Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ljuba Davis. Never forget that your family are Sephardim.

“Never forget that your family are Sephardim. That you came from Spain.”

I'm continually surprised and delighted by the strong resurgence in Sephardic music that's been happening for the last few years. Ljuba Davis, a mainstay of the West Coast Jewish music scene, has been performing for decades and has added to that resurgence by finally put out a recording of her own. One that Ari, of Klezmershack has referred to as "one of a small (but growing!) number of traditional Sephardic music CDs worth listening to."

That's high praise. And a good thing.

Here's a recording from Davis' record release party at Drom in NYC.

Here's a bit from her official bio:
"The words of Ljuba Davis’s feisty paternal grandmother always stuck with her, as did her father’s penchant to spit at any mention of the Jewish people's expulsion from Spain. The expulsion in the 15th century sent the Sephardim moving ever further east, to the Ottoman and Russian Empires.

A gifted singer and fluent Spanish speaker, Davis was fascinated by the morsels of Sephardic melodies—secular and liturgical—she encountered as a child, and later on recordings and in songbooks. She went to nursing school (where she sang in the hospital’s resonant stairwells), raised seven children, and gradually gathered dozens of prized Ladino traditional songs into her repertoire.

A veteran performer, Davis contributed to the fascinating intersection of Jewish music revival and the folk movement, performing on major stages and in small clubs from Chicago to her Bay Area home. Berkeley was a hotspot of Jewish music creativity in the 1960s, and Davis was a sought-after singer and cultural trailblazer in the community.

But it wasn’t until she went to Barcelona—and until her son David Davis (who produced the album and plays the radiant cello on “Durme”) began to encourage her to record—that Davis contemplated making an album of her uniquely heartfelt renditions and the stunning melodies of the Ladino tradition."

While I haven't had the opportunity to hear the full album, the reviews look stellar. Delarue, author of the review "Haunting Spanish-Jewish Sounds from Ljuba Davis" in the New York Music Daily, notes the album contains
"flamenco-tinged acoustic guitars, but the lead lines are carried just as often as by Avram Pengas’ spiky, incisive bouzouki or Rachid Halihal’s oud. The melodies refer to gypsy music, the Middle East or the Balkans just as often as they evoke their Spanish home turf. Davis sings in a nuanced voice that can be quiet and plaintive but also joyous, sailing up to the end of a phrase on the album’s second track with the kind of microtonal “whoop” that’s common in Bulgarian music."

For more information, check out Davis' website and CDBaby.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Crossroads: Matisyahu in Detroit

There is no doubt that, as the lead off song for his new album and last nights concert suggests, Matisyahu is at a crossroads. He's shed the visible trappings of Chassidus and Orthodoxy, losing a lot of fans in those communities in the process.  He's also continuing to make some of the most soulful, spiritual, and without a doubt Jewish, pop music made in the US in decades, bringing in new fans with each album and tour. His concert in Detroit last night, to an adoring packed house at Detorit's Fillmore Theater, showcased many of the challenges he's facing at this point in his career.

Four years ago, also at the Fillmore, I attended my first Matis concert. The audience was about half full and was one of the most diverse crowds I'd ever seen. They were in jeans and t-shirts, in black hats or modest skirts, over 60, and under 10. Some clearly, visibly Jewish. Many not so clearly or not at all.  The two years that followed were much the same. Though the shows moved to the sauna-hot St. Andrews around the corner, the crowds were mixed and enthusiastic. Each year the crowds were a bit bigger and a bit more enthusiastic. This year, Matis' first Detroit appearance since shaving his beard, the concert was back at the Fillmore. The hall was packed and crowd was far less mixed. I still saw some kids, but didn't see a single black hat or visible yarmulke.

So did he sell out to bring in more fans, as some have charged? Is he continuing on his own religious exploration as he claims? I went to the show, having spent the last week listening to his new album Spark Seeker, hoping to find out. How would this album and show compare? Would this be the same Matisyahu, who's music has meant so much to so many?

My answer is mostly yes, though also no in a surprising way. First the yes. Sitting up in the mezzanine (if you look carefully at the fantastic stage diving picture above, you can see my wife's elbows all akimbo holding binoculars right above Matis' right knee), I closed my eyes and attempted, as Matis has suggested, to "dream awake." And he makes it easy. His rich voice and his uplifting image-laden lyrics were warm and familiar. His new songs blended well with his old favorites (fans will always argue if the new album is as good as the last. I say it doesn't have a single as catchy as One Day or Miracle and doesn't have any tracks that have grabbed me like the amazing Shattered ep from two years go, but it's pretty darn good).  He still called for Moshiach Now! in King without a Crown. He still exhorted me to be better, still pushed me love God, man, and myself better, and still gave me a room filled with people with whom to sing. So yes. Matisyahu is still Matisyahu, visible Jewish beard and jacket aside.

But there was one unexpected no. There was something that Matisyahu's beard and jacket gave him that he lacked last night and that's gravitas. Strictly from a theatric performance point of view, Matis' Chassidic garb set him apart from his audience and peers in a manner that suggested age, wisdom, and authority. It's arguable that this association was misplaced, a jacket and a beard do not earn the wearer any of those attributes nor do all those of age, wisdom, and authority look like a Chassidic Rebbe. But the association was real. And seeing Matis on bouncing around stage in a white t-shirt, jean jacket, stylish hair and sunglasses lessened that gravitas in a real way. With my eyes closed, I dreamed awake. With them open, I was at a very good rock concert.

So to those who now dismiss Matis as having sold out or, perversely view his previous persona as merely a shtick, you're deeply wrong and need to get over your own preconceptions. But as wonderful as last nights show was, for me there was something a bit less about it.  Maybe I need to get over my preconceptions too. Or maybe Matis, having reached this crossroad needs to find a new path where he can be true to himself but retain the gravitas that his vision and music demands.

Matisyahu - Crossroads (feat. J. Ralph)

Update: John Wofford, writing for New Voices, the National Jewish Student Magazine, reviewed Matisyahu's Aug 4, Grand Rapids, Michigan concert.  I think John and I mostly agree, though he didn't have the same feeling of loss of gravitas that I did.