Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Passing of Adrienne Cooper...long live badass Yiddish music

Adrienne Cooper, one of the great singers, teachers, and activists for Yiddish language and music passed this weekend. Obituaries are running in media outlets around the Jewish world including Haaretz, The Jewish Week, the JTA, and the Forward. There is little I can add to all of the great and deep thoughts about her that have been put forth, except this one thing. In a moment of apparent synchronicity, the following tweet circulated yesterday (from @neville_park in Toronto)
Hey, Hey, Down with the Police", "Working Women", "Ballad of the Triangle Fire"—Yiddish music is pretty badass:

In Love And Struggle album coverThe badass recording @neville_park is referring to is "In Love And In Struggle: The Musical Legacy Of The Jewish Labor Bund" (YIVO) which includes performances by Zalmen Mlotek, Adrienne Cooper, Dan Rous with The New Yiddish Chorale & The Workmen's Circle Chorus. You see, Cooper's involvement in Yiddish music was not limited to the nice songs. The happy songs. The nostalgic songs. To singing yet another chorus of Oyfn Pripetchik or Rozhinkes mit Mandln. Cooper also sang Arbeter-froyen (Working Woman) and the musical Queer Wedding Sweet, and wrote articles for Lilth and The Forward titled "He Beat Me Black and Blue: Yiddish Songs of Family Violence" Cooper, more than any of her peers, helped transmit the wide spectrum of Yiddish song .... including the gritty, raw, anger, anguish, humor and joy that was Yiddish life and song. And in doing this, Cooper has helped inspire a new generation of musicians, including my fav Yiddish anarchist troubadour Daniel Kahn, cut through the schmaltz.

So, yeah. Yiddish music is pretty badass and Cooper will be very missed.

Here's Cooper (center), along with Sharon Bernstein & Jeanette Lewicki, singing a trio of Women's Working songs.

Yiddish Trio - Women's Worker Songs (Yiddish Song)

And, just because I love it and it's badass, here's Daniel Kahn, Psoy Korolenko, Oy Division performing "Rakhmones afn Tayvl / Sympathy for Whom?"

Thursday, December 15, 2011

At URJ Biennial, Or… Can anyone can save us from Jewish Boomer Folk Pop?

Hi folks. I'm at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial. I'm serving on the board of trustees for my synagogue Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. It's been pretty interesting for a guy with a Conservative upbringing and Orthodox leanings to settle in a Reform temple, but it's been really great. TBE is just about the most wonderful congregation I can imagine. Any quibbles I have with theology or liturgy are very much secondary to that. The Biennial is the bi-annual conference for the the URJ, the Reform communities organizing body. This year over 6000 people have piled into Washington DC for the event. There will be lots of URJ committee meetings, lectures, hallway discussions, big speakers, and, of course music. I'm going to do my best to see as much music as possible and report in.

First a quick note....the URJ has put a lot of information about the musicians up on their Stage Page including schedules (for attendees), musician info and some videos. If you've ever wanted to get a real sense of what's going on in the Reform music community this is the page to visit.

Day 1

12:00 Noon The “URJ Books and Music” stage is kicking off with Beth Schafer, Julie Silver, Doug Cotler, and Rabbi Joe Black. They’re singing a funky, folky version of “Driedel, Dreidel.” Schafer, Silver, and Cotler are on guitar and Colter is playing keys. It's fun to see them live but I'm really hoping this isn't setting the tone for the week. They're playing into all my stereotypes of liberal Jewish pop-liturgical musicians (I have different stereotypes for Orthodox community musicians). One of the big challenges for me is that while I really appreciate what these folks are doing, I don’t love a lot of the music. I find a lot of it to be pretty shallow both lyrically and musically. I also find a lot of it very dated. I don’t know if this is me pointing out that the emperor’s got pretty shabby clothes or that I’m just a jerk. Probably both.

Before anyone takes me task, let me say..... I know. Lots of it is “family music” aka kids music. And I know… lots of it is intended for easy camp and congressional sing-alongs. And, I know… these folks are talented musicians. But most of what I hear is mediocre and forgettable, a baby-boomer pastiche of 1970’s folk pop with a few Hebrew (sometimes Torah) phrases wrapped in fuzzy good feelings. Like an oldie’s radio station in a Jewish twilight zone. Yawn.

I’m hoping to find a few gems, though. I want to hear some new voices and sounds. I want my world rocked like it when I first heard Girls In Trouble sing feminist midrash over an indie-pop electric guitar and looped violin. I want to hear songs with depth and substance that really speak deeply to Jewish beliefs and dreams.

Is Colter really asking us to sing “take a potato pat pat pat.” Sigh. At 41 I'm the youngest guy in the room at the moment. Why is he singing this?

Ok, now we’re into Rock of Ages. Classic, and a nice arrangement. I think this is Silver’s arrangement. I love her soft descant. Nice. (I really appreciate Silver's work, much more than Shafer’s which for me is vapid fuzzy good feelings and fairly uninteresting song structures). Joe Black is now singing his ‘hit’ “Judah Macabee.” He's got a wonderful voice and this is a well-written song, though I wish it didn’t sound like it was written 30 years ago.

12:30, Jay Rappaport.

I don’t know Rappaport. Let’s see what he’s got. The announcer is crediting him for being a Berklee College of Music grad and a Billie Joel sound-alike. Ok. A little light R&B piano action. He sings well, plays well, works the audience well and sounds like 1970’s R&B oldie radio station instead of a 70’s folk-pop station. Lyrics…. Hebrew chorus? Check. Explanatory English lyrics? Check. Yep. He sounds like a elementary Hebrew school class. So, would my kids dig it? My 9 year-old who’s crank’s Matisyahu on her nano probably would find it really boring. My 7 year old? Maybe, if it was presented in a class situation but not on her own. (She digs Lady Gaga. Let me tell you…she was “born this way” all right). We are Jews. Why? Our people are connected around the world? That’s it? We should do push-ups with Judaism on our back? Sigh. We’re definitely aiming for the 7 year old in all of us. So Rappaport’s a lot of fun. I could see a gang of really young kids really having fun with him, but his songs don’t measure up for me.

Opps. I just got scolded for poaching a power outlet in a dangerous spot. My bad. But they offered me a spot at a table that will later be home to Jewish Rock Radio. Thanks folks! I’ve promised to put in a plug for the convention’s Stage Page ( I’m not on wireless yet but will check it out as soon as I am. Maybe I can get press credentials and access to the press wireless connection tomorrow?

12: 55 Lisa Levine. (Cantor from Chevy Chase, MD)

Levine is a cantor from here in Maryland and is touted as having a lot of albums and her own song-book and visiting and performing for Jews in Cuba. She’s performing with members of her “inter-generational choir and band.” Yep. More 1970’s folk rock, complete with flute and cello this time. She’s got a good voice, though, and her music, while playing to all the songleader cliché’s, is more varied and better written than much of what I’ve heard from the community. I really dig her V’shamru. It’s up-tempo, but has a dark glimmer that gives it depth. I could easily see the kids’ choir at my synagogue nailing this one. Her “We will sing” is a powerhouse anthem. Listening to it reminds of a Gordon Lightfoot anthem (which is a pretty dated but still high praise, for those of you who don’t the guy.) All in all, Cantor Levine fits into all my preconceptions about songleader music, but there’s some real music here. I hope the folks listening are paying attention and take her songs back to their communities.

It’s frustrating that they’ve programmed music through the main conference lecture/panel sessions. The audience completely clears out. Only a few of us die-hards left. Lots of musicians I recognize wandering around. I see Todd Herzog, Jeff Klepper and Saul Kaye. I’ve got lots of folks to say howdy to.

1: 20 Sababa is next up. This show is getting better and better. In case you’re wondering…yes. more 1970’s liturgical folk-pop, this time with two guitars and a mandolin. Their sound is simple but tight, bright and glittery songleader rock with a bit of a country twang. Sababa’s lovely harmonizing and great control of their dynamics results in a very strong and engaging sound I could easily see on a main stage somewhere (hint hint Detroit JCC Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival). I really want to hear them with a drummer and maybe a horn section. I might just have to get their album. Yep that’s me clapping along. Funny, they’re closing with a anthem with the chorus “God made it and it’s all good.” Very apropos of my Lady Gaga reference earlier. (She’s Jewish, after all).

Yikes. The audience is getting really thin. This is almost as bad as when I gave a Jewish music talk to 4 people at the Detroit JCC recently. Being in the wrong time slot is a real drag.

1:45 Larry Midler. Oops. I missed Rabbi Midler’s intro and will have to look him up later. He’s playing some goofy, happy-clappy, tune and not impressing me yet. Hang on. He’s busting out some serious country flat-picking guitar lines. That’s better. He’s got some action after all. I’m digging this tune about Noah. I wonder if he’s got a video of it I can post? Oy. He’s singing his “hit” “Where I go there’s someone Jewish” which rhymes Jewish and Newish. Cute but oy. At least the remaining audience members are singing along. I guess this is a hit after all. I’d rather hear the flat-picking. Now he’s singing about bar mitzvah’s. I really don’t love songs about Jewish set pieces (bar mitzvah's, dreidles, candles, Torah scrolls, matzoh....). Not that they’re not important, they’re just easy to write and easy to forget. It’s really hard to make them wonderful. Ok, he’s doing more flat-picking, this time a song about Sampson…I love this just like I loved his Noah song. Do more of this and skip the goofy stuff.

One thing that’s clear to me is that I really don’t know this community very well. I’ll need to check in with my friend David, who’s been a part of this community for years. He’ll know Midler’s story.

In case your curious.... Here’s the Teruah guide to music for URJ musicians. (this is tongue in cheek folks.)

1. Play 1970’s folk pop (or R&B) because the history of music ended then.

2. Make sure you have one, and only one, Hebrew phrase in your chorus. Reform Jews like to spice things up. But only so much.

a. If you’re a performer, not a song-leader feel free to replace the one line of Hebrew with Yiddish, Ladino, Russian or whatever comes to mind.

3. Draw your lyrics inspiration from a Shabbat prayer with additional English lyrics that may or may not relate to the prayer. Non-Shabbat prayers are discouraged because no one remembers them and Lenoard Cohen’s already done the Unetanneh Tokef.

4. Skip the English lyrics and just sing the prayer lyrics in a new, uptempo, folk-pop arrangement because no one has done that yet.

5. Write something silly about one of the great Jewish set pieces (e.g. driedles, bar-mitzvah’s)

6. Make sure you write kids songs and then sing them to adults. Because they're cute. And maybe we won't notice there are no kids in the room.

Will I come up with new rules as the Biennial progresses? Inquiring minds want to know.

2:15 Todd Herzog. I’ve blogged about Herzog before. He’s a really strong singer/songwriter with a lot implicit and explicit Jewish themes in his lyrics. (and yes, he sometimes does the one line of Hebrew thing). Definitely a performer and not a songleader, though he got some nice call and response from the audience at times. And not stuck in a formulaic 1970’s folk pop vibe, though his warm voice and guitar playing is very accessible to the Biennial audience. The great thing about Herzog is that doesn’t fall into a lot of the cliché’s of Jewish pop music (see Teruah’s Rules above). He’s a storyteller with a lot of spiritual depth. His song Tree of Live, which he’s playing right now, is wonderful and deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten. (Ok. It does have the ‘one Hebrew phrase” cliché). I had Herzog’s previous album in heavy rotation when it came out and seeing him play live reminds me why. (Hmm. Bring Herzog to Detroit? What a good idea)

Great. I just ran into Miriam from the Biblepop band Stereo Sinai. They rocked the house last year at the Detroit JCC Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival. They’re huge crowd pleasers. Miriam is here representing the non-profit DarimOnline and the URJ funded social media bootcamp for URJ synagogues. (

2:30 The Levins. I’m not familiar with The Levins. They’re a duo (keys and guitar, both on vocals), with some lovely warm harmonies. And yes, they’re following Teruah’s Rules. But like Herzog, they’re performers not songleaders, and play with a lot of style and much more interesting songs. (Bring The Levin’s to Detroit? They played the SF Jewish Festival Family Stage). Wow I’m digging these folks. Their song “Let me see you as myself” is pretty awesome. Ok. Now not digging them so much. Now they're getting goofy. Are they seriously singing The Who in Yiddish. Yes. Yes they are. They don’t have Herzog’s deep spirituality and probably won’t end in heavy rotation but are a lot of fun. I’d go see them live again.

3:00 Noah Aronson. Aronson hit the stage with four guys… two acoustic guitars, a six-string bass, a keyboard and a percussionist. Clearly a performer not a songleader, though it appears Teruah’s Rules are being followed to the letter. The songs happily alternate between English and liturgical Hebrew in a uptempo strummy arrangements. Credit should be given…Aronson’s music draws as much on mid 90’s alterna-pop guitar as from 1970’s folk-pop. Whew. Aronson’s a young guy with a solid, driving voice. This song rocks and I could see high-school NIFTY kids who normally groove on Rick Recht and Dan Nichols loving him. (Another possible for Detroit… perfect for the Progressive Jewish Music Showcase?). Yum. Love the Spanish rhythms and the spacey keys under the second song. The percussionist needs a full kit but is doing his best with the drum box he’s got. Ha! He just pulled a bunch of NFTY Leadership Program kids up on stage with him to sing harmonies and just said “I’m going to break it down Dan Nichols style.” And then did. And here comes a closing pop version of the Shehikanu. grin. nice work. Jewish rawk.

Speaking of which, the Jewish Rock Radio gang including Rick Recht is setting up shop behind me. And the conference session must be over because the audience is filling up again.

3:25 Max Jared Einsohn. Whew. Quick stage swap. Max was playing rhythm guitar for Noah and now Noah is playing keys for Max. (And Noah is killing the keys). Max is also a Jewish rawk performer but with a softer and funkier sound. Finally, someone’s ignoring Teruah’s Rules entirely. About time. And of course, since he’s not taking the easy road the Jewish content of the music becomes harder to hear. With songs with titles like “We’re all connected” I get the positive messages that he’s interested in, but are these Jewish positive messages or American progressive pluralistic positive messages? (There is a difference, people.) That aside, this is a fun set. I’m going to need to talk to Einsohn and get more of his story.

3:45 Mikey Pauker. Ok, so clearly there’s Jewish Rock cabal here. Pauker’s got Aronson on piano and Einsohn on guitar. But Teruah’s Rules are back in play, at least to a degree. He’s leading off with arrangements of Sim Shalom and Hinea Matov, but there’s no 70’s folk-pop in sight. Strummy, but with more of a 90’s acoustic rock bite and a languid jam-band presentation. Hinei Matov? How great it is for brothers and sister to hang out on this day? Pretty great. Thanks for asking. Pauker’s is playing a song he wrote at Hava Nashira that’s been picked up for a reality TV show on OWN. It’s a great tune, I see why they picked it up. Let it rain! Strong, dreamy, impressionist lyrics but with a surprising Jewish liturgical hook in the middle. Avhat v’simcha v’shalom! At the end of his set, he talked about how he’s influenced by going to Hava Nashira and playing at camps. Clearly Pauker, Aronson, and Einsohn are the story of the day. It’s great to see that a younger generation is defying Teruah’s Rules. Note. I talked with Pauker after the set and he plays gigs at camps, Jewish festivals, and rock clubs and is building a career in all these places. He's opened for Matisyahu and the Moshav band, but also for a lot of prominent LA area bands.

4:15 Mark Bloom. This is my second time seeing Bloom. He played last year at the Detroit JCC Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival. He’s a jazzy piano player guy who plays some originals and lots of Jewish standards. He’s a fine musician but I find his set tedious…. a Jewish lounge nostalgia fest. Very much not my thing. Not much to say here.

Ok…the URJ saved the best for last.

4:40 Saul Kaye. Ok, I’ve been waiting for this show all day. I’ve seen Kaye on YouTube but not live and his music has been in heavy rotation lately. He plays a mean blues guitar and has a strong bluesy voice. “Let my people go!” “Some one please call my brother!” Metal slide grinding …. giving me chills. His song “Two Wolves,” which was based a concept from the Tanya regarding on the ideas of Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Hara, was Dan Akroyd’s “Blues Breaker of the Work” on the House of Blues radio show last October. It’s a fantastic song. And yes…it has the terms Yetzer Tov and Hara in it. This is, in my opinion, what we need. Musicians who deeply understand the Jewish tradition making new music that picks up those ideas and makes seriously good new music out of them.

Saul Kaye is married to Elana Jagoda? Jagoda is a fine family music performer (and up next.) How cool.

Yikes. I may not get talk to Saul and Elana…I have to get to evening T’filah (in the Cherry Blossom Ballroom. Just in case you were wondering.)

5:15 Elana Jagoda. Ok. Teruah's Rules are reinstated, Jagoda is leading off with her own Sim Shalom. And that’s followed by a classic Jewish music set piece… the Hanukkah candles. But I dig her contemporary folk sound and where she goes with her lyrics. Go check out her Hanukkah track on the Craig and Co Hanukkah sampler on Amazon. Double yikes. Jagoda just explained that the version on the sampler was uploaded at the wrong speed and she sounds like a man. Ouch. It’s being fixed today. Ok. I've got to run and didn't get to hear all of Jagoda's set. Bummer.

10:30 Colter, Black, Silver, and Schafer. It's late and the late show is starting. The openers Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Doug Colter, and Beth Schafer are back on for a full set. I'm watching the show with Saul Kaye and comparing notes. Once again I'm struck with how this music seems dislocated in all sounds like a baby boomer nostalgia fest. Which, considering the audience, it pretty much is. And don't get me wrong... they're all fine musicians. I particularly love Julie Silver. I'm just bored. I think what bugs me isn't that the music style is dated. I love 1800's klezmer music right? It's that there's no acknowledgement that the music is a period piece. It's being presented throughout the community as if this was the best of current music. Which it's not. My other bug became clear to me when we were celebrating Debbie Freedman earlier in the evening. Freedman deeply knew her Judaism, the texts, the ideas, the liturgy and her music and lyrics resonated with it. The musicians that follow after her? Not so much. Too much of it is empty of any real Jewish depth. So I'm at a late night, very average, folk-pop concert.

By the way..I'm well aware that these folks are mainstays of the community, have been loved for years and that this show is as much about the community enjoy itself as it is about anything else. And I haven't been part of the community so I just don't get it. Yep. Pretty much.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hanukkah Sampler from Craig Taubman

Craig Taubman, of Craig & Co, has a great Hanukkah offer. A nice mix of Hanukkah tunes, mostly from his label's stable of Jewish liturgical-pop musicians, offered up free on Amazon. Check it out.

Here's one of my favorite tracks from the disc. It's the Klezmatics performing Woody Guthrie's "Hanukkah Gelt" from their recording "Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah."

Update: I just not this note in the comments, presumably from Craig Taubman.

"One minor clarification. Of the the 18 tracks on the cd none of the artists are currently signed to our label. Furthermore, outsde of my “liturgical pop music” the balance of tunes comes from a very eclecltic selection of artists including folk (Mare Winningham,Yael Meyer and Ilana) , classical (Milken) Cantorial (alberto), rock (Naomi and Rebbe Soul) Gospel (Joshua Nelson and hip hop (Smoothe e ) genres. Keep spreading the news!"

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Eden and Prodezra Beats rock Chanukah

Last Friday, the Shades of Grey blog put up a nice post about the Brookly based Jewish rock trio Eden. I was going to post the Eden track "Yigdal" that SoG put up, but you can check it out here.

Instead I'm going put up my first Chanukah video of the season. It's only a few weeks away now. The video's got Eden backing the Savannah Georgia rapper Prodezra Beats at the Square 2010 festival in Charleston, SC last year. I dig Prodezra and it's great to see him backed by a live band. I love the classic heavy heavy bass guitar and the stratospheric guitar behind the rap. Would love to see them live.

Hinei Ma Tov/Come Clean with Prodezra

Proderzra Beats and Eden both have new tracks out. (well, new for me) I love Prodezra's production skills more than his rhymes but Connection Revealed is solid and worth checking out. I particularly dig "Wake Up, Rise."

Eden 's "Knock at the Door" came out last year, though it's not clear how to buy it. You can check out the tracks on myspace.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tikkun Olam in Brazil, Talat's Jewish jazz

TalatI got an email recently from a Jewish jazz group that I hadn't heard about before. The band is called Talat and is led by composer and piano player Alon Nechushtan. Talat's debut album, Growl, on Tzadik Radical Jewish Culture has garnered praise from both the jazz and Jewish communities. I haven't heard the album yet, but I dig the Vimeo videos I've heard. To my ears, their sound, particularly the video below, is very much in keeping with other Tzadik acts, which is a fine thing. I'm a big fan of that sound. (Though I'm also a fan of non-Tzadik Jewish jazz groups including the Afro-Semitic Experience and Enrico Fink). That sound is typically based around jazz improvisation using klezmer modes. Talat's press material talk about also mixing in middle-eastern sounds, though I haven't heard that in any of the videos I've seen. What I have seen though is a nice blending in of Israeli pop music sounds, which is lovely.

For more info, check out their website.

Alon Nechushtan and TALAT perform 'tikkun Olam'

Friday, October 21, 2011

Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart on recording a klezmer in a gym

Ok, it's way too short but this video of Mickey Hart describing recording a klezmer band is a hoot. Mickey Hart is a world-class percussionist, both as a member of the Grateful Dead and through a variety of performance and recording projects.

The album, The Golden Gate Gypsy Orchestra's "The Traveling Jewish Wedding," was released back in 1980 and was just re-released on Smithsonian Folkways as part of the Mickey Hart collection. It's a fine early klezmer revival recording and is actually one of the one of the first klezmer album's I owned. It's loaded with fine, though not outstanding, cimbalom, violin, and folkie vocals and in true klezmer revival form it's regionally omnivorous and indiscriminate. It including traditional Yiddisn and klezmer tunes, Sephardic tunes, and one or two that sound very influenced by Israeli folk music. Great stuff.

I had no idea, though, that Mickey Hart recorded it. Guess I didn't read the liner notes on that one.

Mickey and Fred on Recording Golden Gate Gypsy Orchestra

While the Golden Gate Gypsy Orchestra is no more, if you happen to be in Hawaii GGSO's Barry and Gloria Blum would be happy to perform at your wedding, bar mitzvah or bris.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Yehuda Katz going solo

It's funny. Historically, I've never been a big jam-band, Grateful Dead kind of guy. I'm not sure why I so love Shlomo Carlebach and his psuedo-hippy Chassid protégés so much. But I do. Which is why I was thrilled when I got an email Aryeh Kunstler pointing me to Yehuda Katz new videos and album. Katz was one of the founders of popular Israeli Hassidic music group Reva L’Sheva and in the new album expands on his joyful Shlomo Carlebach / Grateful Dead sound. Love it. Check it out.

Yehudah Katz - Biladecha/Not Without You

For more info on Katz, check out this recent Jerusalem Post article. His other new video, Hudo, is also excellent. You can grab the new album through iTunes and follow Katz on Facebook.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Groggers. Holding a fun-house mirror to Orthodox Jewish life.

To paraphrase one of my favorite rock critics, (Paul Williams "Rock and Roll The 100 Best Singles"), there are two primal rock and roll traditions.... angry stupidity and cheerful stupidity. But there's a counter tradition too, smart stupidity. The court jester. The smart guy (or gal) playing dumb. Sometimes with snarky bite, like Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys. Sometimes with nerdy-bafflement, like They Might be Giants. But always that sense that you'd better press rewind and listen to that one again. They just said something that needs to be heard.

The first time I heard The Groggers, I didn't press rewind. The song was Get, and the band bumbled along with a power-pop finger shake at a guy who didn't deserve his girl. A well-played Orthodox novelty song, but (to my ears at the time) nothing more. I wasn't hooked yet. But tonight they sent me their new video "Upper West Side" and they got me. Court Jester. Smart Stupidity. Press Rewind.

Check it out

"Upper West Side Story" - The Groggers

Under the wide eyed naivete of singer/songwriter L.E. Staiman's vocals, is some sharp satirical bite. The phrase "I want to live on the Upper West Side where the girls always stay 29, accountants by day, speed daters by night" was delivered deadpan, but dead on the mark. (As are the hysterical West Side Story "be cool" finger snaps in the video.)

Ok, now go listen to the even better Groggers ballad "Eishes Chayil." I winced when I saw the title. Eishes Chayil, the Woman of Valor, is a regular motif in Orthodox pop music. Derived from a (sometimes touching, often awkward) Shabbat ritual, the Eishes Chayil pop song is usually over-earnest and condescending in it's celebration of the vague awesomeness of the Jewish woman. (Here's Orthodox crooner Yaakov Shwerky singing a representative example.) The Groggers skewer it beautifully. Staiman's version pushes the vague detachment of the Eishes Chayil concept as far as it will go... straight into a Weird Al Yankovic-style voyeuristic creep-fest. "If you ever need me... I'll be right out your window."

In a post on Frum Satire that went up this morning, Heshy Fried lauded them for being a Jewish band that didn't spend their time singing about religious topics, but instead sang about (Orthodox) Jewish life. That's true, and Fried's right that the Orthodox community needs more bands like that. But I think that misses the point a bit. The Groggers aren't singing about frum life, they're holding up a fun-house mirror to it.

Under their dumb lyrics are a smart insiders critique of Orthodox life. And that's brave thing to do. Smart stupidity. Court Jester. Rock and roll.

Update: I forgot to mention that The Groggers debut album "There is no I in Cherem" dropped in August. Go get it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Coda....A Short Film

Coda is a short film in the making about music and identity. The storyline (see below) points to the main character being a violinist who loves klezmer though the bit of music she plays in the film clip below doesn't sound particularly klezmer inspired to me. But it's a neat piece and I'm looking forward to seeing the final version. The film-maker is running a Kickstarter fundraiser right now, so if you like what you see consider helping out.

Coda Test Shoot

"CODA is the Graduation Film of Writer/Director Jonathan Tomlin from the MA Filmmaking Course of the London Film School. In particular, this film is concerned with the relationship between self-expression and self-preservation. The struggle to survive is as important to an artist as her instrument or her talent. An extraordinary artist is someone who can transform suffering into inspiration and vice versa.

This film strives to travel the world through music and reach audiences with a story that can be felt across any border and in any language. Music is a universal language with as many styles as there are cultures in the world. Music is at the core of CODA’s narrative. There is no dialogue and no subtitles. The film will run approximately 10-12 minutes.


The story of a classically trained Violinist travelling through Eastern Europe in search of a deeper connection to music and to her own life. She has chosen to live as a full-time Traveller and Street Performer (Busker) leaving behind the rigid confinement of her Classical formation in order to push the boundaries of her life and her music. She plays with exquisite technique, but her style is as varied as the stamps on her passport. She is particularly inspired by Jewish Folk music, known as ‘Klezmer’. Whether it’s expressing joy, sadness or anger Klezmer is as intricate as it is emotional.

One morning, while playing in a busy train station in Budapest the Violinist encounters two characters: A Young Girl and an older woman. The Girl is enamored by the Violinist’s performance and by her proud and strong presence. The Older Woman watches the performance too, but she appears resentful of the Violinist who has decided to play on the exact spot where the Woman comes to beg for money. Passing men and women drop coins into the violin case, but take no notice of the Beggar. After the concert the Violin is stolen and the Violinist’s self-sufficient, carefree life quickly spirals out of control as she desperately tries to reclaim the instrument of her inspiration."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Shabbat Shalom from Camp Ramah Philly

Shabbat Shalom everyone.

My eight year old daughter has been visiting her grandparents all week. I've been missing her a lot. sigh. So for my 'get in the Shabbat grove" video, I thought I'd share this great video of the kids at Camp Ramah Philly, led by Rosh Shira Jimmy Costello, singing Not By Might, Heiveinu Shalom, and the Machaneh Ramah Yomi song in perfect 50 part cacophony. Great job, kids.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Joseph Achron Society

Joseph Achron was a highly regarded classical violinist and composer at the turn of the 20th Century. He was Jewish and, as is noted in Wikipedia "[h]is preoccupation with Jewish elements and his desire to develop a 'Jewish' harmonic and contrapuntal idiom, underscored and informed much of his work". Sadly, while Hebrew Melody, his most popular piece, is relatively well known, few of his other pieces have been published or are played regularly.

To help correct this problem, the Joseph Achron Society, founded in 2010, is "publishing his unpublished works, recording his unrecorded music, and promoting new scholarship and performances." The Society created the first published edition of Joseph Achron's Third Violin Concerto, which was performed in May 2011, by the Brandenburg Symphony. This was the first public performance of the piece in over 70 years and met with excellent reviews. (For the more on the performance, check out The Forward's interview with Joseph Achron Society founder Sam Zerin.)

The Society is currently working on creating and publishing the first performance edition of the Achron-Paganini Caprices for Violin and Piano. These transcriptions of Paganini's Caprices were prepared by Achron for his friend, violinist Jascha Heifetz and have never been published. (The Society is looking for support to complete the editing and publishing of the works. If you're interested in helping, check out their fundraising page.)

Here's a video of Achron's Hebrew Melody, by the legendary violinist Joseph Hassid.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Izabo's Summer Shade

This is my summer for Israeli music. Israeli bands are pushing hard to get traction in the American market. I've skyped with Israel's Oleh! Records, found out that Israeli bands took SXSW by storm, and exchanged email and tweets with Israeli bands and promoters asking me to blog about them. That's new for me but I'm game. There's a lot of great music coming out of Israel and I'm happy pass it along.

Today's find is the Israeli band Izabo. Here's their official blurb....
"Best described as a “brilliant, action packed combination of Psychedelic Rock, Disco, Punk and Arabic spices,” these psychedelic rockers secured a spot as one of Israel’s most successful alternative pop bands with the 2003 release of their debut album “The Fun Makers.”
To me they fit in the same 'Israeli beach party' orbit with my fav's Boom Pam and Electra and their new video, Summer Shade, is a perfect summer track..buzzy and languid at the same time. Like Electra Izabo sings in only lightly accented English, making it an easy listen for an American audience. In fact, the light accent and the lightly Mizrachi flavored tunes lends Izabo a perfect sense of friendly exotica.

C'mon. Even the ice cream cones have bushy mustachio's. How much more friendly does it get?

Right now, Izabo is running a giveaway on their facebook site. "Like" them and get Summer Shade and two other tracks for free download.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sharks Have No Bones!, or The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement

When I was a kid I loved books of trivia. Hundreds of pages of random facts (sharks have no bones! ) that sparked my curiosity and gave me a random sampling of information (often horribly wrong) to base my forays into the library or encyclopedia and lunchtime discussions with friends. To a budding info-junkie, those raw facts were pretty addicting.

As a kid, I might have loved Stephen L. Pease' book "The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement". With a studious tone and a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" enthusiasm Pease spends 500 pages chronicling amazing accomplishments by Jews. Did you know that
  • Jews invented both holography (Gabor) and the ball point pen (Biro)!
  • Between 2002 and 2008 fourteen Jews played major league baseball!
  • After 1853 all De Beers' diamonds were sold to a London syndicate of 10 Jewish buyers!
You do now. You can thank me and Pease later.

This book's strength, and it's weakness is Pease voracious appetite and unrelenting boosterism. Like a true trivia book, there is no sense in the book of how any of the facts relate to each other and to Jewish history and no sense what facts were left out (it is only 500 pages, after all). It's all just a large pile of evidence for how cool Jews are. And, based on Pease's evidence, we are pretty cool.

This is a music blog, so of course I immediately turned to the music section. In this section I found a page and half jammed full of references to Jewish contributions classical music (there are LOTS) and three quarters of a page acknowledging that we've pretty much played no role in country music. As counted by awards, and paragraphs, we were pretty influential in rock and roll, musical theater, and jazz. And we have Babs. Pease awarded Jewish musicians one multi-page biography and that bio honor went Barbara Streisand. And, of course, no recognition at all of Jewish music. No klezmer, cantorial, or Yiddish musical theater. Debbie Friedman or Shlomo Carlebach never existed.

As a kid I might have loved the quirky randomness of the book. But as an adult I find it a joyless slush. There may be folks out there for whom the book, as Rabbi Harold Kushner says in his hyperbolic puff, "strengthens [their] pride in being Jewish."

It might.

But it also diminishes my sense of what being Jewish is. What ever being Jewish is, it is not to be found in this book. Knowing that sharks have no bones (and that they have several sets of replaceable teeth) really doesn't tell you anything about sharks. Knowing that, in 2008, 8 of the top 16 major department stores were either owned or started by Jews tells us even less about ourselves.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Israel's Visual Art Rockers Eatliz produce dreamy stop-motion animation mini-masterpiece

I love synchronicity. Earlier this week I was going over the lists of Israeli bands that played SXSW over the last couple of years (and fantasizing about going this year to see the next crop). One of the videos that stood out was "Lose This Child" by the Israeli "visual art rock/ complicated prog pop" band Eatliz. A couple of days later I got a note from the bands promoter suggesting I blog about the video. Yep. Good plan.

Eatliz, Hebrew for "butcher shop," has a great bass heavy funk drive and a wonderfully floaty, squawky vocalist. They meet my requirement for a band to continually surprise me while remaining true to a central music vision. They haven't knocked the Israeli rock band Electra out of my heavy rotation band of the week yet. But they just might. For more details, check out their website and this "hi, we're Eatliz" video.

Eatliz recently teamed up with the Grammy nominated directors Yuval & Merav Nathan to produce one of the most gorgeous and haunting music videos I've seen in a long time. The video has been screened at 40 film and animation festivals, winning 14 awards, including in the US, Israel, Australia, Korea, the US and all over Europe.

According to the band's promoter,

"The making of the video took 6 months. The video utilizes moving sand sculptures, which help make the characters part of their environment. The majority of the video was painstakingly photographed frame by frame at a beach in the early morning hours over three months at night. Each night, the crew had limited time and were up against the elements, but were able to create this mini-masterpiece :)

The song "Lose This Child", is taken from Eatliz band latest album. Eatliz is an internationally acclaimed visual Art Rock band from Tel Aviv, which are known for spectacular live shows that are a visual treat, outstanding genre crossing music, beautiful award winning animation music videos. Recently, Eatliz finished a full North American tour which included several shows at sxsw and Canadian Music Week festivals, followed by a east coast tour and a European tour. In 2012 they will tour China and Japan and will continue to spread their artistic music and animation music videos."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Saul Kaye live every night this month

Saul Kaye is a fine blues musician (see my 2010 post) who's exploring the intersections of Jewish and African lyrical and musical traditions. As he puts it...

"Jews have been enslaved in many countries over the centuries including Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome, Greece, Germany, and Malta. So, like the African Slave experience proved to be a catalyst for blues, so the path of Jewish history fostered its own form of soulful tears, from Jews crying out in Egyptian slavery ( Exodus) to the prophet Jeremiah weeping over the destruction of the Temple in Eicha ( Lamentations ) , Jews know the pain of spiritual crisis and call to Hashem with their own form of blues. You can hear it in the synagogue when the Torah and the books of Prophets are read, chanted in tropes passed down through time, recounting forbearers' sorrows on days of tragedy like Tisha B'Av, or remembering celebrations of freedom on Passover, when Jews recall the Israelite's "Song at the Sea," as the waters of freedom parted."
Kaye is experimenting with a new online approach to giving concerts between his live shows. Every night this month (August, 2011) except for Saturday night, he's giving an intimate live show via The shows are at 9pm US Eastern / 6pm US Pacific time. I just found out last week and haven't caught one yet, but will try to catch tonight's show. I'm not exactly clear how StageIt works, but I get the impression that Kaye's shows are a 'pay what you feel appropriate' sort of thing.

I'm excited to catch one of the shows. This is a great opportunity for folks not in one of the big metro areas to catch a really talented performer. Check it out.

To give you a taste, here's Kaye playing the Desert Blues.

Update: I caught the Saul Kaye show on StageIt last night and thought I'd report on both Kaye's performance and on StageIt. Kaye gave a casual 30 minute, from his living-room, performance, that included songs from his new albums, a few covers, some 'day in the life' stories and some chat with the audience. For a new fan (e.g. me) it was a great opportunity to get to know Kaye a bit and see that he really has the vocal and guitar chops you hear on the album. Now I really want to see him live.

The StageIt experience was reasonably good. Sign-in was easy (it took my Facebook account info). I was able to buy $5 worth of 'notes' to use as my ticket to the show and then another $5 worth to leave as a tip. The division of ticket and tip is smart. It gave me two different opportunity to decide how much I valued the performance, both before the show started and during the show. Sound quality was surprisingly good, though I suffered with some occasional screen buffering (which was probably a problem at my end).

One interesting thing is that Kaye was playing to a rather small audience, but has been doing so all month. He didn't get rich on last nights show, but brought in a few bucks and made at least one new fan (me!).

All in all the StageIt experience was a good one and I'll be interested in seeing if other bands start using it as a way to stay connected with their fans between tours and to build audiences in places they haven't played yet.

Friday, August 12, 2011

SoulAviv's Joyful Noise

Shabbat shalom everyone,

For this week's 'get in the shabbat groove' video, I thought I'd share "Joyful Noise" by SoulAviv. SoulAviv were semi-finalists in the International Jewish Music Competition in Amsterdam last year (and one of the only non-klezmer bands to make it that far). Soul Aviv has lovely harmonies and an uptempo gospel-influenced bounce and are a hot ticket on the synagogue, JCC and camp circuit and were included in the recent UJR compilation CD, Ruach 5771 along with songleader luminaries Craig Taubman, Rich Rect, Dan Nichols, and Josh Nelson.

Soul Aviv. Joyful Noise.

For more info or to snag one of their CD's, check out their website.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Serge Gainsbourg. A Heroic Life

Serge Gainsbourg was a highly influential French singer-songwriter, actor, director. He was Jewish, the children of Russian Jewish parents, and his extensive discography includes a darkly comic rock album called "Rock around the Bunker" about Nazism that was influenced by his experiences wearing a yellow star and hiding from the Nazi and Vichy governments.

A new film about Gainsbourg was just released. The film, called "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" was directed by Joann Sfar, one of my favorite comic book artists. Sfar, himself, is also French, Jewish and known for incorporating Jewish themes and ideas into his work (see The Rabbi's Cat, The Rabbi's Cat 2, and Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East.)

I can't wait to see this. It looks great.

Here's the official blurb and trailer.
Taking the best from LA VIE EN ROSE and AMÉLIE, renowned comic book artist Joann Sfar’s GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE is a completely original take on one of France’s greatest mavericks, the illustrious and infamous Jewish singer-songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino). Born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian-Jewish parents, Sfar follows him from his precocious childhood in Nazi-occupied Paris, to his beginnings as small time jazz musician and finally pop superstar. Along the way he romances many of the era’s most beautiful women, including Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Employing a witty surrealistic style and a soundtrack that includes many of the musician’s greatest hits, GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE is a quintessential time capsule to ‘60’s Paris.

For more info on the film and a listing of theaters, check out the Music Box Films website.

I'm currently bouncing back and forth between cranking up some Gainsbourg tunes and some covers from the "Great Jewish Music: Serge Gainsbourg" album put out by John Zorn's Tzadik: Radical Jewish Culture label. The album includes covers by John Zorn, Fred Firth, Marc Ribot, Cibo Matto, Elysian Fields, Kramer, Franz Treichler (of the Young Gods), Blonde Redhead and others. I don't have a copy of Rock around the Bunker but I'm hot on it's trail.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sunny Klezmer ... the new Klezmer Juice video.

Klezmer Juice, a fine klezmer band from sunny southern California just released an honest-to-gosh MTV style music video. Ok, so it's mainly the band leader Gustavo Bulgach, biking, driving, and dreamily noodling his clarinet in all sorts of sunny California locals. But they get credit for a real video. Before this moment of sunny cinematography, Klezmer Juice's credits included being the on-screen band in the Owen Wilson and Vince Vaugn film "The Wedding Crashers," being nominated for a Grammy and putting out two fine contemporary klezmer albums. Good job, gang.

Papirosen - Gustavo Bulgach KLEZMER JUICE

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Black Ox Orkestar

Emerging from the vibrant Canadian art-rock music scene of the early 2000's, Black Ox Orkestar released two albums, Ver Tanzt? and Nisht Azoy (Not Like This) of contemporary Jewish music that are dark, haunting and intense. The albums clearly draw on Askenazi Jewish roots, with evocations to klezmer, cantorial and Yiddish folk motifs. The albums draw on contemporary jazz, folk, and art-rock influences as well, but without the 'aren't we clever and eclectic' feel that often mars musical hybrids. These albums are on a short list of my favorites, both for their musical depth and for their ability to evoke, for a few moments, a world where new Jewish culture thrived and renewed itself instead of degenerating into apathy, nostalgia, or pastiche.

Nisht Azoy
Nisht Azoy - BLACK OX ORKESTAR by Constellation Records

Here's the Orkestar's official blurb. Gotta love the phrase "Anchored to tradition without being suffocated by it." Exactly. We need more of that.

"The second record by Montreal’s Black Ox Orkestar placed the group at the forefront of a ‘new Jewish music’ that rejected contemporary fusion and musty nostalgia in equal measure. With backgrounds in folk, punk-rock and free jazz, the group’s four musicians distilled Balkan, Central Asian, Arabic and Slavic sources into a coherent, impassioned sound that gave teeth to old Jewish songs. Never relying on museum-piece reverence or an obvious, forced collision of musical forms, Black Ox rewrote a Yiddish songbook in ways that sound organically anchored to tradition without being suffocated by it."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The YouTube Audition: Three Klezmer Videos

I think this is obvious, but is worth mentioning. Every video of a band on YouTube, whether put there by the band or not, is an audition for the band's next gig. The thing is, if you've seen as many videos as I have you'd realize that either band's don't understand this or haven't thought it through. So, being the ever helpful fellow I am (helpful meaning self-appointed know-it-all), I thought I'd offer some suggestions.

But first let me provide some context. The volunteer committee that helms the Detroit JCC's Stephen Gottlieb Music Fest is about the best gang of folks you could hope to work with. And two weeks ago we were in rare form. After going through some general planning discussions about the upcoming Adat Cohen (last week), Mandy Patinkin (September) and Chava Alberstein shows (January), we started in on next March's full festival lineup. Since I'm a helpful guy (see definition of helpful above), I was prepared with a pile of videos that I'd collected and that had been suggested by others on the committee. We had a great discussion and I remember leaving it wishing that all those bands hoping to play festival gigs could have been a fly on the wall. Oh yeah. I write a blog. They can be.

To simplifying things, I'm not going to talk through all the videos we watched. I'm just going to use some video's by some great regional klezmer bands as my examples. I've never seen any of them play live (shame on me), but know band members from each. I personally enjoyed each of the videos and hope that I can book each of them either this coming festival or a future one. I hope none of them mind using them as examples.

First up was the Michigan State Klezmorim.

Good stuff. Lyrical, stately, lovely. Easy to imagine them playing a private party or small club or restaurant. What happened when I played the video? I was immediately asked if they could play uptempo. You see, we're a big festival with a big stage and are envisioning a more uptempo affair, possibly with dancing. This video just didn't match the committee's vision of the event. Unfortunately, this is the only MSK video I could find.

Observation #1. I know videos take time and effort to put together; but if you want more than one kind of gig you need to have more than one video available. Make sure that there are enough videos that one of them will make us say "Yeah..I want them to do that for me!"

Second was the Heartland Klezmorim.

Ok. This was more like it. Good bouncy klezmer. The band was up on stage, obviously playing a festival gig. But iffy sound quality didn't help show off the band's musical ability and the band's tight, straight up playing didn't show off their stage presence. There is more than one Heartland video, but this was pretty representative...good band, but based solely on this video, are they good enough?

Observation #2. Just because the musicians are good, doesn't mean the video will be a winner. I'm not sure if the video was commissioned by the band or shot by a fan at the show, but either way this video didn't do Heartland justice. Having videos of your band playing gigs in front of happy fans is a good thing. But also make sure there are some videos with good sound and good camera work that really show off your musicianship and stage presence.

Last was the Chicago's Maxwell Street Klezmer

This was the best received video of the set. Good (enough) sound and lights, clear and evident musicianship, lots of stage presence. It was really easy to imagine what they'd look and sound like on our festival stage. Equally important, Maxwell Street has 25 videos put online by the band, as well as others by fans. It made it easy for me to find one or two more that confirmed their abilities.

Observation #3. A little show goes a long way. Ok, so the clarinet vs violin shtick is a bit theatric. But the relaxed, casual, control that the band shows as they goof around onstage makes them look like professional entertainers. For a festival gig, that's a good thing. We're looking for entertainers as much as artists. So bands, if you're going to shoot a video... make sure you're doing something that will look good on film. Make me want to see it live.

So to recap... bands, your videos are your audition performances. Even if you don't intended them to be. So put some thought into them, make sure you're showcasing your variety and musicianship and ability to entertain.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Oleh! Records... Israeli Music Export

Keeping track of Israeli music is much harder than you'd think. Outside of the occasional reviews in Haaretz, Israel National News, JTA, and the Forward, there are few English language websites that provide any regular coverage of the Israeli scene. The only specifically Israeli music focused sites I know of are the online catalog and Ben Bresky's excellent Isreal Beat podcast. Until now, that is.

Jumping in to help fill the void is Oleh! Records, "Israel's Music Export Office." Oleh! is not a fannish gossip, releases, and reviews sort of site (though we really need one). Oleh! focused on the business of music and helping promoters and venues outside of Israel make connection, book, and promote Israeli musicians. Wearing my other kippah as (current) co-chair for the Detroit JCC's Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival I'm going to be getting in touch with these folks.

But to the average fan, Oleh! is still a goldmine. Yes it has information about Israeli superstars including Noa, Dana International, David Broza, and the Idan Raichel Project. But did you know that Israel has 7 excellent heavy metal bands? You do now. Oleh! lists Xenolith, Winterhorde, Viscera Trail, Orphaned Land, Midnight Peacocks, Gevolt! and Matricide. Whew. In addition to metal, Oleh! provides information on a range of genres including urban and soul, punk and metal, jazz, middle eastern, instrumental, folk, classical, reggae and funk. While these lists do not capture every band in Israel, it's a fine start for the budding Israeli music fan. I did a quick scan for some of my favorites and found info about Boom Pam, The Teapacks (but not Kobi Oz), Yidcore, Balkan Beat Box, and Hadag Nechash. In bumping around their site I also learned about the Israeli 'psytrance' scene (check out Skazi and Void) and got totally hooked on the "Kasbah Rock" sound of Electra (see below).

In short, where has Oleh! been all my life?

Oleh! just launched recently, so it will be exciting to see what the site matures into over time. For more information, check out the Oleh! website, as well as their Twitter and Facebook pages.

Electra - Coming To Get You! - official video

Update: In the comments Ilan, of the Jaffa Jive radio show, just pointed me to another resource on Israeli music:
"A small addition to the available resources: Audio Montage - a small record label from Tel Aviv (more of a "co-op" label). A hub for some of my favorite musicians.
Thanks Ilan!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

End of JDub. What's next for New Jewish Culture

The news broke about a week ago. JDub, the not-for-profit hipster Jewish music, is shutting down. Zeek has more info and an excellent summary of the state of "New Jewish Culture." This is a sad day, without a doubt, but not unexpected. I've heard lots of rumblings about JDub for a while now, they've had money problems, questionable management, maybe a bit overreaching in projects. Sounds like a typical not-for-profit, right? But they'll be missed. They were a focal point for folks like me to point to when trying to get people excited about New Jewish Culture.

But just because the organization is folding up doesn't mean the bands are going away, the fans are going home, or the enthusiasm is diminishing. It's more a question of what kind of organizations are needed and what kinds of business models work. So what comes next? Should someone else try to make a go of a Jewish label? Does the New Jewish Culture scene need record labels? And if so, for what? A&R and advance funding on recording (audio and video)? Public relations & marketing? Band management and tour management? Album distribution?

What about on the fan side? I've been expecting that someone will start a slick and stylish Pitchfork style website with a wide vision of Jewish music. There's finally a decent online radio station in Jewish Rock Radio. But it's pretty narrowly focused. There's an "International Jewish Presenters Association" but it doesn't seem to be particularly active. Shemspeed is still turning out great music, mostly hip-hop. There is, of course, the always active Orthodox & Chassidic scene, but they don't make much effort to reach outside their primary audience. (And, yeah, I'm still doing Teruah).

So what's next? Not sure. But, to paraphrase a recent tweet from the klezmer-punk band Golem....exciting new Jewish music was happening before JDub and it will continue to happen after JDub. But JDub will be missed.'s a quick blast from one of my favorite current JDub groups...Girls in Trouble. I've raved about GiT before and will continue to do so, led by Alicia Jo Rabins, Git is somewhere between the next Regina Spektor and the next Debbie Friedman. And I don't take either comparison lightly. Who's going to help me champion GiT and all the other new Jewish bands out there?

Girls In Trouble - We Are Androgynous

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Russian Jewish Experience Part II: Shalom Comrade!

Shalom Comrade! album coverIn doing a little more homework on Russian Jewish music, I came across a wonderful archive album titled "Shalom Comrade! Yiddish Music in the Soviet Union 1928-1961." The album, which was produced in 2005 by ethno-musicologist Ritta Ottens and ethno-musicologist / klezmer musician Joel E. Rubin, both through it's music and extensive liner notes helps fill a critical gap in Russian Jewish history. As I noted in yesterday's post, there is a tendency by American Ashkenazim Jews (including myself) to marginalize the history and experience of Soviet and post-Soviet Jews. It defies the 'escaping the old world of the Shtetl (poverty, orthodoxy, anti-semitism) to the new world of America (opportunity, liberalism, assimilation)' foundation myth that underlies a lot of our cultural narrative. The Soviet Jews didn't escape. Instead, under pressure of the Soviet system they were slowly transformed, with results no less dramatic than the transformation Ashkenazi Jews experienced in the West.

One of the drivers for the Russian transformation was the conflicted view that the Soviet leaders had toward Judaism. As Ottens and Rubin note,
"Stalin’s cultural ideologues planned to deploy the music of the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the Soviet Union as a building block for the new Soviet music, whereas the Jewish religion with its traditional way of life was damned as counter-revolutionary."
As I've written previously, when talking Russian Jewish art music, there was an amazing output of art music in the early days of the Soviet system that drew on Yiddish folk and Jewish liturgical music. This music was composed by Jews and non-Jews alike, including Dmitri Shostakovich, one of Soviet Russia's premier composers. This activity faded though as the religious life of Soviet Jews came under more and more attack by the Soviet regime. As Ottens and Rubin note, not more than 200 to 300 (Yiddish popular and liturgical music) recordings were released up to 1967. They compare this with approximately 10,000 similar pieces recorded in the West.

This scarcity of these recordings make the Shalom Comrade! album that more special. At 24 tracks, it contains over 10 percent of the entire recorded output of Soviet Jewish music of that period and covers a range of thematic topics the show integration and tensions of Soviet Jews. This first sample (from Rubins website) is a Yiddish art song composed by B. Bergolt, lyrics, and Moses Milner (score). The song is performed by Misha (Mikhail) Aleksandrovich, who was born in Latvia, lived in Britain, and after World War II became one of Soviet Russia's most popular performers. Here's a translation of the lyric from the album liner notes.
Last night grandma suddenly remembered how grandpa came back from the Civil War front. Her big tears shone happily as she embraced him, danced and cried. That’s how they partied, into the deep of night, the tables broke under all the honey-cake and wine. A glass and another glass, higher and higher in the hand, to spite the enemies and to the joy of our country. Many years pass by with peace everywhere, and an old lady sits with her grandchildren around her and tells of the Great Fatherland War [World War II] and what a holiday it was when grandpa came back in victory.
Misha Aleksandrovich / Di bobe hot zikh dermont (Grandmother Recalled)(M: Moses Milner; T: B. Bergolts)

This second sample was, as Ottens and Rubin note, "belonged to the handful of warhorses which every Soviet interpreter of Yiddish song had to have in his or her repertoire." This version, performed by Zinovii Shulman, was the one that popularized the song.
Oh dear! Where do you get flour to make varnitshkes? [A plain
dumpling ]?
Without yeast or salt, or pepper or fat. Where do you get a board
to roll out the varnitshkes? Where do you find a stove to cook
the varnitshkes? And where do you find a lad to eat the
varnitshkes? Without yeast or salt, or pepper or fat. Where do
you find one, where?
Zinovii Shulman / Varnitshkes

The album can be purchased through The Workman's Circle and, of course, Amazon. And did I mention the extensive liner notes?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Russian Jewish Experience: Soviet Jewish alienation with excellent production values

Ekh Lyuli Lyuli radio program posterI've been chatting on twitter with Russian/Canadian Jewish blogger @vladislavab. She did a fascinating mini-documentary recently called "Soviet-Jewish Alienation within the "Bagel-and-Lox Culture" with an accompanying blog and now radio program & podcast. She's interested in how her experience, the Soviet Russian Jewish experience, differs from and enriches the dominant North American Ashkenazi Jewish culture. I'm looking forward to chatting more with her. We share (I think) very similar views about a mutually enriching trans-national, trans-denominational Jewish community.

What we've been chatting about is, of course, Jewish music. She was looking to add to the collection of interesting Russian Jewish musicians that she plays on her show. I tossed out a few of my favorites including Lampa Ladino, Lana Ross, Psoy Korolenko, and Turetsky's Choir. This got me obsessing about Russian Jewish music and needing to find more.

Enter Yakov Yavno. Actor. Singer. Russian Jewish Icon. My new music crush.

Like Turetsky's Choir, he mixes the over-the-top theatrics and earnest sincerity that I love about Russian productions. There is no ironic detachment here. This is the Russian Jewish experience to the max, baby. More is definitely more.

Here's his blurb...
Yakov Yavno, also known as YaYa, is one of the most preeminent performers to immigrate to the United States from the former Soviet Union.
He was raised and came of age surrounded by the intertwining of a variety of cultures and peoples that have shaped and developed whom he is as a human being and as a performing artist. Within this melding of cultures, he often faced a difficult daily reality, witnessing firsthand the struggle between the ancient and modern, opposing religious factions and cultures, and in particular, the unique journey of the Jewish people of Russia.
Following studies at the Gnesin's Academy of Music in Moscow, Yavno became the leading star of the Jewish Musical Chamber Theater of Moscow. In 1987 the Russian government awarded him the coveted title of “Artist of Special Merit”.
His captivating performances are filled with a sense of purpose; a vision, as is evident with numerous sold-out concerts throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. His festive staged showcase "The Road Home" incorporates an orchestra with choirs and contemporary dancers as well as cameos by well-known local guest-stars from the countries in which he performs. It was filmed as part of a documentary by the same name. Yavno’s solo show, “Revelations”, intersperses a musical program with tales of the artist’s journey from Russia to America; it features international combos integrating storytelling and philosophical discussions. His memorable solo performance, “Songs of Our Soul”, premiered at New York’s Kauffman Concert Hall in 2007.

Unlike Turetsky's Choir, he's based out of New York City, which means I have a chance to see him perform live. I will make this happen. I will. I will.

Getting back to vladislavab's point about how Russian Jewish culture should be thought of as enriching Ashkenazi culture, and not being an inferior shadow of it. Who in the Ashkenazi community hits the stage with the energy of Yavno or Turetsky's Choir? Yeah we've got some great cantors concerts. And no shortage of klezmer bands. And my favorite Jewish pop bands. (Yes Matisyahu, I'll be seeing you on Sunday night). But they don't even get close. We Ashkenazim have got a lot to learn.