Friday, December 31, 2010

Asefa: (noun, from Hebrew) A collective, assembly or gathering, with purpose.

AsefaI love meeting interesting folks, and there are no shortage of interesting folks in the Jewish music world. This week I got an email from Samuel Thomas, Ph.D candidate in Ethnomusicology at the City University of New York and the leader of the musical collective Asefa. Asefa plays a wonderfully exploratory fusion of Arabic Jewish music and jazz that includes Yoshie Fructer, guitarist and New York Jewish scene staple, bass player Noah Jarrett, and percussionists Eric Platz and Rich Stein. This is the kind of music, deeply rooted in tradition and wildly adventurous, that I could crawl inside and live in.

Here's their official blurb...
Drawing upon a plethora of musical traditions from North Africa, the music Asefa presents is a blend of North African grooves and song traditions with passionate and innovative composition and improvisation. This is Mitteleuropean proto-blues. This is music that honors both ritual and experimentation, reminding us of the vitality and variety within the Jewish tradition -- a tradition that reflects the world. Listen and trace your own roots, whatever they are.
They've got an album out. I haven't heard the whole thing yet, but the tracks on the website sound great. I'd link to them, but I'm a live show guy. I'd rather show off this clip from one of their concerts at New York's Blue Note Jazz Club

In addition to playing Asefa, Thomas conducts a variety of workshops

"Whether you want to discover more about Middle Eastern musical traditions, Sephardic poetry, or simply have an interactive experience touring different world musics, the educational programming and performance workshops add incredible value to any Asefa experience! "

To give you a sense of what he's about, here's a short talk by Thomas about his experience with Arab Jewish music given to the Brooklyn Historical Society - Roundtable: Arab Music Traditions and Their History in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tablet's 100 Best Contemporary, Ashkenazi, American, Pop Jewish Songs Ever.

Last week Tablet writers Jody Rosen and Ari Kelman did us all a great service...they started a good argument. Their piece, "Song of Songs: The 100 Best Jewish Songs Ever," and their follow up "You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs" were entertaining and have let to a lot of grumbling and handwringing. Personally, the list drives me crazy (Amy Winehouse but not Shlomo Carlebach? Seriously?) ...but I thank them for publishing it and anyone who reads this blog should go read the list and listen to as many of the linked tracks and videos as they can. It'll be dizzying but a grand adventure.

Lists like this are doomed from the start because the authors establish a category, Jewish music, but fail to define it's limits. They also define an evaluation "best" without defining the criteria to be used. Are we talking about comparing every song written by a Jew or about a Jewish theme in the whole history of the Jewish people and comparing them based on how much impact they had on the Jewish people's history?

Not hardly. And we should be grateful...such a list would be impossible to create and tedious to read. Instead the list is a myopic contemporary Liberal American Ashkenazi view of Jewish music. And we should be grateful for that for two reasons...

1. It gave them a tractable and entertaining position to write from, a position that matches the cultural background and expectations of a lot of American Jews

2. It exposes the limits and contradictions of that position for a friendly debate.

I, like a lot of the commentators on Tablet's website, am frustrated by how it ignores Sephardic and Mizrachi music, how it seems unaware of contemporary Israeli music, Orthodox and Chassidic music, Jewish art music, and how it glorifies secular pop songs written by Jews. These are real deficiencies that make the list worthless as a definitive catalog of the greatest Jewish music. But as part of our perennial Jewish 'who are we' discussion, this list lays down a well thought through and wonderfully idiosyncratic position. It's now up to folks (including me) who don't accept that position to produce something "better."

I'm not going to attempt that in one shot, but will point a few critical moments in Jewish music that the authors overlook. These moments are just as open for critisism and debate as the Tablet list, so have at it...

1. Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. Meyerbeer was a superstar German Jewish opera composer. At his prime in the 1840's and 1850's, he was king of European opera. In an age where Jewish composers often converted to Christianity, he remained a Jew and wrote Jewish liturgical music. While he never wrote an opera that was explicitly Jewish, one of his innovations was the treatment of religious themes, including religious tolerance, on the opera stage. He's also known for his most famous student, Richard Wagner, who after Meyerbeer's death became both an opera superstar and a vicious anti-semite. After Meyerbeer's death Wagner authored Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), which took swipes at both Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn, asking the question... if Jews are such great musicians why don't they have a national music of their own. (Wagner's answer...they're incapable of producing it. They just want to steal and corrupt everyone else's music).

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Robert le Diable - "Idole de ma vie" (Joan Sutherland)

2. Joel Engel. In the early 20th century, Russia experienced a rise in ethnic nationalism supported tentatively by the Soviets...Jewish nationalism included. Joel Engel, along with others conducted ethnographic field trips into the Pale of Settlement and used the Jewish folk music they found there to write art music. Engel, himself, was hugely influential as a writer, organizer of the St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society's first concert, and composer. His most famous piece was the incidental music to the Ansky's play, The Dybbuk.

3. Shlomo Carlebach. Carlebach mixed Orthodox yeshiva training with a Chassidic sensibility and drive toward personal and musical outreach. Considered by many to be the greatest Jewish songwriter of the 20th century, Carlebach created a huge body of folk-liturgical music that continues to have a significant impact on both traditional and liberal Jewish practice.

Shlomo Carlebach Boi B'Shalom 1973

4. Diaspora Yeshiva Band. There was a moment when it all came together...the nascent ba'al teshuva momement and Orthodox camp music, Israeli kibbutzim and yeshivot, American & British rock and roll, and Carlebach's niggunim and outreach. The result was the Diaspora Yeshiva Band and the birth of Jewish rock and roll. While the DYB weren't the only band of that moment, they cast the largest shadow and still have a continuing influence over Jewish rock to this day.

Trailer for the new DVD "Diaspora Yeshiva Band: Live on Mt. Sinai (1982)"

Whew. I wish I had more time right now. Just listing these 4, makes me feel guilty for the 100 or so I'm leaving out.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Third Annual South Florida Cantorial Concert

Shabbat Shalom everyone,

I'm pretty tired of knee-slapper "Jew on Christmas" posts, so let's just skip that. I'm looking forward to Shabbat and that's more than enough. For this week's get into the Shabbat groove post, I'd like to share a video and an announcement... the Third Annual South Florida Cantorial Concert is coming up on Jan 15. If you're in the area, hit their website for details, including a full list of performers. If you're into the Reform cantorial style (Nusach Ashkenaz with acoustic guitars!) it looks like a great event. I love hearing cantors of any movement cutting loose, and 20 cantors in large 700 person hall sounds magical.

Normally I don't showcase a lot of individual events. I thought posting this one would be fun partly because they thoughtfully sent me a link to last year's concert to share (see below) and partly because they're planning on webcasting the show. That's something that I'm strongly supportive of. There are a lot of Jews who don't live close enough events like this or, in this tough economy, can't afford the ticket price. (That said, this particular event is VERY reasonably priced at $18. That's half what I paid for a similar concert in Detroit recently, and I was only buying a cheap seat!) Webcasting is a wonderful way to share the good stuff with the whole community.

I don't see the webcasting info on their site yet, but will email them and ask about it. If you're excited about that them and let them know. It's important that they have a reasonable estimate of who's going to watch so that they can make sure their gear is up to the load.

Video Highlights of the 2010 Concert

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hanukkah Day 20: Samuel Adler's Flames of Freedom it's December 23. Hanukkah is long done and for varying reasons I never got out my last two Hanukkah posts. I'm not sure if I'll get the last one out, but I really wanted to share this one.

As I've mentioned, I've been listening and researching a lot more Jewish art music lately. One contemporary composer who's name I run into again and again is Samuel Adler. As his Milken Archive biography notes, "With a catalog comprising more than 400 secular and liturgical works, German-born Samuel Adler is a highly prolific American composer, as well as an accomplished conductor and a respected educator." He's the son of the equally famous composer and cantor Chaim Hugo Adler and has had a long and deep involvement in Jewish liturgical music in the US, including a stint heading the Reform movement's Transcontinental Musical Publishers and teaching at School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College. (for more info also see his wikipedia biography.)

Among his Jewish output is an outstanding set of Hanukkah music, The Flames of Freedom (available from the Milken Archive). Flames is "a cantata for three-part treble-voice chorus and piano, based on ten well-known Hanukka songs and hymns together with original music to two other liturgical Hanukka texts. It consists of eight short movements, each representing one of the eight Hanukka lights."

Unlike many art music adaptations of Jewish melodies I've heard, there is no hint of sentimental sweetening and swelling nostalgic orchestrations. Instead, these are wonderful new compositions that use original themes as jumping off points for new explorations. I don't pretend enough knowledge to really review art music pieces, so I'll leave it at that this... They're wonderful.

You can listen to clips online at the Milken Archive to hear the recorded performances. It turns out that Flames has also been arranged and published as sheet music for high-school choral's. Here's "William Floyd High School Women's Choir under the direction of Kristin Cimonetti performing" Flames of Freedom III. Hannerot hallalu (The Lights We Have Kindled) during their Winter concert, January 5, 2010. Lovely.

Flames of Freedom III. Hannerot hallalu (The Lights We Have Kindled)

I actually emailed Adler earlier this week. According to his bio, "His articles on Jewish music have appeared in the Central Conference of American Rabbis journal; Jewish Music; European Judaism; Musica Judaica; Diapason; The American Choral Review; and many others." I was hoping that he might have reprinted them in a book form or have them available somehow. No such luck. I'll have to try to hit the source journals.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hanukkah Day 6: The Asthmatix...Latkes From Australia

Hanukkah Day 6 comes straight from Australia, courtesy David Brook. I've written about Brook's music adventures before...he and J. Harkham were the pair that put out the Darkcho album, easily one of my favorite Jewish recordings of 2010. This time he sent me the video for the first single from the new band The Asthmatix. It's not clear if Brook is playing on the recording, but I'm guessing he is. And he's not. He's friends with the band and produced the video.

I really dig this video. It follows nicely after the klezmer meets hip-hop / house bands including Canada's Socalled, Germany's Jewdyssee, and England's Ghettoplotz. I'd love to see these folks spend some time at KlezKamp and improve their klezmer chops. Not quite in Socalled's league yet, but good stuff.

UPDATE 1: I just found another Asthamatix video, VaHAEnu. The video itself isn't as snappy as Brook's video for Latkes and it lacks the clever socalled-esque use of vintage narration cuts, but the violin and turntable are showcased much more effectively. My estimation of the violinist and the DJ jumped up a notch or two. Great stuff.

UPDATE 2: Brooks sent me the band's blurb (I love blurbs).

The Asthmatix have been blending the art of klezmer, hip-hop, middle eastern melodies and traditional turntablism since 2007. Taking to the stage with violin, keyboards, and turntables they have played Sydney venues including the 505, Name This Bar, Opera Bar and festivals including Shir Madness at the Bondi Pavillion. Band members include Mickey Morphingaz(Beats), Daniel Weltlinger (Violin), Dan Pliner (Keyboard), and Asparagus Mlynsky (Turntables) who will release their highly anticipated single, Latkes, in December, just in time for the Jewish festival.

UPDATE 3: You can get your own copy of the track from iTunes, or for the price of your email address at their website.

We Miss You John. (Imagine in Yiddish)

I'm still catching up on my Hanukkah posts but had to take a quick time out. Today's the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. Like pretty much everyone else, Lennon's music has been part of the backdrop of my world. If you actually need evidence his impact and how much he's missed, here's his signature song, Imagine sung in Yiddish at a meeting of a group of (what appear to be) Sephardic Ladino speaking Jews.

The YouTube video contents only credit the performer as Frida and the translator as Moshe. Thanks to both them. This made my morning.

hat tip to YouTube user ironmaik22 for the posting the video.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hanukkah Day 5: A Hanukkah Sound Archive

So, we're 5 days into Hanukkah and you're thinking...yeah, I got this. Got my blessings back, warmed up my Ma'ot Tzur. Checked in on Teruah for that new Maccabeats video that everyone's talking about.

I hear you. Me too. So it's time to mix it up. How about switching to a Carlebach blessing melody?

Or a Ma'oz Tzur melody from Hungary?

Or maybe adding Dak il tas from Turkey.

The Sound Archive at the Jewish National University and Library has got you covered. It's Hanukkah page has a fascinating variety of audio recordings and maybe your new favorite melody.

The Library's aims are "To collect, preserve, cultivate and endow the treasures of knowledge, heritage and culture in general, with an emphasis on the Land of Israel, the State of Israel and the Jewish people in particular." There's a lot of great stuff in the archive, though you'll have to fight with a pretty terrible search interface.

Update: After posting this, I got a FaceBook note from Francesco Spangolo with more details about the JNUL. Spangolo is "a multidisciplinary scholar focusing on Jewish studies, music and digital media. Intersecting textual, visual and musical cultures, Spagnolo has contributed extensively to academia, cultural heritage and archival institutions, and live and electronic media in Europe, Israel and the United States. " Francesco and I have been crossing paths for a quite a while and I very hope to meet up with him someday.
"The National Sound Archives do not, unfortunately, maintain a dedicated website but they are currently digitizing the bulk of their collection in order to make it accessible online. The short story, off the top of my head: the NSA (aka Fonoteqah Leumit, or Phonotèque Nationale) were founded at the Jewish National and University Library in 1964 by musicologist Israel Adler (Berlin 1925 - Jerusalem 2009). They include thousands of archival recordings of the many musical traditions of the Jewish Diaspora, made on location and in studio, as well as non-Jewish traditions recorded in Israel (Samaritans, Druze, Beduin, Greek Orthodox, Syriac, etc.). Most of the recordings were made by fellows of the Jewish Music Research Center (JMRC) of the Hebrew University, which was also founded by I. Adler at the same time. The NSA are an amazing institution, and hopefully it will be known more once it fully goes online. The selections you posted were made by Ruti Freed, a longtime archivist at the NSA, who retired last year. The current director is Dr. Gila Flam.

They are my home away from home and I was just there last month, finishing to gather all the materials for a new CD project (an anthology of archival recordings) to be published next year. (The first one,
Italian Jewish Musical Traditions from the Leo Levi Collection (1954-1961), came out almost 10 years ago...). "
Thanks Francesco!

hat tip to the Miss Music Nerd blog, where I found the link to the JNUL sound archive.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hanukkah Day 4: The Fountainheads takes on the Black Eyed Peas- We're heading for meme, people

Ok, clearly the idea of doing a fun Hanukkah re-do of a pop song is going to be the meme this year. They're starting to pop up everywhere. Which is awesome... keep 'em coming

Today's is from the "Fountainheads, a group of Jewish students from universities around Israel who've all spent time at Ein Prat Academy, a pluralistic study place for secular and religious students to build mutual respect." The Fountainheads took on the Black Eyed Peas "I Gotta Feeling." Ok..maybe it's not as polished or snappy as the Maccabeats or Six13 videos, but I dig it. It's got a irrepressibly fun DIY vibe. Happy Hanukkah gang!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hanukkah Day 3: A Disquieting Hanukkah - Marc Weidenbaum's Anander Mol, Anander Veig

Marc Weidenbaum is the author of Disquiet, a blog on ambient and electronic music. Recently he was commissioned by Tablet Magazine to put together an album of re-mixed Hanukkah music called Anader Mol ,Andander Vieg which roughly means, according to Weidenbaum, "another time, another way." The result is an intriguing, if highly uneven, collection. It's free for download from Tablet magazine, along with a excellent audio interview by Tablet's Sara Ivry. The Disquiet site has info on all the artists, both the remixed and the remixing. Check 'em out.

These tracks are not Hanukkah party music (at least not at your typical party). These tracks are intended as a more more nuanced exploration. The Mark Rushton remix of Dov Rosenblatt, Rosi Golan, and Deena Goodman's Ma'oz Tzur and Paula Duant's remix of Girls in Trouble's Sivivion Sov Sov are gentle, buzzing dreamscape. The Diego Bernal and Cut Loose remixes of the 4th Ward's "Ose Shalom" and of the Klezmer Reb's "Yishma" (respectively) are fun, but stiff, bounces.

Sadly, many of the tracks are just terrible. The OCP remix of the Alexandria Kleztet's Chanukah Chag Yafe sounds like a cheap Christmas toy. The Roddy Schrock Hava Nagial oscillates back and forth between a poorly executed baseball game mix and tinkly, but obvious and cliched piano. The XNTRXX and Diego Bernal remixes of Dave Tarras's "Die Golden Chasene" go no where.

This is one of those.. you're results will vary kind of discs. Give it a listen and see if something grabs you. Personally, I love to see experiments like this, even if the outcomes aren't always wonderful.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah Day 2: Matisyahu's Miracle on Ice

I'm about to head over to my little wigglers elementary school to talk about Hanukkah to their kindergarten and 3rd grade classes. Should be a hoot. Last time I did this, my wife came too and got a room full of first graders to pound their desks yodeling "sufganiyot! sufganiyot! sufganiyot!" (as we were, of course, handing out sufganiyot).

For my Hanukkah day 2 pick, here's a video my wife and older wiggler were enjoying this morning. It's Matisyahu, showing that he can go head to head with Lipa Schmeltzer for awesome over-the-top Hanukkah silliness. Here's the official blurb. (I love blurbs).
"An uplifting pop gem arriving just in time for the holiday, "Miracle," produced by Dr. Luke protégé Kool Kojak (Flo Rida, Katy Perry, Ke$ha), is drenched in a joyful spirit and features chiming synths, bouncing beats and an irresistible chorus.

Matisyahu says, "There are so many Christmas songs out there. I wanted to give the Jewish kids something to be proud of. We've got Adam Sandler's song, which is hilarious, but I wanted to try to get across some of the depth and spirituality inherent in the holiday in a fun, celebratory song. My boy Kojak was in town so at the last minute we went into the studio in the spirit of miracles and underdogs and this is what we came up with. Happy Hannukah!"
Here we go then....

Miracle: Matisyahu on Ice

Sigh. If you click through to the video page at YouTube scroll down through the comments you'll see a lot of cranky antisemitic and anti-Israeli diatribes. Hanukkah is, in part, about the need to stand up for the right to believe as you choose. It's sad to see how current that need still is.

Oh...and it's worth pointing out that you can buy a copy of the Miracle track and pre-order Matisyahu's new album & DVD set "Live at Stubbs II" at his website. If you're on the East Coast, you can also check out his Festival of Lights tour schedule.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hanukkah Day 1: Maccabeats vs Six13 & NCSY in Hanukkah A Capella throwdown

Woot!!! Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah! My kids are spazzing out and I am too. I've been listening to Hanukkah music for a couple of weeks now and am ready to roll with a ton of great Hanukkah music. To kick this off, here's a battle of the bands between the Maccabeats and Six13, two great Jewish a capella groups. Both are whooping it up with a pair of fun Hanukkah rewrites of recent pop tunes.

First, here's The Maccabeats with Candelight, a redo of Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" (inspired by Mike Tompkins' a cappella version.) The video's been getting a lot of distribution, including a shout out from the Huffington Post.

Candlelight - The Maccabeats

Second, here's Six13 with I Light It, their redo of Justin Beiber's "Baby," Kanye West's "Heartless," and "I Like It" by Enrique Inglesias. The song was written in collaboration with NCSY, the Orthodox youth organization, as a Hanukkah howdy. Check the video website for full lyrics.

I Light It - NCSY Chanukah Musical Remix 2010

Hat Tip to Immanuel for emailing me about the Maccabeats video and Duvi Stahler of NCSY for emailing me about the NCSY/Six13 video.