We knew Chicago's Got Talent, but now it's official. Two local musicians used their words, their Voice -- and whatever X-Factor the judges needed to see -- and have been Idol-ized as "Jewish Stars." This month, their songs will debut worldwide.
These two musicians -- Marc Luban and Kenneth Lyonswright -- are two of the winners of the Jewish Stars talent contest held by Jewish Rock Radio (JRR), a Jewish-music streaming service. The contest's full official title is "Jewish Rock Radio's Jewish Star North American Talent Search," and it's a new competition designed to find outstanding musical talent in the Jewish community.
The two Chicagoans are among the seven Grand Prize winners of the contest. Luban was one of four in the 14-18 year-old bracket; Lyonswright was one of three winners among 19-26 year-olds.
"It's a great way to start having my songs go out into the world, to share my message and connect with people," Luban said. "Even if they never met me, they can understand me."
His message is captured by the title of his song: "Before They Say Please." The chorus goes, in part: "It's our sacred obligation… To help those in need/ Before they say please."
Luban -- a junior at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School -- began on piano, but taught himself guitar at age 14. Now, he also plays bass, banjo, ukulele, and accordion. He had written a half-dozen songs so far, all of which he says relate to Jewish values. Next, he is planning on setting Jewish liturgy to his own music.
"Whether or not you set out to write Jewish songs, they inherently have the beautiful melody of Jewish culture," he said.
Lyonswright, a Madison native, is a cantorial soloist with Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette. He completed his personal goal of writing a Jewish song a week for a year; his JRR submission, "Seek It Out," came from that songwriting marathon. The song is based on the verse "Justice! Justice shall you pursue!" from Deuteronomy.
As Lyonswright's song goes, "When I tell you, 'You can find truth and justice all around,'/ I bet you're gonna wanna seek it out."
While he usually accompanies himself on guitar, for the contest he played piano. His original instrument, however, was violin, which he has played since age 4. His degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he completed in 2016, was in voice. After graduation, he looked for freelance work, finding it at Sukkat Shalom. The gig, which he called his "happiest accident," turned into a full-time job.
To apply to the JRR competition, contestants had to submit a video audition. The submissions needed to be Jewish in content or theme, but in any style, and accompanied by any instrument -- or even a cappella.
The winners were selected by a two-stage process. First, judges picked their top 12 submissions. The judges all are professional Jewish musicians: Rick Recht (JRR's founder), Sheldon Low, Josh Nelson, Beth Schafer, Julie Silver, and the married couple known collectively as Nefesh Mountain. These acts' sounds range from folk to rock to bluegrass.
The judges voted on the contestants' performance skills and passion for impacting the Jewish world. As on a certain above-mentioned show, the judges also mentored the contestants. Luban's mentor was Low, while Recht mentored Lyonswright.
Then, JRR listeners nationwide -- 16,000 of them -- voted for some of those 12 to be the Grand Prize winners.
The winners received a cash prize and a free entry to the national conference of Songleader Bootcamp, another of Recht's projects. The annual conference, held in St. Louis in February, is designed to turn singers into songleaders who can teach campers, congregations, and other audiences new and traditional Jewish songs. Every conference ends with a concert, but this year the contest's winner performed, too.
Winners also recorded their songs in a studio at the conference; their vocals were sent to Los Angeles, where professional musicians completed the tracks. The winners' finished songs will be broadcast on JRR in March -- to everywhere the Internet reaches.
To listen to Jewish Rock Radio, visit jewishrockradio.com.