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The Chevra A Cappella
Country Yossi Magazine April 2002

Some things just seem to defy logic. Take the Chevra, for instance. There have always been certain immutable truths that dictate the course of Jewish music: Aspiring young vocalists have to work their way up the ladder to success slowly and deliberately. They need to establish themselves in the industry before they can consider attempting a concert performance. And their debut album will likely be delegated to the very bottom of the charts - at least until they get

 
seriously noticed.

Then came the Chevra. And with one sweeping, definitive album, they've managed to shatter all the myths of Jewish music forever. In the few months since the Chevra's first album has been released, it has dared to defy all expectations. The new immutable truth is simply this: The Chevra is now considered the fastest selling album in Jewish music history.

There are those among us who are not a bit surprised. "I pretty much predicted that the response to the Chevra would be tremendous," says Larry Gates, premier mixer of Jewish music albums. He ought to know. He's worked with the greatest and the best, and he has a keen and attentive musical ear. "It's a fresh sound to the Jewish market," Larry explains. "It's what people really want to hear."

Eli Gerstner is the creative musical genius behind the Chevra. Ask him to explain the Chevra's amazing success, and he'll simply say that it's "siyata dishmaya."

Come on, Eli. You make it sound so easy. As if it were no big deal to create a song like "Yehai," with such universal appeal that it can be chanted gleefully by young children, while its deeper message of ultimate peace granted by the Ribono Shel Olam can be appreciated by everyone else. And while "Yehai" has become something of a banner song for our community these days, it represents only the tip of the vast and elaborate iceberg known as the Chevra.

Most of us haven't yet had an opportunity to catch our breath since the release of the Chevra's first album. What with their sold-out concert appearances in Brooklyn, in Teaneck and in Los Angeles and their posters turning up on lampposts virtually everywhere, we're all thoroughly Chevra-ized by now. But Eli Gerstner is nothing if not determined, resourceful and ambitious. As he puts it, "When you love something this much, nothing can stop you." So just when you thought it was safe to play something other than "Yehai" on the family stereo, he presents us with the Chevra's stunning new a cappella album.

You may recall the a cappella selection on the Chevra's first album. Then again, you may not. The song sounds so rich and so melodious that you hardly realize the instruments aren't there. But there were many Chevra fans who actually enjoyed that a cappella song more than any other. They thought it truly did justice to the Chevra's outstanding harmonious sound. So they approached Eli and asked him for more.

Nobody enjoys a challenge better than Eli Gerstner, and a cappella represents one of the great challenges in music. Think about it. Instrumentation serves to enrich the music and liven up the songs on any album. It can also effectively conceal any flaws or imperfections in a song. In a cappella music, the voices have nowhere to hide. They are presented to the listener in all their vibrant glory. Multiple harmonies are the key to powerful a capella. Music like this has got to be good.

In the Chevra's new album, the result is a dreamy and vibrant mélange of music that delights the senses. Eli and the Chevra take advantage of some clever hi-tech musical tricks to enhance the sound even further. There are actually several songs like "Mimkomocho," that are sung by Eli alone. When you hear them, you'll think you're listening to an entire choir.

This new album is a musical tribute to Shlomo Carlebach. All of the songs are Reb Shlomo's creations, only they are redefined here for the 21st century. Carlebach usually sang solo. Yet his rich cache of songs generously lend themselves to multiple harmonies. Or, as some would say, "This album is Carlebach Gerstnerized."

And yet all the warmth and the inspiration that defines the best of Carlebach remains vibrant and alive in this album. "Elecho," the theme song of the baby boomer generation, is presented herein in a delightful, digitized version. Carlebach invented the beautiful timeless melody. The Chevra elevated it to new heights. "Shifchi," "Nachamu," "Onoh HaSHem", and "Simcha L'Artzecha" are just a few of the Carlebach favorites that are found in this album.

It's important to note that Yisroel Lamm arranged several songs on this album. Yisroel enjoys the Chevra's "fresh, innovative, youthful sound" and considers Eli "one of the brightest new talents of this generation." You might think that somebody like Yisroel, who's conducted symphony orchestras with hundreds of musicians, wouldn't bother with a cappella. But this album represents a special challenge for Yisroel as well. "Yisroel does hundreds of songs every year with lots of music," Eli points out. "Suddenly he's confronted with just four voices." Not surprisingly, these four voices begin to sound just like an entire symphony. And Yisroel portrays the very same musical inspiration with these voices as he does in all of his work.

"Eli Gerstner and the Chevra Sing A Cappella" will be available before Pesach. Just in time for seifrah, right? Well, yes. But that doesn't mean this is a sefirah album in the usual sense. There's nothing about this album that suggests it should be designated for a certain time and specific use. It shouldn't be. The album is universally appealing and timeless. It can be listened to at any opportunity and all year long. These are wonderful and inspiring kumzitz songs to be enjoyed at times of reflection, times of celebration and times of chizuk.

Chevra fans will be delighted to discover that this album represents a different venue. You'll detect a more mature, more mellow, more soulful Chevra in these songs. The album allows us to appreciate the broader spectrum of musical potential that this talented foursome can successfully achieve. It serves as a tribute to their outstanding versatility.

It isn't easy to be a member of the Chevra. The hours are long and relentless. Eli is the consummate perfectionist. He will record the same line 200 times until he thinks it's just right. He will schedule round-the-clock practice sessions before a concert performance. He will also make sure to leave no stone unturned in creating the most powerful dramatic musical sound.

When Donny, Dovid, Avi and David joined the Chevra, they each had a dream. They wanted to pursue their passion for beautiful music. They had no idea at the time that their music would be so widely appealing, that they'd suddenly become instant celebrities. That takes some time getting used to. Avi recalls the time a 6-year-old grabbed his legs and wouldn't let go. Dovid is still wondering why everyone stares at him when he comes to shul in the morning. David says that people peek into the windows of his fathers' restaurant to point him out to their friends. And Donny is amazed at the hundreds of people who ask for his autographs after a concert performance.

But there are moments which each of the Chevra's members will cherish forever. Rewarding and inspiring moments that make it all a dream come true. Like the developing bonds of friendship that Avi says is pulling the Chevra closer together day by day. Like the e-mails that Dovid received telling him that many Jewish youngsters have stopped listening to secular music because they prefer the Chevra. Like the autistic child who was introduced to Donny and proudly recited the exact order of every single song on the Chevra's album. And like the awesome feeling that David describes as "goosebumps" that results when an album emerges more polished, more refined, and more wonderful than any of them ever thought possible.

Music has always been the great unifying factor that brings Klal Yisroel together. The feedback that has flooded the Chevra's Web site reflects their music's infinite appeal. Eli talks about the Midwestern community that recently contacted him, interested in the Chevra appearing at their Temple. "We don't know the meaning of the words on your album," they told Eli, "But we're very much inspired by your music." (Eli obliged them by sending them an English translation of all the songs.) This secular community discovered the Chevra's music in a local Judaica store. It has made a tremendous impact. Who can tell where this spark of discovery will lead?

While the Chevra may or may not end up performing in this Midwestern town, one thing's for sure. They are certainly collecting considerable mileage. Invitations to perform at concerts are pouring in from all over the world. They are currently scheduled to travel all around the country, as well as to other countries like England and Eretz Yisroel. Meanwhile their album is still selling briskly. Says Izzy of Sameach Distributor, "it's my pleasure to have the Chevra as part of the Sameach family. This group is loaded with energy, and their style is unlike anyone else's. My compliments to Eli for his talent in composing, arranging, and producing the Chevra."

Eli is gratified by the Chevra's success. But he hasn't got the time to dwell on it. He's already creating yet another album called "Menucha" - featuring a talented group of vocalists who are nothing like the Chevra, except their music promises to be every bit as refreshing and entertaining. But more about that later. Meanwhile, Jewish music lovers are advised to gear up for the Chevra a la a cappella. Take your time enjoying this innovative and outstanding album because the Chevra will be with us, G-d willing, for a long time to come.

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