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Expanded Sound

The Berko brothers — Shea and Avrumi — are pushing their music, and themselves, to new frontiers

 

Photos: Skystudio

 

The subtitle for this article should really be something like, “Why I’m listening to eighteen-year-old bochurim and doing it their way.”

It’s not an expression of defeat, or submission, but more like an experiment to connect the dots of half-sentences and shrugs.

It started at a chasunah over a year ago. I found myself surrounded by a group of bochurim who wanted to talk Mishpacha and I was like “go read about spies and SWAT teams,” but they kept at it and wanted to know which musical figure we planned to feature in the next Yom Tov magazine.

I didn’t answer, but my interest was piqued. We all know the biggest names in the industry, and we’ve already covered most of them, so I was curious who they would want to read about.

The unofficial spokesman of the group, with thick peyos and glasses a bit too small for his face, told me in that teenager way that’s part over-confidence and part no confidence at all, to cover someone chal, not “some guy who’s a hundred and fifty years old and my parents get all excited about.”

I took a deep breath. Hey, this kid was talking about legends. Tread carefully, little boy.

I asked who they would want to read about.

This was easy. A few of them answered in unison: “The Berko brothers — Avrumi and Shea Berko.”

Now the boys were getting animated, desperate for me to understand. One of them, a chassidishe bochur in a double-breasted suit jacket, found a way to convey it. “Listen, it’s like this.”

He spoke slowly, like a seasoned salesman making a pitch he knows to be effective. “You know how you have cousins’ weddings and you don’t really want to go and your mother makes you, so you shlep over and make sure to wish mazel tov to Zeidy and Babby and leave?”

Okay, maybe.

“But if the Berkos are there, you leave yeshivah at 5:30 to get there for the kabbalas panim, because you don’t want to miss it, you know?”

This was an argument I had to take seriously. So who were the Berko brothers? I had heard their name, but I wasn’t sure what they did. Sing? Play? Both?

The kids filled me in a bit, and I started making inquiries. What I heard —from people older and much more experienced than my teenage advisors — was that the boys were right.

So this article, one might say, isn’t about where Jewish music has been or even where it is, but where it’s going.

Read the Crowd

Tefillah, in the Hungarian Oberland, wasn’t just about nusach and it wasn’t just about melody: it was about blending the two, matching the correct text to the correct tune and vice versa. The Vienner kehillah in America was formed as a place where that holy tradition would continue, and in the Boro Park shul that was its home, the chazzan was charged not just with leading tefillah, but with holding that torch high.

Chazzan Berl Berko filled the large shul with notes that were both holy and pleasant. And as he sang, his five sons stood within a few feet of the raised bimah, singing along. The song didn’t end once they left shul.

During those childhood years, the early 1990s, their grandfather, Reb Chaim Moshe Berko, was still alive. The boys would look on as he sang “Rachem B’chasdecha” on Leil Shabbos, tears flowing down his cheeks. “He was a Holocaust survivor, and he’d seen loss, but he wasn’t a big crier,” says Avrumi. Once a week his emotion showed, and it showed us the power of a niggun.”

There was something else in the air of the Viener shul that would prove important later on. Vien is a kehillah rooted in minhagei Ashkenaz, but over time, it overlapped and even merged with the chassidic community, taking on the colors and hues of chassidus.

The Berko brothers — products of the Viener approach and atmosphere — would reflect this ability to blend in. They’re capable of playing the New York Hilton one night and V’Yoel Moshe the next, producing sound that envelops the room, regardless of its decor. “The Berkos read a crowd like you can read a newspaper headline,” says Binyomin Rotbart, manager at the Fountain Ballroom in Lakewood. “You watch them take in the people and zone in — and they respond perfectly.”

The brothers — numbers four and five in a family of eight children — grew up listening to music as more than just a leisure activity. “We listened like critics, really into it, and we listened to everyone,” Shea reflects, “but if there was one clear influence, maybe it was Miami, something about Yerachmiel Begun’s harmonies. They were a different level.”

And if giving a tutorial, he starts explaining it to me. “Most people go for the high harmony, above the melody, and it’s beautiful, but Yerachmiel chapped that a low harmony creates a more wholesome sound, it lets the melody shine in a different way, it touches you differently.”

In yeshivah, musical doors opened for the brothers as well.

Shea, four years older than Avrumi, learned under Rav Shmelka Leifer. “He was considered more progressive in the sense that he encouraged boys to play sports, which, at the time, was revolutionary, yet he didn’t actively encourage music. But when there was an opportunity for music, at a Melaveh Malkah or something, my friends pushed me to sing, they saw I enjoyed it. It gave me confidence.”

One of those friends got married and he wanted Shea Berko, who had never sung at a wedding before, to sing at the wedding. “He offered to pay me, but it was laughable, I wasn’t a wedding singer.”

But Shea took the mic just the same and when he recalls that night, he shares a telling detail. “It was in Milwaukee, so I made sure to sing the niggunim of the Milwaukee Rebbe, they’re great.”

He starts drumming on his knee and singing, “Vekabtzeinu yachad, yachad meheirah.”

He had read his crowd and found the way to reach them: He would never stop.

Avrumi Berko learned in the Vizhnitz-Monsey yeshivah. “I still remembered the bechinah by the Rebbe, Rav Mottele. It was awe-inspiring. He asked me on Bava Kama and I couldn’t open my mouth to answer. I knew the answer, but I was frozen with fear.”

One of the high points of the week was the Thursday night zitz. “We would sit and sing Shabbos zemiros for an hour, and one of the Rebbe’s sons would come say Torah. It was very special.” Music is taken seriously in Vizhnitz, and at special times, they would ask Avrumi to bring his keyboard and play, allowing him to see up close how music is just part of a wider flow of inspiration.

Get Me to Dance

Shea got married, then Avrumi. Both speak of the years in kollel with the easy confidence of people who really “did” kollel — not just a waiting period for real life, but a goal. When they discuss the sugyos they learned and people they learned under, it’s evident that these details matter to them.

After several years in kollel, Shea took a step forward while working at the Tzeilimer summer camp, starting to lead kumzitzes and concerts. As his name got out, the requests to sing at simchahs increased. Not long after, Avrumi got married and he followed Shea’s suggestion that he take lessons in musical notation and music theory. He learned to write and arrange music as well.

Both brothers credit Gershy Moskowitz, a music-and-event producer, with propelling them forward. “He got our composition, “Rak Yomar,” on to Gertner’s first album. He thought we had what it takes, keeping us in the musical loop,” Avrumi comments.

We’re sitting in the basement studio of Avrumi’s Boro Park home. The wall is covered with pictures of the brothers and various singers and artists. (One picture depicts Avrumi Berko with Ben Zion Shenker, and when he sees me studying it, Avrumi does a perfect Shenker imitation: “So you want a selfie?” and I realize that the faultless impersonation isn’t the gift of a comedian, but of a musician. It’s the pitch that Avrumi captures so accurately.)

Shea indicates his younger brother. “Avrumi is more of a revolutionary than I am. I just sing. He’s recreated the frum world’s entire approach to sound, using technology.”

I’m trying to understand what Avrumi does and why it’s different from any other one-man band.

He tries valiantly to show me how someone “makes beats,” and he moves around in front of his large computer and keyboard, tapping keys with both hands like a celebrity chef doing a demo. He shows me how specific keys and half-keys complement the actual melody of a song, and how he keeps expanding the sound, by adding, subtracting and multiplying.

There is a method to when and how. “Look, I’ll play with the notes, switching majors to minors or experimenting with sevenths, at a wedding, but not at a formal performance,” Avromi explains. “And when I’m backing up the big ones, Mordche, Avremel, Shwekey, I go straight — they have their groove, the people want it a certain way. But if it’s a wedding singer who’s singing the same songs every night, he appreciates the chiddush, and the improvisation makes it more fun, the people enjoy it.

“Do you hear this?” he asks as what sounds like an airplane taking off fills the room. I do. “Now listen again.” He presses a button. The same sound, but this time cushioned by soft strings, the roaring effect serving as a rhythmic placeholder in an explosion of sound.

“A sound can be maneuvered and enhanced when used correctly,” he says. “With technology, the possibilities are endless. We’re having fun stretching every note as far as it can go.”

Along with playing solo, Avrumi leads a full band as well.

“There are people who prefer the one-man band sound, they like the additional shtick, but others appreciate the formality of a full band, so we get to switch around, night to night.”

The sound of a full band is obviously harder to coordinate than going at it alone, so Avrumi has developed a system. “All the musicians wear wireless earphones, of course, in which they hear the basic melody, and then they each have iPads in front of them, with the arrangement I wrote for each one to play.”

The pressure is real during a wedding, people throwing requests from all directions. It can’t be easy for the leader.

“I’ve learned that the key is to remain calm,” says Avrumi. “If I’m speaking into their earpieces in a calm voice, then it’s reflected in the music, they’re in good moods and you can hear it. Then, the music can work its magic.”

“Get me to dance,” I challenge the brothers from the comfortable depth of a small couch, and they look at each other for a long moment: Without words exchanged, Avrumi smiles and starts a classic Vizhnitz simchah tune.

The vibrations rise like steam from the keyboard, a cloud spreading across small room. Shea rocks back and forth as he sings: He’s not pretending that there is a crowd of hundreds, but still getting lost in the sound his brother is creating.

I know what they’re doing, because I recognize it from the night before.

The Song I Need

My wife wasn’t thrilled with the idea of my crashing a wedding, but hey, it’s part of the job.

It sounds clichéd to say the building was shaking, but I could hear the music from outside the V’Yoel Moshe hall in Williamsburg, and if it wasn’t actually shaking, it was certainly throbbing. I made my way to the men’s entrance and slipped in, the only person in a room of hundreds wearing a bend-down hat. But I wanted to experience what it is the Berko brothers do.

I noticed that though the brothers didn’t exchange more than a glance or gesture between songs, Shea knew where Avrumi was headed and Avrumi was harmonizing and doing backup for his older brother, seamlessly following his lead. At one point, Shea sang into the mic, as part of the lyrics, “Avrumi, G-minor.”

Even as he sang, Shea was interacting with the guests: a wave, a wink, a knowing smile. I watched the warm greeting conveyed to a thin young man with a wispy beard and as soon as I could, I cornered the gentleman pouring himself a cup of ginger ale. I asked if he was friendly with the Berko brothers and he looked at me in surprise. “They played at my wedding!” he said proudly.

“How long ago?” I asked.

“Almost three years ago.”

So turns out it’s a long-term contract type of thing. Hire the Berkos and you are now part of the network forever, eligible for smiles and waves.

Fountain Ballroom manager Binyomin Rotbart was sitting with the brothers at a recent wedding when a rosh yeshivah approached and introduced himself. “You don’t know me,” he explained, “but my bochurim all know you and talk about you, so I thought I would say hello.”

“We try to make it personal, not just for the crowd, but even for individuals in the crowd,” Avrumi tells me when we meet the following day, after I tell him about my conversation with his new friend the night before. “If I see someone sitting on the side, not taking part — even if it’s an older person — I take that as a personal challenge.”

At the wedding of the people I didn’t know, I experienced that dynamic, though it’s sort of hard to explain. At that point, they didn’t even know I was there watching them, and if they had noticed me, they hadn’t reacted. But there was a song I needed, though I didn’t know that either yet.

It had been a long drive from Montreal, passing through one hostile border with the knowledge that an even more hostile border (plus quarantine) awaited me when I went back home. It was just a few days to Purim, and while in Williamsburg life felt somewhat normal, in my hometown there was curfew, lockdown and restrictions. I brought that invisible burden with me into the hall, and was carrying it still when the Berkos started to play.

“Im al hamelech tov…” (by Meshulam Greenberger) they sang. And the way they play it is perfect — it’s a tefillah, but also a song of triumph and such boundless optimism. When Shea went in to the high part, “Im matzasi chein be’einecha,” he stopped before the word “hamelech” and pointed the microphone to the dancing bochurim, whose response was a roar — and I felt like he could read my heart and mind. It would be okay, the song was telling me.

When I mention this the next day, in the studio, Avrumi taps at the keyboard. “You caught the way we did a minor ‘tinosen li,’ yes?” he asks hopefully. “Usually on a G minor scale, it would usually be an E-flat major, but instead, we did an E-flat minor. People don’t always get that right away.”

I don’t know if I did or if I didn’t, but I do know how it made me feel.

Boosted by the Bochurim

The brothers don’t officially work together — many nights, they’re booked separately — but the aura is brightest when they’re side by side.

It’s Shea’s rhythmic dancing, Avrumi’s swaying along, as if they’re swimming in the same pool of sound. Even before you hear their music, the optics are arresting.

Which gives rise to a mildly uncomfortable topic: Have chassidim taken over the industry? A few months ago, a more litvishe singer cynically wondered on camera whether he’d have more bookings if he had “gekrazelte peyos” — and the video was passed around, a statement of sorts. How did that make the brothers feel? Were they hurt by the insinuation that it was style — swinging peyos and a better accent — driving their popularity rather than skill?

Shea isn’t surprised by the question. “I don’t agree with the premise. The more yeshivish or modern singers who have the talent and the energy, who really give it their all, have plenty of bookings. Obviously, the last year was difficult for everyone, with chasunahs moved to backyards and basements, so people weren’t investing in the same sort of sound, but in general, I’m not sure it’s true. Still, there are those who do prefer chassidim and I can hear that — most of the upbeat songs at a wedding are rooted in chassidishe courts, and when a singer feels it from inside, it sounds more personal. It doesn’t sound like something you had to learn, like you’re reading words from a paper, so maybe those clients appreciate a more natural sound.

“You know,” Shea continues, developing a thought, trying to find the words, “along with the obvious role models in this industry, the big names, the ones we grew up with, I keep hearing new singers, lesser known, some of them younger than me. The industry is thriving, baruch Hashem, and I think every singer — chassidish, litvish, Sephardi, whatever — adds his own “kneitch,” his innovation — and I love listening. There are so many great styles and ideas, a lot of talented people to learn from.”

Whether the gauge of the market is accurate or not, an industry insider remarks that what defies logic is how the Berko brothers grew in popularity while eschewing nearly all the conventional branding methods.

While Avrumi has been steadily producing his Simchas Hachaim albums, annual collections of hit songs, Shea hasn’t yet done a solo album. There was never the formal promo announcing their arrival, and neither ever performed at “the” concert that would proclaim them the real deal — so how did it happen? Where’s the missing link? How did two brothers, one “just” a singer, the other “just” a keyboard player, join to create a universe of their own?

They’ve catapulted to the top propelled by the buzz of bochurim, rather than careful strategizing. Shea laughs at the memory of a gig, an out-of-town wedding of the daughter of a renowned philanthropist. The baalei simchah had booked a full program of musical A-listers, but at the aufruf, the kallah’s father asked the chassan whether there was any additional singer and musician who would add to his simchah. The chassan shrugged. He was fine with the lineup, he said, but remembered great times in camp with the Berko brothers on Motzaei Shabbos Nachamu.

The generous shver booked Shea to come sing as well.

“I remember boarding the flight to that wedding and the looks of the big stars when I walked down the aisle to my seat. It was like, ‘Huh? You? Who are you?’”

Just over a year ago, Yaakov and Jenine Shwekey married off their oldest daughter. Many in the music industry kept one eye on their phones as they waited to see who would get the nod. The superstar mechutan went for Shea Berko.

“Look, the story of the Berko brothers starts with their neshamos,” Shwekey tells me. “Even before the music starts, they’re just good Yidden who sing in a Yiddishe way. But beyond that, the talent there is extraordinary. Avrumi has been using technology to keep pushing the limits of sound, he’s showing a million new ways to appreciate each note. He has taken entire sound libraries, and he molds them around our songs. And Shea has this great energy that boosts the whole room. He sounds like he’s enjoying it, which usually means that he is enjoying it. For both of them, it starts with loving what you do and then the people will love what you do.”

That the art comes from the enjoyment is clear from the way they answer one of my questions. I ask the brothers, who have played every hall — from chassidish yeshivah basement to upscale country club — which is their favorite.

They look at each other and smile. “Teumim Mesivta on Motzaei Shabbos Nachamu,” they tell me. “The vibes are just incredible. You have hundreds of bochurim who just finished the three weeks, they’re starved for music, and we get to be the ones to give it them. It’s one of our favorite gigs of the year.”

Make Me Feel It

But it’s not just making bochurim jump and dance.

“Shea Berko essentially introduced a new minhag,” says Binyomin Rotbart, “the mid-chasunah kumzitz. Deep in the second dance he takes the emotion to the next level, replacing the high of energetic dancing with slower songs. That’s when the bochurim gather around the chassan and really let themselves go.”

Shea has broadened these bochurim’s horizons too. “When it’s slow song time, other singers are like, Nafshi, Nafshi, Nafshi. But Shea’s in another zone: Miami, London Boys Choir, Carlebach. He and Avrumi know every lyric, every introduction and every arrangement.”

I get a taste of that mastery when I challenge the brothers to make me “feel,” to show me what Binyomin Rotbart is trying to describe.

Avrumi quickly knocks out the low part of “Kah Echsof,” Shea singing the words “Ribbono shel Olam hut shoin rachmanus oif Daineh kinderlach,” and it’s very pretty.

Then they start the song again, but this time it sounds like there’s a full band: Avrumi softly backing up Shea’s yearning notes, stretching the possibilities of the tune, but not in a way that distracts you from the song — just the opposite.

They get lost in an impromptu medley : “Ich Hub a Hartz,” Ishay Ribo’s “Avodah,” Shwekey’s “Im Eshkachech” (with a quick explanation from Shea on which key to use and why many singers mess up, starting too high, which forces them to soften the effect of the climax) — and I note that even though in conversation, Shea is more expressive, when they play, Avrumi speaks for himself, bypassing words to communicate his message.

In this basement studio, a few feet down from a cracked Boro Park sidewalk where small clumps of grayish snow sit awkwardly, waiting to be cleaned, cars parked bumper to bumper, there is a sense of expansiveness, of people and sound being stretched.

You watch them, these brothers, and you understand a bit about brothers, about music, about life.

The instrument, you see, can only meet its own potential when those standing beside it dream of meeting their own.

The most popular chuppah song:

One of the more requested niggunim is “Kah Echsof,” and it always works, I can sing it every night and it doesn’t get dry. The tzaddik who composed it, the Rebbe of Karlin, clearly gave it that brachah as well, that it would always reach Yiddishe hearts.

—Shea

The most emotional wedding I can remember:

Singing at family weddings is very emotional to me, because I see how my grandparents, who came to America alone and with nothing, created this large beautiful family — and it just reminds me that this is true for every chasunah at which I’m zocheh to sing. In my own family, I see it in front of my eyes, so it’s that much more powerful.

Not long ago, I sang at the chasunah of a kallah who’d lost her father. Under the chuppah, we sang “Tatteh, Tatteh” (originally recorded on Dveykus), and the emotion was high — people were crying freely, pain and heartbreak mixing with tefillah and gratitude. It was very profound.

—Shea

 

One morning, a dear friend of mine who was undergoing treatment called to remind me that I was meant to be driving him to Manhattan that day. I hadn’t written it down, so I wasn’t really prepared, but of course, I headed over and spent the day with him.

I was playing at a wedding in Williamsburg that night, and I arrived in the nick of time — but the person who usually helps with my equipment wasn’t around that night and I was on my own, shlepping the various pieces of equipment into the hall.

Then they told me the elevator was broken! I carried everything up the steps, piece by piece, and then, emotionally and physically drained, I started my night.

That wedding ended up being special. There was something tangible in the air — for weeks afterward, people would stop me and comment on the music that night. I felt like new doors had opened for me. I was broken by concern for my friend, exhausted, so depleted I feared I had nothing to give — and the music rose to another level.

—Avrumi

The most underappreciated instruments:

Trumpet, saxophone, and trombone. The musicians who play them are underpaid, too. In general, people are much more focused on the guitar and drums and don’t often realize that these instruments add to the sound. They also don’t realize how difficult it is to play them well.

—Avrumi

A song that works better in a completely different musical setting from the original:

There was a popular Stoliner niggun that Mordechai ben David sang to the words “Vesamachta B’chagecha.” People knew it and liked it but in the last year, it has shot up in popularity because Yoeli Klien and Shaya Gross re-released it with Yiddish lyrics, starting with Mizmor Lesodah and then segueing into, “Ki tov Hashem, veil der Aibishter iz git,” and it just resonated. It’s way more popular this way than it ever was before.

—Shea

The arranger who impacted us most:

When we grew up, there were three great arrangers — Moshe Laufer, Mona Rosenblum and Yisroel Lamm — and each one gave us something else. Laufer creates these very singable intros, like for “Samcheim,” or “Vehoyu Lemeshisa,” that become part of the song; it’s amazing how he does that. Mona creates messages, writing intros that set a tone, part of what the song is trying to convey. He adds interludes in the middle of the song, a chance to focus and feel that message. And Yisroel Lamm writes intros that aren’t at all singable, but they are so musical, using brass and strings to create a symphony, so that the music surrounds you and makes the song shine. Each of them is a chiddush.

—Shea and Avrumi

The second-dance staple that just won’t go away:

Chabad songs have this magic, they’ve been around and will be around. “Ey, Tzamah Tzamah” always works. “Rachamanah.” Every Lubavitcher fast niggun. They are upbeat and profoundly elevating, adding to the joy. They are here to stay.

—Shea

The song that brought a totally new direction to Jewish music:

Meilech Kohn’s “Ve’ahavta Lereiacha.” I’m not sure I can explain why, but something shifted in how songs sounded after that — it opened up new musical avenues.

—Shea

“Ve’afilu Behastara” changed the direction of songs to a much more plaintive, direct way of speaking about emunah and connection to Hashem. We’ve seen many of these songs since then, but to me, that was the first of a new genre.

—Avrumi

 

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)

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