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On a mission to preserve traditional Jewish music

Cohavit Gil

If you think you know a popular folk song played at Jewish weddings, musician Daniel Gil of Sharon wants you to hear “Hava Nagila, For Real”
— which happens to be the title of his latest CD.

It features songs from an archive that Gil said is the largest musical record of Jewish life in pre-World War I Eastern Europe, representing a part of Jewish civilization lost in the Holocaust.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” said Gil, 42. “I got access to the entire archive. I can’t say exactly how I got it, but I found a back door.”

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Around 1910, a group in imperial Russia, the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, sent out an expedition to record a variety of music from Jews living in the Pale of Settlement and beyond, Gil said. They used more than 1,000 wax cylinders in the project, and transcribed the music from them. That archive was lost for decades, he said, before ending up at a university in Ukraine.

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Gil, a Berklee College of Music graduate, regularly plays south of Boston, with recent stops including the Mansfield Public Library. In his shows, he incorporates some of the archival music. It’s his way, he said, to introduce to the world the “legacy of a lost people, the Eastern European Jews.”

He performs the 12 songs on the CD with various instruments, and it’s a varied collection, “not all one style,’’ he said. “The similarities are that they are very heavily focused on development of melody.”

“Hava Nagila,” or “let us rejoice,” is clearly the most famous. Gil said it was changed in the 1920s from a “nigun,” or a song without words, to the one recognized today.

“It was popular for Eastern European Jews to sing songs without words. Many in the archive were without words,” he said. “It’s interesting for audiences. I don’t use too many words; only two on the album have them.

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“The idea is to access the essence of the music,” he said. “No matter how good the words are, they can limit connection to the music itself. Most of these songs are in a spiritual environment, with the idea to connect with God and spirituality. Sometimes words get in the way.”

To hear samples of the music, visit www.jewsmusic.com. To order the CD, write Gil at dgilmusic@gmail.com.

PAUL E. KANDARIAN