for boys and men; literally ‘sitting’] in Israel to study religious scripture and halacha [law; literally ‘the way’]. In the meantime, his parents relocated from London to Manchester for work and, on his return from Israel, Lipa stayed in Manchester to start his own family in the city.
“It’s quite interesting because I got married around the time my parents moved here. I was abroad in yeshiva in Israel when my parents moved…When I came back home, I got engaged a few months later and got married. My wife is from Manchester, so we decided to stay in Manchester…Now, I’m 32 and I have four children – two girls, two boys”.
Lipa and his family settled into the large Chassidic community in the city and, from there, he began to build his music career in Manchester. Lipa performs mainly in a community context, organised around his shul, ק"ק מחזיקי הדת [Machzikei Hadass Synagogue]. He plays at life ritual events, like wedding and bar mitzvah ceremonies, and at religious festivals, like Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Purim, but Lipa is best known for leading special Chassidic musical gatherings known as kumzitsim (see below). While Chassidic music is perhaps most famous for the nigun [a mystical wordless prayer sung without instrumental accompaniment; literally ‘melody’], Lipa has always loved the sound of the guitar, so he recently learnt to play the instrument and uses this to accompany his singing. As part of Lipa’s role as a community musician, he also performs in hospitals and care homes, visiting Chassidic patients and using music to bring joy in difficult situations.
“I find the guitar very soulful and relaxing and that is what I’m trying to convey [in my music]. I’m a very calm guy. My ideal band is an acoustic band – guitar, percussion, bass and maybe a flute or clarinet. I think there’s nothing like acoustic music – music made out everyday tools”.
I’ve been playing the guitar for roughly three years…It’s a work in progress and it’s tough and I practise every day. I try and take lessons here and there when I have time. I consider myself a decent guitar player but there’s so much more I want to be able to do. For anyone who wants to play anything or who wants to pick up an instrument, all I can say is ‘Do not give up!’ because it’s difficult and you need perseverance for it. While we find a solution or cure or whatever is needed to take care of the COVID situation, I’m just gonna practise – practise makes perfect!”.
“[I volunteer with] an organisation called Freilich, [which] means ‘joy’. Basically, I go visit sick people and sing and play guitar for them…to cheer them up…We used to go to the hospitals before COVID and cover the ward but, now, we have to meet the specific patient outside…I’ve been very busy with it, unfortunately, it’s tough times…We try to bring joy to other people, that’s what we do. We do it because we believe that we’re here to help the community”.
THE MEANINGS OF LIPA’S MUSIC
Lipa explains that the main purposes of music in his life are to worship Hashem [God; literally ‘the Name’], to bring joy to himself and others, and to serve the Chassidic community.
“I find [music] very, very therapeutic…Music adds so much to everything. Imagine a wedding without music! Image driving in the car to London without music. It’s one of those things that we take for granted, like colours, like everything else…I like it so much I do it as a job and it’s a job that I really enjoy doing. I just enjoy making people happy”.
“In the [Chassidic] world, we don’t [usually] do music in our actual shul, in our prayer rooms. But, [outside of] this, music can contribute towards your prayers, it can make you pray better. It all depends on the setting and it depends on the person…Some people need complete silence when they pray but, for other people, music actually helps them bring out their prayers and gives them a deeper emotional feeling when they are praying”.
A prime example of how these purposes coalesce in Lipa’s music is his role in the קוּמְזִיץ [kumzits]. This word literally translates as ‘come and sit’, from the Yiddish ‘קום [kum][come]’and ‘זיץ [zits][sit]’. It refers to a Chassidic musical gathering, where participants gather to share a musical and spiritual collective experience, as well as a body of repertoire that is performed at such events. In accordance with traditions of tzniut [modesty], at most kumzits, while men and women can both join the event, only men are permitted to perform. The music comprises expressive songs, often by celebrated Chassidic singers such as Reb Shlomo Carlebach, with religious texts, drawn from the Book of Psalms, sections of the Chumash [the printed Torah], festival prayers or other Jewish scripture. Lipa points to Reb Shaya’la of Kerestir, a legendary mystical rabbi who used to ‘welcome hundreds of people around his table’ and invite them to sing together and accept each other with love, as an inspirational figure in this world. At the kumzitsim, Lipa sings songs mainly in Hebrew, but he sometimes sings in Yiddish or English and his singing and guitar are usually accompanied by a small acoustic ensemble, often a percussion, bass and a melody instrument, like a flute, clarinet or violin.
“Kumzits is basically very common in [Chassidic] circles…In Israel, you’ll find this guy sitting with a guitar on the steps in the old city and people will just come and sit down and sing with him. He will say ‘come and sit’ and that is where the word ‘kumzits’ comes from. It’s basically just people coming together, sitting down and singing”.
“Basically, [kumzits] is what I specialise in…I [organise] events where we just sit and sing…We sit there and play music, light some candles, eat some food…and sing slow, emotional songs for hours on end…[The people come because] it is soulful. Music is a language of the soul. If everyone is into it, it’s just a great, soulful singsong. In the kumzits, we’re trying to elevate singing to a spiritual thing. It’s not a party. The idea of it is to sing and enjoy the music and bring out something inside of you, and it brings something different in each person”.
Another context which demonstrates the integration of therapy, spirituality and collective joy in Lipa’s music is his performances in hospitals and care homes. In this case, Lipa uses music to help people in difficult and distressing situations by shedding some light into the darkness.
“I’ve seen the difference from the beginning of the visit to the end…You see people on their deathbeds, some literally have got terminal illness…But you see people frail and weak…who can’t move…sitting up in bed and clapping with smiles on their faces and singing along…It takes them out of their misery…It gives them a little bit of strength…It brings joy and it brings hope”.
CHASSIDIC MUSIC IN MANCHESTER
Lipa claims that, from his experiences as a performer, Chassidic music in Manchester is very much consistent with Chassidic music in all of the other places he has lived. He explains that the kumzits consists of a core repertoire of songs that are performed in a relatively similar fashion in Toronto, London, Israel, Manchester and beyond. Citing Mordechai Ben David, Lipa Schmeltzer and Joey Newcomb as examples, he indicates that his musical inspirations are international rather than local. Thus, he suggests, in contrast to many musicians in Manchester, his experiences of migration and of the city have had little influence on his music. For Lipa, the value of music appears to be less about expressing the self and its individual experiences and more about connecting with a collective Chassidic experience; it is less about bringing Manchester into the Chassidic world and more about creating a Chassidic world within Manchester.
“There’s just one genre of music that I have been listening to all my life, over and over again…I just haven’t been influenced by music ‘outside’. It’s not that I don’t think the music ‘outside’ this is not good – I’m sure it’s brilliant – it’s just never really been a part of my life…I don’t do music to get famous, I’m not looking for fortune and fame in this world…I do music for myself and to make my people happy…It’s for the people who are there, the people who call me up to perform, the people who appreciate [this] music”.
Lipa’s main concern for Chassidic music in Manchester is the impact of COVID. National and regional lockdowns have meant that events like the kumzitsim have not been able to take place for months and most other events involving music in the community have also had to be placed on hold. Although Lipa has attempted to continue working using communication technology where possible, he feels that this fails to achieve the atmosphere of togetherness and spirituality that comes from singing while physically being together.
“COVID has been extremely tough. Obviously, I’ve not been having as many performances and [we cannot do] the kumzits. I do get a lot of Zoom requests, but I don’t really like doing it, simply because you don’t get the feedback. As a musician, you want people singing with you. Let’s hope that this will be over soon, but as the famous saying goes ‘Man thinks and God laughs!’”.
SHEVA BRACHOS PERFORMANCE (SEE VIDEO)
In this video, Lipa and a small group of musicians are performing a song about Shabbat by Reb Shlomo Carlebach at an event as part of the Sheva Brachos [Seven Blessings] wedding rituals.
“Sheva Brachos is, when we get married, we do a party every night for the seven days afterwards for the bridge and groom made by different friends or family. It’s like a dinner and you have a band. [This performance] was on the Saturday night. The song I was singing is about Shabbos. When we take out Shabbos, we make a special blessing called Havdalah to take us out to the day of holiness from a regular day in the week. The song I was singing basically illustrates that transition to Shabbos”.
HALLEL FOR ROSH CHODESH (SEE AUDIO)
In this recording, Lipa and members of his community are singing a song of praise for Rosh Chodesh [Beginning of the Month; literally ‘Head of the New Moon’].
“On Rosh Chodesh, we do a special prayer called hallel…We say it on festivals, like Sukkot or Pesach, and we say it every month once a month for Rosh Chodesh…[The words] come from different parts of [the Book of] Psalms…It’s a prayer, a song of praise to Hashem [God]. It’s saying thanks for the month past and the month to come. That’s one prayer that it’s possibly accepted to bring your instrument and do it with music!”.