Thursday, October 30, 2008

Be Afraid of the Kvetching Ghosts (and the Kosher Pumpkins, Rothstein Werewolves, Specter Schmucks, Meshuggina Monsters...)

The Kvetching GhostsI've mentioned before my theory about Google, right? It's not actually a search engine. Somehow, through some Twilight Zone, it takes in our queries and alters the world to have some interesting results for us. Thoughtful of it.

Take the Kvetching Ghosts for example. You can, right now, go to Amazon and order a CD-R copy of the Kvetching Ghosts album "Haunted Jewish Halloween." I found this out when I punched "Jewish Halloween Music" into Google. Now, by any reasonable standards, there shouldn't be any Jewish Halloween Music. Halloween is not a Jewish holiday, and while many American Jews (including yours truly) carve pumpkins and send our kids out for bags of candy, there is no connection between Judaism, Jewish music, and Halloween. But Google created one (or found one) for me.

I didn't know what to expect from The Kvetching Ghosts. Some Yiddishkeit dybbuk stories set to creepy minor key post-klezmer Danny Elfman chamber music? Not even close. It turns out that the Kvetching Ghosts take recordings of standard Jewish repetoir pieces and overlaying them with a modest array of sound effects album monster growls, screams, and gusts of wind. Hmm. Would Hatikva go better with a Ghoul Laugh, a Woman Scream, or a Wolf Howl? How about all three? And the Kvetching Ghosts aren't alone. There are about a dozen other albums with similar band names and titles including the Kosher Pumpkins, Rothstein Werewolves, Specter Schmucks, Meshuggina Monsters, Oy Veys, and the Chosen Band. All of them available on CD-R for $9.99 and MP3 download for $8.99.

So, what's going on here? These albums seem to have been produced by SBR Music "Music for all your occasions." I sent an email to the folks at SBR but haven't gotten any response. A pity. I'd love to know what they were thinking. SBR offers a wide range of holiday and special theme music collections. All of the covers have the same low budget look of the Kvetching Ghosts. Ripoff? Earnest and artless? A big prank? Can't tell. My first reaction to all of this was "Hysterically funny album covers, terrible contents, probably a ripoff." For exhibit A, check out "The Kosher Pumpkins - Frightening Shabat Shalom"

C'mon. What a terrible and pointless thing to do to Shabbat Shalom.

But after listening to a bunch of these tracks I decided I needed to lighten up a bit. While all the varied collections are pretty much tiring repeats of each other with different names, there is a kind of odd charm to the whole endeavor. I've grown particularly fond of the "Kvetching Ghosts - Horrifying Bashanah"

It has a wonderful Disney Haunted Mansion feel about it. If I ever wanted to create a Jewish Haunted House or DJ a Goth Bar Mitzvah party, this would be the sound track. So, check out the Kvetching Ghosts, or one of the other almost identical recordings. Google was kind and provided Jewish Halloween Music, how can we not admire it? And speaking of admiring things, here are a couple more of the album covers. Priceless.

The Kosher Pumpkins

The Rothstein Werewolves

The Specter Schmucks

An Interview with the Red Sea Pedestrians

The Red Sea PedestriansTowards the end of summer I caught a concert by the local klezmer and roots music band, The Red Sea Pedestrians. I had a few questions for Ian about the Pedestrians unique sound but the Pedestrians and band leader Ian Gorman have been busy playing a string of well received local gigs. Gorman finally had a few minutes this week to chat with me about the Pedestrians views on nostalgia and culture.

Teruah: I've joked on my blog a couple of times that there isn't a metro area in America left that doesn't have a klezmer band. While you help prove my point, proudly representing Kalamzoo Michigan, the Red Sea Pedestrians aren't a classic "We love Dave Tarras" klezmer band. While the klezmer is a highlight, you draw on a lot of other traditional American musics. I could see you playing happily at a traditional Jazz festival next to a Dixieland band, for example. Your compositions make it make sense, but it is a bit unusual. Where did the idea for the Red Sea Pedestrians come from? How did you get your musicians to buy into it?

Gorman: Well, The Red Sea Pedestrians have never really set out to be a traditional Klezmer band. We all have very diverse tastes in music, and playing stuff that's enjoyable or interesting to us, regardless of genre, is always our main goal. Of course, Klezmer music was the basis for the band, but not in an exclusive way. The band was formed back in late-2005 when some friends of ours, The Corn Fed Girls, had a Christmas show coming up. A group of us had talked for a while about wanting to play some Klezmer music, and we thought it would be great to throw a set together and open for CFG, which we did. Originally the band consisted of myself, Rachel Flangian, Ira Cohen, Jay Gavan, and Nathan Durham (That lineup is on our CD "A Lesson in Cartography"). Rachel, Ira and I had played together in various projects, and Jay and Nathan had a group together.

Although we consider Klezmer music our recurring theme, as I said, we're always open to different music styles. Lately, with the addition of Mike Shimmin on percussion, and Megan Macleoud on violin, we feel like we have many more stylistic doors open to us. Mike is well versed in many different genres of world music, and Megan is an accomplished celtic violinist. The idea of incorporating music from all over the world interests us, and hopefully we'll continue to branch out. One of the things that we all love about this band is that there are no rules when it comes to genre - Many bands feel like they have to stay true to a sound or scene, and we're not really interested in limiting ourselves in that way.

Teruah: One of the editors of Heeb magazine recently made a crack at the Jewish music scene saying that we were "looking backward for mythical authenticity." I wonder how you'd respond to that. First, where do you see the Pedestrians in terms of a scene (or scenes). Do you consider yourself part of a Jewish music scene? Are you part of other scenes? Secondly, at some level nostalgia seems to be a big part of the Pedestrians approach both musically and lyrically. Do you think you're looking backward?

Gorman: I think of us more as part of the Michigan roots music scene than the klezmer scene, since we don't play traditional klezmer, and there's not a whole lot of bands around here (Although there are a few). To me, the folk music tradition, whether it be American folk or world folk, means both looking backwards AND carrying that music forwards. Folk music isn't just about looking at the past - true folk music is a product of the "folks" playing it, in the current sense, and should reflect that. It's about continuing a tradition - not just celebrating the past. However, we all have a strong respect for the history of the music we're playing, and we enjoy the nostalgia, as you put it, inherent in much of the music we play.

Teruah: During your show I had this strange image of a future Red Sea Pedestrians video. In the video the band is playing hard on one of your songs (I think I had the image during my kids favorite, More, More, More) and the video freezes. For the rest of the song, the video images start deconstructing the musical influences of the band. I saw the drummer turn into a rock drummer and then a traditional jazz drummer and then a military marching (fife and drum) drummer. The clarinet went jazz and then klezmer and then Russian army marching band (where clarinet was introduced to klezmer). The upright bass went jazz and then chamber ensemble. The banjo went Folk musician and then old timey musician then Ireland and England. You get the idea. You've put together a lot of different sounds with a lot of pedigree's. And it clearly works. What's the glue that holds it together? What's the common ground?

Gorman: The glue that holds it together is the people in the band, I believe. We're all good friends, and were long before we started playing music together. As I said, we all enjoy the "melting pot" quality to our sound, and we like our performances to be sort of a "variety show", if you will. Since all six of us write original music, that happens naturally a lot of the time. And, of course, a lot of these instruments (violin, guitar, mandolin, etc) have been featured prominently in many different music styles. Why not incorporate all of that in "our sound"?

Another thing to mention is that we're all very influenced by the Michigan roots music scene. Groups like Steppin In It, Seth Bernard and Daisy May, and the entire Earthworks Music scene, is amazing in it's creativity, political activism and prolific nature. The doors are open for genre-defying creation, and the whole scene is very supportive of others. We feel like Michigan is a great place to be for a roots music act, and we're proud to be a part of it!

Teruah: I'm glad. I love the Michigan scene. I had great fun taking my family to see your show this summer and expect that I'll spend a lot of next summer treking around Michigan and listening to roots music. Including the Pedestrians, of course. Ok, enough of looking backward. Where are the Red Sea Pedestrians going musically and career-wise? What are your goals for the band?

Gorman: Many of us are professional musicians, and have full-time bands or commitments. herefore, RSP has always been sort of a "side project" for most of us. We try to play only about 1 show a month or so, and always try to keep the pace of the band manageable for everyone's crazy schedules. So far, that seems to have worked out well. Creatively, I hope we'll always grow s a band, but "career-wise", we're not sure where we're going with it. We hope to play more and more in the Michigan Roots Music Festival scene, and of course around our home town of alamazoo.

Teruah: Any upcoming gigs we should know about?

Gorman: We're excited about our next Bell's Brewery show on November 15, as well as our show at the Kalamazoo Public Library on December 10 and our performance at the Noreast'r Festival next June!

You can hear the Red Sea Pedestrians and follow their performance schedule on their MySpace page.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fuérame a Bañar - A mikveh song from Morocco

Here's Vanessa Paloma, Fella Oudane, Fettah Abbou, Romeo Guzman, and David Martinelli performing their concert "Masar Wa Nisae: The Woman's Path" as part of the World Festival for Sacred Music 2008 in Los Angeles at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. The song, Fuérame a Bañar, a Sephardic Romance, is a "mikveh song from Morocco saying that grace cannot be sold, not even an ounce of it!"

Fuérame a Bañar

Here's the official description of the concert...
"Whether gathered in the interior courtyards of the houses in the Jewish quarter kneading the dough for Passover matzah, or in the Rif mountains, where Berber women gather the grains at harvest time, women accompany their quotidian tasks with song. They share the joys and sorrows of their lives in the richly varied traditional repertoire explored in this joint concert by Vanessa Paloma (voice, medieval harp) and Samira Kadiri(voice), accompanied by Nabil Akbib(violin, oud, percussion), David Martinelli (percussion) and Romeo Guzman (nay).
Paloma grew up in Colombia, tracing her Jewish roots to the Sephardic community of Spain generations earlier. Kadiri, a classically trained soprano, is a Moroccan Muslim. Together they reflect on the shared pleasures and pains of women’s lives, celebrating the sisterhood that emerges as voices gather in the diverse soundscape of the Maghreb region: Gharnati, Berber, Andalusian, Algerian, and Jaquetía (Moroccan Judeo-Spanish)—a gorgeous array of idioms, expressing everything from the pangs of romantic love to the ache of spiritual yearning."
You can learn more about Paloma and her band at the Florde Serena (Siren's Flower) website and catch more concert videos at her blog, Mystic Siren.

Cover art for 'Mystic Siren'In addition to being a fine musician, Paloma is also author of Mystic Siren: Woman's Voice in the Balance of Creation, an art book about "the power and importance of our expression and self-actualization through stories, fables, mystical teachings and modern midrash." It's available through Goan Books. Here's the official blurb...

"Mystic Siren is about women's spirituality, Jewish mysticism, and Sephardic music and cultural traditions. Paloma s explanations of the place of women in creation are critically important for both men and women in our times. It is a delightful read that ranges from fable to Kabbalistic meditations, and it is grounded in religious practice and study of the Torah. Mystic Siren is beautifully designed, and it is a unique artistic and scholarly collaboration between this talented mother and daughter team. Gloria Abella Ballen, the artist and designer, has won numerous international awards with recognition from UNESCO and the National Endowment for the Arts among others. Her work is in the collections of modern art museums in the United States, Mexico, and Colombia."

Finally, I can't resist including this wonderful video that Paloma filmed while visiting Tangiers, Morocco. According to Paloma, the video is of "Leon Azancot, a wonderful 80 year old Tangerine Jew (he should live to 120), [who] sang some piyyutim in Hebrew and explained them in Spanish at his insurance office over the Socco Grande (entrance to the souk) in Tangier, Morocco." You can read more about her trip at the Jewish Journal.

Moroccan Jewish sacred singing

Hat tip to Big Bit Productions for posting the "Fuérame a Bañar" video and to The Jewish Journal for posting the Tangiers video.

Sarah and the Squirrel

Ok. Bliss. An animated film with score that includes the eminent klezmer musican Giora Feldman. The film is the 1982 "Sarah and the Squirrel" directed by Yoram Gross and Athol Henry and dubbed in English by Mia Farrow and Joan Bruce. It tells a story of survival during the Holocaust from the point of view of a young girl. I haven't watched the whole thing yet, but I enjoyed the opening sequences.

Sarah and the Squirrel - Part 1

The movie doesn't seem to be currently available on DVD or VHS, but was uploaded in sections to YouTube by YouTube user Kastorianos19. You can find the rest of the sections here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Alan Cohen Experience & the oddest Sukkot song ever

All's quiet on the water front....It's just me and my elephant....
I've been listening to the one of the coolest albums I've run across recently. Bright and glittery, it's filled with funny insightful lyrics and irresistible pop hooks that have the sneaky jangly Ventures surf-rock spy music, the off-kilter bounce of early XTC, and the cheerful cynicism of the Dead Milkmen.

The album, The Alan Cohen Experience, is a six song treasure box that leads off with Elephant, the strangest and most memorable Sukkot song ever. Now let's be clear. While Alan Cohen cheerfully describes himself as a Jewish musician ("I am a Cohen for goodness sake!"), this isn't a Jewish themed album. And Elephant is an unlikely Sukkot song. It chugs along with an infectious repeating surf-rock guitar and sax groove that underscores the primary lyric.

All's quiet on the water front....It's just me and my elephant....

But tucked in middle comes the bridge...

The townspeople dance under the moon
they dance to the sound of the pouring rain
they celebrate the harvest of the fields of grain
they honor all their fathers by proclaiming their names
they feast and then they sleep...

Ok. Maybe I'm reading to much into it. This could be descriptive of a lot harvest festivals. But the details immediately rang true for me and Cohen fessed up that he was thinking about Sukkot when he wrote it. Or, he humored me. I can live with that. Either way, it's a gem of a 3 minute pop song, dumb and smart at the same time, that I adore and my kids ask for by name. Repeatedly. Every time we get in the car. Here...listen for yourself.


Here's Cohen in action, lampooning both fall of the Soviet Union and our American capacity to turn anything into Disneyland.

Communist Park

For more info and to buy the album, check out the Alan Cohen Experience web page or his MySpace page.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Matisyahu in Concert

I love it when I get to report to the field. Last night my wife and I ditched the wigglers with their favorite babysitter and hit the town. Specifically, we hit Detroit, which pretty much looked like it was hit hard long before we got there. Detroit has a lot to offer, but a lot of neglect and ruin as well. We don't get to Detroit all that often, so we were a bit nervous of the drive in. Every time we go there is some massive construction project that gets us totally turned around. So, of course, there was a massive construction project and we got totally turned around. But we made it safe and sound.

And we're so glad we did. What a great show. We missed the first opening act and part of the second, but we didn't mind much. We'd checked them out on the internet a couple of days ago and weren't that impressed. The Fillmore is a great hall. It's a magnificent old theater that was reconstructed into a magnificent concert hall. I have no idea where my seats were supposed to be because we never went near them. The whole orchestra pit had been redone as a dance floor and dance we did, smooshed up against all the other concert goers and bouncing happily.

The other concert goers were a mixed lot. As expected, there were lots of college age kids (I'm old enough now to call them kids. sigh), as well a number of folks my age and a decent contingent older. I saw a couple of ladies in their early 50's on their way out, both beaming happily. I also saw a dad there with two boys in their early teens. I wanted to high five him, but restrained myself. I saw a small scattering of guys with kippahs, but just a small scattering.

Matisyahu was fabulous. There's a phrase in the lead off track of his new EP that captures it perfectly for me. Dream awake. Matis was and we were. He sang to the crowd but not from the position of your typical showman. He was lost somewhere inside himself and his lyrics and was inviting us into the dream. And we all went willingly and happily. I don't think I ever expected to see a packed hall of (probably) mostly non-Jews singing about Moses and Jerusalem. And to look at their faces, most of them understood what they were singing and meant it.

The set list was a mix of each of his albums, including the new EP. The band was in great form; understated, tight, and potent. The drummer was riveting, not a motion wasted and showing a deep understanding for the rhythmic power of empty spaces as well as beats. The keyboard player alternated between chirpy reggae organs, grindy hip-hop electronica, spacey ambient drones and stately piano tones. The guitar and bass did there thing, providing a strong, elastic, background for Matisyahu's rapid changes of tempo and tone, and leaping to the front when he dropped back to wail and moan.

I'm still dizzy from it.

Here are a couple of pictures that my intrepid wife caught on her cell phone camera. Wish you all were there.

Matisyahu live at the Detroit Fillmore

Matisyahu live at the Detroit Fillmore
You don't have to take my word for it, though. Here's an approved bootleg of his show last week (Oct 18, 2008) at The Rave in Milwaukee, WI. For more concert recordings, check out his collection on the Internet Archive, or, better yet, catch him on his current tour.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

PJ Library and My Newish Jewish Discovery

Book jacket for 'Mendels Accordion'I'm doubly delinquent. I've got a kids Jewish music CD, Craig Taubman's "My Newish Jewish Discovery" I've been meaning to write about for almost a year now. And, on top of it, a music source, the PJ Library, that's definitely worth sharing.

The source first. The PJ Library is an offering of the Harold Grispoon Foundation, "a leader in creating and supporting innovative opportunities for Jewish engagement across North America." It's an outreach program that provides free high quality Jewish books and music to kids in specific regions of the United States. My part of the North Coast (aka Michigan) is covered and we've been getting the books for two years now. The books are a mixed lot. Some we've loved, some we've never read again, and some we've just said, huh? But my kids are hooked. They're voracious readers (should that be 'read-to-ers') and love getting a Jewish book in the mail every month. We've a whole shelf of them now and a couple have become favorites. The books all come with educational pamphlets which, honestly, we lost almost immediately. I'm sure we would have benefited from them. Oh well. Anyway, if you have kids or know some, you should check the library out.

Craig Taubman's 'My Newish Jewish Discovery'
Honestly, while the PJ Library says it distributes books and music, it's mostly books. I think we've gotten one disc a year. My kids didn't think much of the first one, a disc from Canadian Jewish kids musicians Judy and David. The second one, Craig Taubman's my "Newish Jewish Discovery," has mostly been in heavy rotation. I say mostly because my elder wiggler knows exactly the two songs she doesn't like and always yells "Skip Skip" from the backseat when they're queued up. Personally, I also don't like two tracks, but, of course, they're not the same two. It's her disc, so I let her win. I'm a good papa.
Here's the official blurb...
"We made this recording to celebrate the joy of Jewish music, culture and
community values with you. My Newish Jewish Discovery will teach you, stretch
your imagination and fill your heart with song. We hope that when you listen,
you will think about the words you hear, act on the ideas you have and begin to
make a difference in the community around you. We could not package the My
Newish Jewish Discovery Children's Museum, but we wanted you to have a piece of
us for your own discovery."
Lots of well written, up-tempo, clappy clappy, rock and rolly feel good music aimed at the elementary school set. My personal favorites are the Yiddish accented "Fixing Up The World" and the Captain Kangaroo does Mickey Katz sounding "My Mother Called Me a Name." My kids love the goofy jam rock Hebrew lesson "Shigaon" and the tongue twisting "Four Corners." Hey. It mentions Michigan, and let me tell you, nothing Jewish ever mentions Michigan. Click on the song links to hear samples and then check out the disc's CD Baby page for the rest of the samples.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys: Obscure, Naughty, and Lovely Music

Janet KleinI've always had a thing for traditional jazz and ragtime. While not lacking in artistry, it lacks a lot of artistic pretension. It conjures, to me at least, a saloon with sawdust covered floors and piano keeping things lively. There's more than nostalgia to it. There's a certain sense of humor and joy to it that is missing in a lot of contemporary music. (I love klezmer for that reason, as well). I'm clearly not the only one. There are no shortage of traditional jazz and ragtime festivals and a small but steady stream of nutty cross-over bands (The Squirrel Nut Zippers and the What Cheer? Brigade come to mind), not to mention wild Balkan brass band's such as the Boban Markovic Orkestar (you haven't heard Hava Nagila until you hear Markovic's version.)

Janet Klein clearly loves traditional jazz, reveling in the off-color stories as much as the blue notes. And her take on Jewish vaudeville songs is spot on. Klein, in a 2006 interview by Jazz Not Jazz explains it like this...
"...I was fairly disconnected and discontented with contemporary culture and retreated to my dad’s painting studio where he had a great record collection and a nice bohemian atmosphere. I was more comfortable around my parents, grandparents and great aunts than with other kids my own age. They told me great stories about New York in the 1930s-50s and about their experiences in the “Old Country”, i.e. Poland."
Here are two of Klein's Jewish pieces. Fabulous.

Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys - Yiddish Hula Boy

Janet Klein sings, "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars"

For more info and to pick up one of her six albums, check Klein's website.

Hat tip to the Klezmershack mailing list for pointing me to Klein.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Diwon's "The Beat Guide to Yiddish"

Album Cover for Diwon's 'The Beat Guide To Yiddish'Diwon, that Yemenite Kid, aka DJ Handler of the Shemspeed website and organizer of the Sephardic Music Festival, has put out a new dj mixtape, "The Beat Guide to Yiddish." I love the audio whiplash of mixtape tracks like this, and Diwon doesn't disappoint. The Beat Guide is a gentle, upbeat, romp through reconstructed classic Yiddish and Hebrew melodies (Belz, Tum Balalika, and Hava Nagila among others), hip hop beats, mid-eastern semi-tones, radio fuzz, and odd guitar and electronic bits. Great fun.

I was, however, a bit thrown by the title. In addition to being a Jewish music nerd, I'm also an American literature nerd. When I see the phrase "The Beat Guide to ..." I assume the author is referring to the Beat Generation, a period in the 1950's and 1960's that produced an amazing output of counter-culture poetry and literature. (Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956) and d. a. levy's City being personal favorites). I got excited thinking that Diwon was going to be riffing off of Yiddish music of that period or with some similar vibe, but not so much. Instead, he was playing the phrase "The Beat Guide" to refer to hip-hop beats. Clever, I guess. Oh well. Anyway, here's Diwon, that Yeminite Kid's, "The Beat Guide To Yiddish."

The Beat Guide To Yiddish

And best of all, it's yours for free download courtesy of the JTA Global News Service. Here's an excerpt from Diwnon's JTA interview explain the mixtape...
"I don’t know of any Yiddish mixtapes that have ever been made — you know, Yiddish through the eyes of a street mixtape DJ. It was a challenge to take the source material flip it over my own beats and remixes and then throw in some of my friends who are fusing Yiddish with electronic music and what not. Plus that Andrew sisters “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” is so hot."
Read the whole interview. You can get more info on Diwon and hear / download more great mixes at the websites linked above, the Diwon Music website, and at his MySpace page.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Jewish ditty to Cockney melody

Ok, so it's great fun to listen to and write about big stars like Matisyahu. That's one way of looking at Jewish music. But honestly, I treasure every video like this one far more. It's just (just!) an average British Jewish couple singing a favorite song at a (what appears to be) a family party. Wonderful.

Jewish Ditty

Hat tip to Youtube user stu730.

New Matisyahu EP and Tour (I'm going, how about you?)

Matisyahu's New EP: ShatteredNews of this is already bouncing around the net, but I thought I'd help publicize it. Matisyahu, everyone's favorite Hasidic reggae / hip hop musician, has a new EP out and a new tour underway. My wife and I will be catching him this Thursday at the Fillmore East in Detroit. Can't wait. Here's the official blurb...

On October 18, Grammy-nominated artist Matisyahu will begin an extensive fall tour across North America, including stops in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The tour coincides with the release of his upcoming EP, Shattered (Epic Records, October 21). The four-song EP features tracks from his new full-length album, Light (due out in early 2009). Matisyahu will guide fans through songs from this forthcoming album during listening parties after each show on the fall tour. In addition, fans at each show will be offered a FREE download of a bonus track from Light along with the opportunity to receive a FREE audio download of a Matisyahu concert of their choice. Limited edition posters specially designed for each show on the tour will be available as well. "

The four song EP is available through iTunes, but you can grab yourself "Smash Lies" now courtesy of Pollstar (scroll to the bottom of the page) or check out the sampler...

Hat tip to the Life of Rubin blog and the Jewish Music Review blog.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sephardic Music: A Century of Recordings

Sephardic 78 RPM recording If there ever was a labor of love in Jewish music, this is it. Joel Bresler's much anticipated website Sephardic Music: A Century of Recordings went live this week. As Bresler explains
"This website showcases over 100 years of recorded Sephardic music, from the 78 rpm era to the present. It first explores in detail the earliest Sephardic recordings, the artists that made them, and their repertory and performance practices. These early recordings tell a rich story of Sephardic musical life in the first half of the 20th century. The site next covers the second half-century of recorded Sephardic music, touching on the amazing outpouring of Sephardic recordings and the diverse performing styles used in these recordings. "
While the level of detail in the site already is amazing, where it's going is incredible. It already includes detailed information on performers, recordings, and music labels as well as a wealth of reference recordings and general information on Sephardic Jewry. In the future Bresler will be adding detailed analysis and histories of specific songs. He gives us a taste of this with an analysis of the song A La Una that includes information on over 125 recordings of the song, including over a dozen provided for online listening.

A la Una Naci Yo, recorded by Lazare Angel in 1948

A la Una Naci Yo, recorded by Sarah Gorby in late 1960's

A la Una Naci Yo, recorded by Adama in 1980

Go check out the SephardicMusic.Org, it will be well worth your time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Panic Ensemble - Wine and cheese and all that teasing....

A swirl of violin squabbling with an insistent baseline and tickity kick drum until they crash headlong, sending fragments of melodies scattering across a slow torch ballad about the physical fight or flight reaction underlying fear. Welcome to the world of Israel's Panic Ensemble. An ensemble that uses a cabaret aesthetic to ground an intersection of music styles anchored by driving jazz-rock and klezmer.

I'm showcasing the record release party video of their song Jewish Women, but it was a tough choice. I particularly like the their song Fear and tockity, bumpity Oldest Woman.

Panic Ensemble release gig- Jewish Women פאניק אנסמבל

I'm not sure why, but while I dig the Panic Ensemble, I found their performance a bit frustrating. It's not the eclecticism of the compositions. I enjoy it when a band tries to nail a couple of random bits together. I think its that the band doesn't seem (in my opinion) to know what's important and what isn't important in their arrangements. Am I supposed to be losing myself in the pulse of the rhythm? the narrative of melody and lyric? the shimmer of the electronics and additional percussion? I'm the kind of guy who will listen to a great song one time each for every instrument on the recording and is more than happy to have many things going on. But I want to feel that composition has as strong center somewhere that anchors it and gives it a personal identity. I dig each of the Panic Ensemble's songs, but have trouble finding that anchor point.

Maybe it's just the mixing in the live recording (e.g. the video). I haven't heard the studio recordings. But, honestly, I usually like live performances much better than studio recordings. I find live performances typically are less mannered and more likely to let that personal identity come through (if there is one).

Anyway, this is good stuff, even if not great stuff, and well worth the time to give them a listen. You can get more info on Panic Ensemble's MySpace page including pointers to free .MP3 downloads and their new album

Friday, October 10, 2008

Odon Parto's "Yiskor

Whew. The holiday season is pretty busy. I've got a lot of great music reviews coming soon and bunch of interesting topics to explore. But today, how about a nice video. It's not my usual pre-Shabbat groove, but consider a post Yom Kippur refresh.

The piece is Odon Parto's viola concerto "Yiskor" as performed by Berliner Philharmonie and soloist Avri Levitan in February of 2007. New York Times music critic Bernard Holland, whom doesn't like the piece, described it this way. "Odon Partos's "Yiskor" is a brief memorial to the victims of the Holocaust with soloist and strings. Written for the viola by a violist, it merges the fluency of an experienced player with the ethnic influences of Israel, Partos's adopted home. This is liquid, soothing music of slight invention. "Yiskor" goes down easily, leaving little aftertaste." He was writing, a bit unchartiably in my opinion, about a Israel Chamber Orchestra and Shlomo Mintz performance in 1994.

Avri Levitan Partos viola concerto "Yiskor"

Avri Levitan Partos viola concerto " Yiskor" 2 part

Hat Tip to YouTube user violamylove for posting the videos.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Neil Diamond - Kol Nidre

Gut yontiff, everyone.

I'm getting ready for the fast. May all of yours be easy and rewarding. This is, of couse, the inimitable Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer singing (part of) Kol Nidre. Always a tear jerker.

Neil Diamond - The Jazz Singer

Monday, October 6, 2008

Carolyn Dorfman's "Cat's Cradle"

In addition to being a North Coast (Michigan) native, Carolyn Dorfman is "a creator of provocative dances that reflect her concerns about the human condition, Dorfman is interested in creating "worlds" into which the audience can enter." One of these worlds is Theresienstadt, a Czechoslovakian Holocaust ghetto that she explores in her work "Cat's Cradle". While I haven't seen the performances in person, the videos (below) are captivating. The soundtrack from Norweigan Jewish vocalist, Bente Kahan sets the tone and anchors the time and place, but it's Dorman's choreography that pull me into the emotional experience. Isolated in a crowd. Heartbroken in a dance hall. Wonderful

Here's the official description of the piece...
"During the Nazi Regime of World War II, Theresienstadt was a ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Constructed by the Germans as a model city for the world to see, music, theater and opera became both a voluntary and involuntary part of its fabric. A city originally meant to house 5,000 people; it became a holding ground for well over 100.000 Jews and others who were ultimately destined for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. What is even more astonishing than the pain they endured is the life and light they embodied and the ability of the human spirit to soar amidst the darkness. It is a story of survival, will and connection, past and present. It is the story of my family, my people and the human race."
Choreography by Carolyn Dorfman
Lyrics by Ilse Weber with music by Ilse Weber and Bente Kahan
Performed by Bente Kahan on her album Voices from Theresienstadt
(Used with the permission of Hans Weber and Bente Kahan)
Lighting Design by Sean J. Perry
Costumes by Katherine Winter
Featuring Jacqueline Dumas, Mica Bernas, Sarah Wagner, Kate Hirstein, and Wendee Rogerson.

Part 1: I Wander Through Theresienstadt (Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt)
Part 2: The Potato Peeler (Die Kartoffelschälerin)

Cat's Cradle - Opening & The Potato Peeler

Ein Koffer Spricht: (A Suitcase Speaks)
Dancers: Kyla Barkin with Kate Hirstein, Mark Taylor, Wendee Rogerson, Aaron Selissen, David Shen, and Jon Zimmerman
Text by Ilse Weber; Music by Bente Kahan

Ich Bitte, Nicht Lachen (I Ask Most Politely)
Dancers: Sarah Wagner with Mica Bernas, Jacqueline Dumas, Kate Hirstein, Wendee Rogerson, Aaron Selissen, David Shen, Mark Taylor, and Jon Zimmerman
Text by Leo Strauss; Music by Imre Kalman Kommt mit nach Verezin (from the Operetta Gräfin Mariza)

Cat's Cradle - Talking Suitcase & Cabaret

For more info on the dance, see Carolyn Dorfman's website. For more info on the music, including her soundtrack album Bente Kahan's website.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Jenny Romaine and the Sukkos Mob

I started looking around for interesting Sukkot music and found that, as usual, I'm a year behind. While Sukkot comes every year, last year Jenny Romaine and the crew from Great Small Works organized and institagated The Sukkos Mob. According to her bio, "Romaine has committed over two decades to the cultivation of new Yiddish culture, theater, and community based performance art. " Sukkos Mob was her reacting to the Sukkos mandatory injuction to experience joy, as well as the festival holiday's connection to harvest and water. As their press release tells it...

"The Sukkos Mob enchants its audiences with water libations, rain dances, choral singing, brilliant rants, and paper flags. Jenny Romaine, who brought the city Circus Amok, has put together a radical new approach to what used to be a holiday observed only by the religious. Romaine has grounded her creativity in the Yiddish theatrical world and mixed it with Persian Jewish flare. The Sukkos Mob has taken the traditional performances of the religious Hassidic world that are staged on the off days of the high holidays, and added a new twist. The performers even wear a more decked-out version of Yeshiva garb, provoking conversation about the relationship between tradition and contemporary life, between secular Jewish cultures and religious celebrations, and between New Yorkers of different faiths and nationalities. The mob has performed indoors and outdoors for the Persian Jewish community of Long Island, the Hasidic communities of Boro Park and Williamsburg and the conservative and orthodox communities of Manhattan. The group sings songs set to Sukkos music from the Hasidic and Yiddish traditions and Persian pop and religious repertoires of the Dardashti family."

I groove on this kind of thing. I love seeing contemporary Jews grab hold of a Jewish holiday and push it for all its worth. Living cultures have always been like this, honoring traditions and creating them at the same time. This video starts with a bit of Sukkos Mob and then goes of elsewhere, including Purim and the Russian Army in 1914, but it's worth watching to get an idea of what Romaine and company are up to.

Jenny Romaine and Friends @ CAVS

For more info on Romaine, check out her webpage at MIT.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Adon Olam, Arnie Davidson style

It's hard to start thinking about Shabbat when I'm already starting to look to Yom Kippur, but Shabbat it is. It's a serious week, so I thought I'd lighten it up for a minute with Arnie Davidson and his Friday Night Music Project. Shabbat Shalom

Adon Olam - Arnie Davidson - FNMP

I've written about Arnie and his Project Ben David album before. Check it out.

Phranc Talk!: A Daily Variety Show by Phranc, All American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger and her parrot, Pickles

Nothing to say about this one, other than it's a crack up. In today's episode, Phranc "All American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger" endorses Canada Dry Ginger Ale and sings an ode to her favorite chef, Julia Child.

Phranc Talk #8

To learn more about Phranc, check out her Wikipedia entry and then her Myspace Page, her cardboard craft blog, and her "phlat top" hair cut and artist profile page.

The Decline of the Cantorate, or The Cowardly Lion Sings to God

I went into Rosh Hashana this year with a lot on my mind. I had read (or listened to?) an online lecture on Rosh Hashana that suggested a good way to approach the day was to imagine it as a prototype for the year to follow. I should use it as a chance to set a new tone or trajectory and to examine stray thoughts to see what they indicated I would think about. And while that lead to some serious thought about serious things, it also, no surprise, lead me to thinking about Jewish music.

Specifically, I caught myself paying attention to how people related to the prayer leaders. Before I go further I should explain that on the first day of Rosh Hashana I took my gang to an afternoon family service at the nearby Chabad House. It was a small, intimate, service that was very much appreciated by my wife and myself (though it was frustrating to have to sit separately). The service was led by (I think) the son-in-law of the local Chabad rabbi, in from New York for the occasion. On the second day of Rosh Hashana I went by myself to my Conservative synagogue. The service was led by our Rabbi and new assistant Rabbi with support from our regular high holidays cantor. This service drew a far larger crowd but at the same time felt more remote.

There are moments when I can connect to a cantor. I really can, sometimes, get caught up in the powerful voice. Every synagogue I've been to on Rosh Hashana has had a cantor, so it's something I'm comfortable with. And I understand the pageantry associated with Rosh Hashana. It's a day for relating to God as King, so having the best, most trained voice in the room fill up the room with prayer is fitting.

But I'm not so sure it really works. My wife has, with good humor and only a slight criticism, calls our cantor the Cowardly Lion. She's referring to a certain emotional quaver in his voice that she has a hard time not giggling at. While I don't (usually) hear the lion, it is clear to me that the cantor is not singing to me, but for me. It's a strange, disassociating, feeling. It feels egotistical to say I want to be sung to, but if I'm being sung for, do I really need to be there? Can't you send me a postcard when it's done? Hi, Sang Avenu Malkenu. It went well. Hit high F. Wish you were here. sincerely, The Cowardly Lion.

The son-in-law of the Chabbad rabbi does not have cantors voice. Because it was a shortened services, there was lots of muttered discussion about what section to do next and what page in the machzor it's on. But the davening felt much more sincere and inclusive. Even when we weren't davening our selves, we felt as if were being led not performed to.

It's a strange thing. In Conservative synagogues and Orthodox shuls, the cantor used to be the center point of prayer. That's been changing for the last hundred years, with the role of the cantor diminishing. While there are excellent cantors out there (including, I'm sure, our own Cowardly Lion), who do their best to revitalize the cantorate, I wonder how much longer they'll hold on. And my idle speculation is nothing new. This has been an open question for a while and has been written about extensively. The following two articles, one on the Conservative cantorate and the other on the Orthodox cantorate are just two recent ones.

Singing the blues? Economy, declining memberships putting the pinch on cantors by Sue Fishkoff (Jewish News Weekly)

Last huzzah for chazzans?: Orthodox cantors face diminishing opportunities
by Sue Fishkoff (Jewish News Weekly)