Healing through music

Healing through music

Nefesh Mountain’s Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg consider hate – and love

Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg are Nefesh Mountain.
Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg are Nefesh Mountain.

My short call with Montclair songwriters Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, the husband-and-wife team who founded the progressive bluegrass band Nefesh Mountain, reminds me that music heals.

The wound comes from the outside world. The band’s Facebook page is filled with daily reminders that Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel is unspeakable and unacceptable. One post reads: YOUR JEWISH FRIENDS ARE NOT OK.

“The deluge of radical antisemitic messages we’re hearing on the news or reading on social media are a nightmare,” Mr. Lindberg said. “While it would be easy to react in kind, we choose not to succumb to the negative energy that’s out there.” Ms. Zasloff agreed. “The love emanating from our audiences is real,” she said. “We can feel it at our shows.”

According to an October 26 poll by the ADL, there’s been a 388% rise in antisemitic incidents since October 7, when Hamas terrorists butchered 1,400 Israelis, compared to the same time last year. But Mr. Lindberg and Ms. Zasloff still believe that “there is goodness.

“While it’s been hard to be a musician throughout the past few weeks, I’ve had to force myself to perform,” Ms. Zasloff said. Despite their concerns about how silent the music community has been since October 7, Nefesh Mountain insists on sharing a voice of reason, compassion, and love. “We hope to bring community and light to those whose hearts, like ours, are breaking,” she added.

The band’s name, Nefesh, Hebrew for “soul” or “life,” celebrates the couple’s background and faith.

Ms. Zasloff (vocals) and Mr. Lindberg (vocals, guitar, and banjo) have been performing live as Nefesh Mountain since 2014, playing to more than 100 audiences a year since then; in June 2021, Rolling Stone called the group a “powerhouse unit.” Mr. Lindberg and Ms. Zasloff made their debut at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2021. “Since the band’s beginnings, we have celebrated American music,” Mr. Lindberg said. “Our shows are geared to people of all backgrounds.”

Mr. Lindberg, a Brooklyn native and multi-instrumentalist, has been playing the guitar since he was a kid but became hooked on the banjo about eight years ago. “I’ve been inspired by Pat Metheny, the Grateful Dead, Bela Fleck, Dire Straits, Phish, and Woody Guthrie,” he said.

Mr. Lindberg is also a fan of the legendary Pete Seeger, whose banjo accompanied him everywhere. The words inscribed on Seeger’s banjo, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” made Mr. Lindberg consider what he might put on his own banjo someday. “I’ve written a twist on Seeger’s message,” he said. “Mine will read: ‘This machine surrounds hate and transforms it into love.’”

Ms. Zasloff is from Philadelphia. She has toured both locally and internationally as a children’s musician. A three-time winner of the Parent’s Choice award, Ms. Zasloff was also honored with the Simcha award by the International Jewish Music Festival in the Netherlands. “I began performing children’s music when my two teenagers, Millie and Xander, were small,” she said. “But I’ve moved toward making music for adults.” While she believes there are no firm boundaries between children and adults in music, or any art, her music has evolved as her children have grown.

Ms. Zasloff and Mr. Lindberg also have a young daughter, Willow, who was born during the pandemic and travels with them to all their shows.

Nefesh Mountain’s eclectic blend of Jewish Americana, bluegrass, folk, and jazz emerged in 2015 with its first album, “Nefesh Mountain.” Since then, the group has recorded three more albums: “Beneath the Open Sky,” “Songs for the Sparrows,” and “Live from Levon Helm Studios,” with a changing roster of musicians known for their deft skills on mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, drums, and bass. Mr. Lindberg and Ms. Zasloff primarily write and perform original work. They draw inspiration from a wide range of influences, including American roots music that appeals to all audiences in its ability to speak to and of the human condition.

“With the goal of promoting fellowship and togetherness among people of all backgrounds, our band’s message of unity is more important than ever,” Ms. Zasloff said.

Since Nefesh Mountain began, Ms. Zasloff and Mr. Lindberg have been proudly open and vocal about their background as Jewish Americans. “It hasn’t always been smooth sailing,” Ms. Zasloff said. “There are radio stations who’ve chosen not to play our songs, blatantly telling us that ‘our audiences would not appreciate, understand, or be interested in your music.’

“Some tour organizers won’t invite us to their festivals, knowing we sing in Hebrew and might talk about Jewish stuff.”

Nefesh Mountain’s songs are mainly in English but they include some Hebrew. Ms. Zasloff’s haunting voice, accompanied by Mr. Lindberg’s polished harmonies and skilled banjo playing, offer listeners a chance to honor beloved bluegrass, blues, and folk tunes while opening their hearts to traditional Jewish music.

The group’s newest original song, “The Narrow Bridge,” first was recorded on the second of its five albums, “Beneath the Open Sky”; it was released again this month with new instrumentation. “We actually covered ourselves,” Mr. Lindberg said. “We’re hoping the re-release brings a new voice to a new time.”

Based on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Nefesh Mountain believes this version of “The Narrow Bridge,” or “Gesher Tzar Meod” in Hebrew, offers its listeners a soulful song of love and healing. The lyrics say that “the whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is to have no fear at all.”

“Rabbi Nachman’s wise and relatable messages have inspired some of our songs,” Ms. Zasloff said.

Mr. Lindberg notes that this year has been a turning point for the band. “We’ve opened up our instrumentation to give us more creative breadth to express ourselves,” he said.

“The Cabin Sessions,” which will be released in February 2024, includes seven tracks — some original works and some covers. The album, a year and a half in the making, was recorded during three days in East Nashville. “Unlike our previous work, which was mainly acoustic, we stretched our musical talent,” Mr. Lindberg said. “Playing loose and raw, with extended jam sessions and interplay, we improvised on covers by the Allman Brothers and Wilco.

“We moved from a strictly string band to include new sounds, adding electric guitar and drums to our collaboration.

“We’ve covered Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel hit, ‘Keep Your Lamp(s) Trimmed and Burning,’ as a fierce reminder to stay strong during adversity,” he added.

Nefesh Mountain has debuted a few of its new tracks throughout their 2023 tour, but since October 7 it has tempered the set list, intentionally leaving out the livelier dance tunes. “We’ve held off on playing our cover of the Allman Brothers classic ‘Revival’ — the first tune the band has played with drums,” Mr. Lindberg said.

“Our goal throughout this tour is to honor and respect all of the beautiful and innocent souls who’ve been harmed in the wake of this war,” Ms. Zasloff added. “All of the shows we’ve done since October 7 have been healing.” Within a week of the attacks, the band performed in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, at both Jewish and general venues. “At the JCC in Milwaukee, I burst out crying at the end of our rendition of ‘Oseh Shalom,’” Ms. Zasloff said.

After an encore for their concert at the Weitzman Museum in Philadelphia, Ms. Zasloff and Mr. Lindberg jumped off the stage to talk with the audience. “Everyone was hugging and crying, expressing their feelings and reactions to the attack on Israel,” she said.

What was originally planned as a Q&A about the band and how it got started turned into something different. “We realized we had more Q’s than A’s,” Ms. Zasloff said. “The audience needed to talk about what was happening now — the band’s details were secondary.”

As exhausting as it is to travel and perform amid so much uncertainty, the pair feel it’s their duty to continue to put out music. “Eric and I are scared,” Ms. Zas-loff said. “But so is everyone else.”

Nefesh Mountain sees those who have been victims of hate as a “small and mighty people to be looked at with empathy and love.”

“Our performances since October 7 have been pretty intense,” Ms. Zasloff said. “We’ve suddenly realized we’re not doing our normal show — no upbeat dancing, no joyful celebrating.” Reeling from the daily news reports, the duo has been running on what they describe as “raw nerves.” They ended a concert at the Milwaukee JCC, played to a mostly Jewish audience, with “Tree of Life,” a song the band wrote the day after the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue which occurred five years ago in Pittsburgh. “Everyone was holding hands and crying as they sang along,” Ms. Zas-loff said. “It was a beautiful symbol of our collective quest for peace.”

The band’s show in Madison, Wisconsin, turned into a Facebook and Instagram live event. “We knew our fans needed connection, so we made a quick decision in the car and told our fans on social media to tune in,” Ms. Zasloff said. “We opened our hearts to them.”

Understanding that they are continuing to make music during a dark, unsettling, and chaotic time, Nefesh Mountain’s goal is to spread love, light and positivity. “We want people to come together,” Mr. Lindberg said. “We are human beings celebrating the values of diversity, love and inclusion.”

Nefesh Mountain will perform twice next month in the metropolitan area. It will be at SOPAC in South Orange on Friday, December 15, at 8 p.m.; go to www.sopacnow.org. On Sunday, December 17, at 6:30 p.m., it will be at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village; go to www.lpr.com.

Portions of both the band’s new EP, “The Cabin Sessions,” and its 2023 tour will be donated to humanitarian relief. Go to www.nefeshmountain.com for more information.

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