Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig - Still rocking and davening

You want to hear a track that rocked my world recently? Press play.

Now go read the story.

Wow. What an wonderfully simple, wonderfully intense recording and an immediate add to my playlist.

So who rocked my world? Reb. Yosil Rosenweig, my (handsome and modest) pal Benji's dad, and long time Jewish music fixture. I want to say icon, but can't quite. Reb. Yosil has written songs and made music with two of the most important folks in Jewish music in the 20th century; Chassidic rabbi and folk singer Shlomo Carlebach and Avraham Rosenblum, founder of the Diaspora Yeshiva band, the seminal Israeli Jewish rock group. But he, himself, never rose to the icon status of Carlebach or Rosenblum. But, icon or not, Reb Yosil has been making great Jewish music for a long time. And as evidenced by the track above, he's still doing it as well as anyone.

Pitchu Li album coverAbout a year ago Reb Yosil released Pitchu Li, his first solo album. It's a recording of Reb Yosil with his Kosher Gravy Company live in concert, with Reb Yosil telling stories, giving Torah, and singing some of his many songs. He's backed by a fine, bluesy jam-band. Doing a more detailed review of the album had been on my to do list for a while (sorry Benji), but I'd had trouble getting started. I'm not much of a fan of fine, bluesy jam-bands. Just not my style. And Reb Yosil's voice is a bit rough in spots. I bet I would have loved the show... but the album? Good, but not great.

But then I heard Reb Yosil's Rosh Chodesh recordings. Particularly the Mah Ne'Daber. And I was hooked. There's a fire to his solo recordings that I didn't get from Pitchu Li. Mah Ne'Daber is incandescent. I now look forward every month to his next Rosh Chodesh song. They're offered monthly for free download. If you've missed them, go get them. Or wait a couple weeks. Pretty soon they're going to get bundled up as Reb Yosil's next album. It'll be a great collection. Then he'll start the process over with a bunch of new songs, one per month.

I got the chance to sit down recently with Reb Yosil and hear a bit of his life story. I was really interested in finding out more about his relationship with Carlebach and Rosenblum and, given his obvious talent, why he ended up in their shadows. And why the new recordings now after all this time? The answer revolves around the life of a Canadian pulpit rabbi and musician who found himself in Israel in the late 1960's, a moment when North American ba'al teshuva were coming to Israel in waves and creating a new Jewish music scene that mixed rock music and spirituality, Zionism and Torah.

Reb Yosil and Shlomo CarlebachReb Yosil, far right with glasses and white yarlmuke, and Shlomo Carlebach, left with silver yarlmulke and guitar)

Reb Yosil moved to Israel in 1968 for "a four year summer." During that time he started composing music and met and played with Carlebach. Like Carlebach, Reb Yosil was interested in being able to use music as an emotional component of prayer. (And like everyone who knew Carlebach, he has some great Carlebach. Listen to the intro to Reb Yosil's Gam Ki Eilech for classic from the days of the Yom Kippor war.) At the same time he met and married his wife (whom he met at a Carlebach wedding) and opened a restaurant, and in 1971 started a band with Avraham Rosenblum called B'nai Tzion that included original material and popular Jewish song by The Rabbi's Sons and the Simchatones. B'nai Tzion played regularly on the stage in Reb Yosil's restaurant and at NCSY event. At that time he composed the songs Tzadik Katamar Yifrach and Pitchu Li, songs that went on to be hits for Rosenblum's next band, The Diaspora Yeshiva Band. Performed by DYB, Pitchu Li won Israel's 1976 Chassidic Song Festival. In 1978 DYB won again, this time with Reb Yosil's song Hu Yiftach Libeinu.

Reb Yosil (guitar, on right) Avraham Fried (the fellow with the beard who's standing and singing) and friends
Reb Yosil (guitar, on right) Avraham Fried (standing and singing) and friends

But DYB won these songfests without Reb Yosil, who was never a member of the band. Yosil wanted to be a rabbi, not a full time musician. Prompted by that and the opportunity to work with the Canadian Zionist organization, Yosil and his wife had already moved back to Canada when Pitchu Li won the festival. Yosil spent the next 30 years as a pulpit rabbi and raising a family, using music in his rabbinic work and playing community concerts and kumzitz. After a recent bout with illness, Reb Yosil retired from the pulpit and started playing music regularly again, putting together the Kosher Gravy Company band and playing concerts around Ontario and Detroit.

It's pretty exciting for a Jewish music geek like myself to see someone writing and performing new material in the style that was popular in Jewish music the late 1960's / early 1970's at that birth of Jewish rock. Particularly, it's exciting to see that music from someone who was there at the time and contributed classic songs to the repertoire.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Prodezra Beat's "Proud To Be"

Prodezra Beats is best know for doing the production work on Y-Love and Describe's "Change" video. He dropped a new track "Proud to Be" recently. Good stuff. I wasn't keen on his first solo outing but this is definitely on the right track.

Proud To Be

Even better than Proud to Be, though, is the track Shofar Calling that he did for the ever awesome G-dcast website last year. I missed it when it came out so here it is...

Love the detail in the lyrics and the shofar break. Get more info on Prodezra and his new album at Shemspeed.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra...US-wide live on July 28th

The Israeli Philharmonic will be doing a cool live concert on July 28 that will be broadcast live* to movie-theaters around the US. To promote the show, the sponsors are doing a free ticket giveaway. See below for details.

On July 28th, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta join the extraordinary talents of soprano Renée Fleming and tenor Joseph Calleja to honor the legacy of the great American tenor Richard Tucker. Although the concert takes place in Jerusalem, we are pleased to be able to extend you an invitation through Fathom Events, who will be presenting a live* broadcast in theatres across the country. Fathom is giving away a pair of tickets per participating theatre, which means over 1,000 tickets will be given away to this event! To enter to win, just write the name and location of the participating theater where you plan to attend the live broadcast, along with the phrase “Free ‘Live from Jerusalem’ Tix”, on the Fathom Events Facebook wall (here: Tix You must click “I am Attending” in the upper right to access the event wall). One winner per theater will be randomly selected from the qualifying entries to receive a pair of tickets.

To find the closest participating theater in your area, visit the ticket order page: (no purchase necessary), and enter your zipcode in the “buy tickets” field. You will be directed to a list of the closest theaters. Simply copy+paste the theater name and address into your entry.

*Broadcast will be delayed to play at 7pm in all time zones around the United States.

Sponsors of this event include EL AL Airlines, (who are sending me additional prizes soon), The American Friends of the Isreal Philharmonic, The Richard Tucker Foundation, and Mod 3 Productions.

Enter the contest to get free tix:

Watch a video about the event:

Buy a ticket/see more info:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who are we that dream and what is that dream? Kutiman, Lawrence Dermer, and the perils of making music about Israel

Music about Israel is tricky thing. And I don't mean music from Israel. Israeli musicians can grab a guitar or an oud and have at it with no complications. Just do their thing. But music about Israel is fraught with all the tensions and complexities of Israel itself. If the music is written by a non-Israeli, it also comes with all the tensions and complexities of our Diaspora perceptions. Which ends up with writers like me thinking much to hard (or not hard enough) about what it all means.

Israeli mashup-phenom Kutiman recently released a brand new track called "Thru-Jerusalem." Like his previous collection of "Thru-You" videos, "Thru-Jerusalem" stitching together fragments of found sound and video into something brand new. Unlike T-Y, which featured video clips that Kutiman discovered on YouTube, T-J features video clips that Kutiman shot himself. What was found was the musicians and the moments, which Kutiman discovered walking around Jerusalem. Stitched together by Kutiman, they become a moving sonic landscape of a hopeful multi-cultural city. If you dig it, like I do, the track can be downloaded for free from SoundCloud.

Thru Jerusalem

Lawrence Dermer, an American BMI Award winning & Grammy nominated Songwriter and Producer (and Cantorial Soloist) released "We are Strong" back in 2008. I missed it then, but got pointed to it recently. We Are Strong has an upbeat 'We are the World" kind of 'unity through music' vibe and contemporary world-beat sound. This is an earnest, big anthem stuff. If you dig it, which I don't, you can get the track or album from CD Baby.

We are Strong

Of the two I find Kutiman's "Thru-Jerusalem" the more compelling effort. Partially this reflects my personal taste... I'm not a big fan of Dermer's smooth, radio-friendly anthem sound and wish he'd lose whatever effects processing he's using to obscure his voice, but I love Kutiman's sensibility. Kutiman has a great ear for the texture of sound and makes surprising sound combinations fit together beautifully.

This also reflects my read on the song narratives. Kutiman is an insider. His assemblage of Jerusalem musicians reflects both a realistic portrayal of Jerusalem (these are real Jerusalem musicians, after all) and Kutiman's optimistic vision of Jerusalem (this varied group of musicians blending together into a unified, but not homogenized) whole. From the perspective of a Diaspora Jew who's never been to Israel, it sounds about how I'd hope Jerusalem would sound if I could visit and wander around as Kutiman does. I wonder how real and how constructed that vision is. Is it a better version of reality than news reports show, or a delightful fiction?

Dermer's song on the other hand feels jingoistic. When he sings "We are strong" it's unclear who "we" are. He could mean all Israeli's, but I don't think so. Instead it feels inclusive of Jewish Israeli's with only a passing nod at non-Jewish Israeli's. Where Kutiman's videos showing real musicans of different backgrounds being themselves, explicitly acknowledging the complexity of Israel, Dermer's repetition of vague and banal slogans such as "what we believe we will become" and the constructed reality of him mugging in front of children who sing his song on cue, leaves "We are Strong" feeling strangely out of touch. This doesn't seem to be a song for Israelis, instead it seems like a song to raise spirits of Diaspora Jews? If we're strong, all Israel's problems will just go away.

So who are we that dream and what is that dream? Do we (American Jews) fall behind Dermer's sentimental utopian vision of happy children of all (Jewish?) races singing in unison? What dream do this children really share? Or do we (Israeli Jews and Muslims) accept Kutiman's vision of Israeli adults existing together peacefully in a complex shared space? (Remember that this too is a dream. The collaboration of Kutiman's musician's only happen inside Kutiman's mind and computer...they never actually meet in real life).

Maybe the answer is that either way, all we can do for now is dream.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Di Niggunim & The Barons of Tang, a hot mess and a wild ride

This past Tuesday I bopped over Detroit to the anarchist art collective Trumbleplex to see San Diego based "anarcho-klezmer punk collective" Di Niggunim. I had a blast. Trumbleplex is my kind of place. Not a club. Not a bar. A place where happenings happen. Lots of independent minded folks with a lot of great energy. I spent a good chunk of the evening looking longingly at the mosh pit wishing I had left my camera in the car and could jump in.

The opening band, Detroit Party Marching Band, (not a Jewish band. duh.) was a riot. I don't mean they were funny. The gang of them (there at least 12. I lost count) were hooting and squawking in full marching band gear and marching band instruments and sounding like they were about to take to the streets. Shake something up. Burn burn something down. Riot. whew.

Di Niggunim, sadly, was a hot mess. They'd had gear stolen in Chicago. Their drummer had been sentenced (just that day) to three years in prison for "stuff." Their clarinet player couldn't make the tour and the guitar player'd gone home. The bass player was borrowed. The singer was sick. Life on the road folks. That said, they gave it their all and played the best they could and a fine time was had by all.

Here they are, sounding an awful lot better than they did Tuesday...

I love these guys. They've got a lot of heart and I proudly threw some extra cash into the hat that got passed and added their sticker to the back of the Teruah-mobile before I went home.

The big surprise of the night was The Barons of Tang, from Melbourne, Australia. BoT is a "gypsy deathcore" band. Klezmer influenced, but really a melange of music styles. They were tight and talented and reminded me of Gogol Bordello or an early Pouges. Maybe not as good on the vocals, maybe not as strong on the songwriting, but they could get there. They'll be hitting Toronto's Ashkenaz tonight (Thursday). I didn't love them enough to drive to Toronto from here...but I thought about it the whole drive home.

hat tip to my buddy Noah for tipping me off to the show and to Youtube users commander and UndergrowthMagazine for the videos.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Feenjon Group - Israeli music in 1960's NYC

NYC is a churning, transient city. In the 1960's, Israel had been around long enough for Israelis to find themselves part of that churn. Menachem Dworman, an Israeli ex-pat, started a folk club called the Feenjon Cafe and it's house band, the Feenjon Group. The group also contained Jewish-American musician Jerry Sappir as well as range of Greek, Turkish, Russian, and Arabic music and musicians. The Feenjon group recorded 4 or 5 albums, the only one of which that is still easily available is alternately titled "Bellydancing at the Cafe Feenjon" and "An Evening at Cafe Feenjon" and is available through Smithsonian Folkways (and, believe it or not, through iTunes). Check it out.

I love running across albums like this. For someone my age, who wasn't born yet when this album was recorded, it's a bit of lost American Jewish history. Yes, we really did have an Israeli ex-pat scene in the 1960's. And yes, Israeli and middle eastern folk music did exist in the US at that time. And yes, it sounded great.

See the excellent Record Fiend article "The Feenjon Group - Belly Dancing at The Cafe Feenjon (Monitor, circa 1969) for more details." For some great discussion and remembrances of the Feenjon Group, check out this thread at

Also, hat tip to Tzvi for pointing me to the FeenjonGroup and to YouTube user Village Underground for uploading the video.

Spamalot & The Jews

It turns out that Spamalot, the musical "lovingly ripped off from the classic film comedy Monty Python and The Holy Grail," loves the Jews. Or, at least, thinks 6 minutes praising our supposed dominance of Broadway is time well spent.

Spamalot- You Won't Succeed On Broadway

It could be worse. The Mormon's got a whole play lampooning them, we just got a scene. Though honestly I'd rather see a 'go for the funny bone' South Park style tear down than this "we love Babs and Fiddler" suck up. Weak tea, guys. Weak tea.