Congregation Beth Tefillah members Helene and Michael Kates make up the Baal Shem Tones, one of the most prolific duos in American Jewish music. The husband and wife are attempting to reach unexplored territory with their new album, “8 Songs for Children.”
The album, set for release Sunday, Oct. 4, blends the duo’s storytelling with topics that should interest parents and children alike. From the warm thunder of South African drums in “Oh Shabbos Come In” to the soft, sweet lullaby “Hashkiveinu,” the Baal Shem Tones’ newest album is a fun journey around the word with Jewish music.
The Kateses talked to the AJT about their music, influences and album.
AJT: Tell me about your Oct. 4 CD release party/concert?
Helene: It’s a family concert, and it’s free, Sunday, Oct. 4, at the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody. At 10 a.m. there’s a caterpillar puppet-making workshop, followed by a concert at 10:30.
AJT: Sounds like it’s going to be a very kid-friendly show. Why caterpillar puppets?
Michael: Great question. It will all be made clear on Oct. 4.
AJT: Interesting. Have you always been focused on children’s music?
Helene: Well, this is our third CD, but the first one specifically for children.
Michael: Writing songs for kids sort of comes naturally when you have a bunch of grandchildren running around, and we both teach music in Jewish schools. Most of the songs began as improvisations, and kids would contribute ideas for lyrics. Over time you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
AJT: How did you get into the Jewish music scene?
Helene: Ah, well, that’s a whole megillah in itself. I have memories of being pushed in the stroller for the mile walk from Temple Sholom in Brooklyn, New York, for the High Holidays. I can still smell the crisp tallit as my dad took it out of his tallis bag. I remember the feel of the tzitzit as I would play with them wrapping them around my index fingers, and with each year as I learned the aleph bet and the melodies for the prayers, I began to sing from my seat, harmonize along with the cantor, who encouraged my parents to take me out of public school and send me to a Jewish day school. My parents didn’t think that was such a good idea, but somewhere inside me that passion kept alive, and I think it has a lot to do with how I ended up writing Jewish music.
AJT: What’s next for the Baal Shem Tones?
Helene: We’ll be touring to support the CD, of course, and we have new material to record. We have a Purim show based on parodies of Mardi Gras songs. We debuted that show in New Orleans. I can’t wait for people to hear that.
Michael: Then we have Chanukah with Johnny Gelt.
AJT: Johnny Gelt?
Michael: Yes. He’s the greatest Jewish country-western singer of all time. He wears only black and performs with his wife, Juneleh (laughs).
Helene: One night we started singing Chanukah songs in the styles of other singers, like Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Michael started singing like Johnny Cash. So it turns out that “I Have a Little Dreidel” and “Folsom Prison Blues” were a perfect fit.
Michael: The next few weeks after that, Peter Allard and I knocked out six more parodies, all Johnny Cash songs, all based on Chanukah.
Helene: We also have a lot of songs that aren’t outwardly Jewish that we’ve never put on an album. They’re Jewish in the sense that they reflect our thoughts and feelings, and we happen to be religious Jews, but the songs don’t have specifically Jewish themes.
AJT: Who are some of your musical influences?
Michael: Too many to list.
Helene: Billie Holiday. Um, Little Feat.
Michael: You can just put down those two. They about sum it up, oddly enough
Who: The Baal Shem Tones
What: “8 Songs for Children” CD release party
Where: Marcus JCC, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody
When: 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 4