Calming Tunes for Stormy Days

The album’s arranger, Moshe Laufer, and vocalist Avraham Fried were both excited about the songs

Some relaxing music, a few moments of peace — a welcome break from an ongoing, unsettling coronavirus stalemate. The new Project Relax, sung by Avraham Fried with special guest child soloist, Shulem Brodt (a grandson of Reb Abish Brodt), offers an oasis of calm to house-bound, quarantine-fatigued fans.

The albums in Yochi Briskman’s Project Relax series are compilation albums, usually focused on current songs reworked with a soothing sound. The song selection, an expert’s pick, is the domain of Yochi Briskman. He’ll usually choose a mix of relaxing songs from the past few years’ releases, and will generally throw in one or two classics.

“I sometimes hear a song and just know I want to feature it on a collection. Then, when we get closer to preparing another Project Relax, I actively sift through new releases, searching for great material,” he explains.

The album’s arranger, Moshe Laufer, and vocalist Avraham Fried were both excited about the songs. “I have to thank Yochi for introducing me to beautiful new material, not all of which I was familiar with,” says Fried.

The vintage Bobover song “Hein Babikah” was Avraham Fried’s one and only pick for the album. “Yochi invited me to sing, but he prepared every detail for me in advance,” says Fried. “The songs were chosen, Moshe Laufer’s arrangements were ready, he had a guide demo with a young vocalist singing the medleys, and all the choir vocals and the child soloist parts were specified. I didn’t listen to how the original artists who made these songs famous sang — I like to give the songs my own interpretation, my own expression.”

But he did get to choose one song himself. “I chose ‘Hein Babikah,’ a Bobover song composed by the Kedushas Tzion of Bobov zy”a, and we sang it at home. My father was a Bobover chassid who became close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe when my parents moved to Crown Heights, where the Bobover Rebbe ztz”l had a shtibel, and where my father worked in the administration of the United Lubavitcher Yeshivos for 40 years. We were all raised in Lubavitch mosdos, but he was a Bobover, through and through,” Fried says.

In this latest Project Relax collection, the vintage chassidish songs are sung with the pronunciation of their original releases (“Hein Babikah” and “Irim Vetimim” for example), and Fried says he enjoyed getting back to the warm feel of the Eastern-European chassidish pronunciation, which is how he grew up. “In my home, we still sing zemiros like my father did, so that comes very naturally to me.”

When it came to “Abba,” the popular single Fried recorded with Ari Hill, and Ishay Ribo’s “Halev Sheli,” Fried felt that, in the spirit of the rest of the album, these songs needed Yiddish lyrics to round out the album’s heimishe feel (the original “Abba” has a Yiddish chorus, but Fried attached new Yiddish lyrics to the beginning as well). He penned the lyrics himself— a touch of chassidish warmth and mameh-lushen crossing genres to somehow meld Ribo’s Israeli soul music to Hershy Rottenberg’s Yiddish “Kadeish,” the selection that follows.

“I felt this disc was so warm, so hartzig, that it’s really an album of tefillos, and I found myself davening as much as singing,” Fried says. “Ishay’s ‘Halev Sheli’ is such a profound prayer for connection, but I thought, is it in the spirit of this album to sing it in Ivrit?” (The Yiddish words are like a peirush on the original — “Hashem, You have the key to unlock my heart.” It’s an explicit bakashah to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, just so there shouldn’t be any confusion. In the original, Hashem is alluded to poetically but not specifically mentioned.)

In a sense, arranging a collection album is easier than writing music for fresh songs, but the challenge lies in the transitions, as the music has to segue smoothly between different songs and keys. In the expert hands of Yochi Briskman and Moshe Laufer, the music switches seamlessly between styles and keys, from songs like “Hein Babikah” to Baruch Levine’s “Shalom Rav,” all the while keeping the listener moving along the journey.

Fried has sung with Yochi Briskman’s orchestra at countless weddings over the years, but this is the first time they’ve collaborated on a CD. Moshe Laufer was the arranger of many early Fried albums, but it’s also been a while since they worked together, so there was a sense of newness to the project. But the real sense of that was anchored during the album’s final weeks. The last stages of the recording were done under COVID conditions, with Fried having to keep a safe distance from the engineer in a nearly empty, sterilized studio, faces masked until the mic was ready. “I always say thank you to the Ribbono shel Olam that I am able to be mesameiach Yidden,” says Fried, “but if I was able to give Yidden a bit of chizuk during this time, then I feel especially deep gratitude.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 813)

Project Relax
Avraham Fried