A Bagel-Flavored Beat Rocks Its New Fans

A 1959 classic blends Jewish songs and Latin rhythms.

Growing up in Liverpool, England, in the 1980s, Roger Bennett was not a traditional Jew. In his adolescence he was as likely to be found on Saturday mornings at soccer games as at synagogue, and had a bar mitzvah immediately followed by a punk-rock theme party.

But while he was being introduced to A Flock of Seagulls and Echo and the Bunnymen, Mr. Bennett, now 38, an author and musicologist, was also secretly savoring a different kind of pop. Through his mother he discovered the albums of the Barry Sisters, two Jewish siblings who performed Yiddish covers of “My Way” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” and the Irving Fields Trio, whose 1959 album “Bagels and Bongos” set traditional Jewish songs to Latin rhythms. “If Hebrew school had sounded like that,” Mr. Bennett said in an interview, “I never would have left.”

Today Mr. Bennett is part of an informal scene of performers and music aficionados who hope to introduce this category of Jewish music 2.0 – built from folk tunes and religious chants, and upgraded with modern-day beats and instruments – to a wider audience.

Potentially, anyone can appreciate the blend of traditions in, say, “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos,” released in 1961 by Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen. But the genre is one that resonates especially with younger listeners who identify themselves, culturally if not spiritually, as Jewish and who seek this music in the course of rediscovering their own heritage, particularly as Hanukkah approaches.

“When people say, ‘How come I’ve not heard this before?,’ they’re not just talking about the music and the musicians,” Mr. Bennett said. “They’re talking about a more complicated sense of history than the one we’ve been handed.” As a founder of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (named for the music scholar Abraham Zevi Idelsohn), Mr. Bennett has helped create many avenues to bring bygone Jewish music to younger listeners, from a Web site, idelsounds.com, to a book, “And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl” (Crown, 2008), that Mr. Bennett wrote with Josh Kun, who is an occasional contributor to The New York Times. He has also helped organize a concert at Joe’s Pub on Thursday evening, featuring many of the artists celebrated in the book (including Mr. Fields of “Bagels and Bongos” fame).

Other tastemakers take different approaches to fostering musical connections to Jewish roots. Since 2002 Aaron Bisman, a founder of the nonprofit label JDub Records, has been releasing albums by artists like DeLeon, a group that blends Sephardic music of medieval Spain with contemporary indie rock, and Golem, a klezmer punk band. During Hanukkah, JDub also promotes its artists through a series of parties called Jewltide; one is scheduled for Dec. 24 at Southpaw in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Among the missions of the label is to appeal to Jews “in a globalized world, where we no longer want to assimilate and be like everybody else,” Mr. Bisman said. “Now we want to find the uniqueness that we have to share.”

The son of a rabbi (who leads a congregation in Scottsdale, Ariz.), Mr. Bisman is especially attuned to attitudinal shifts that have occurred among Jews in just one generation. Whereas his father might encourage Jews to connect through synagogues or community centers, Mr. Bisman said he sought to cultivate relationships through music that “a high-school kid could roll down the windows of his car, drive into his high-school parking lot and feel really proud of. Like, ‘This is mine, and it sounds dope.'”

The musician Erran Baron Cohen has used the coming holiday as an occasion to release his album “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah,” which offers 21st century takes on the holiday’s familiar tunes. (For example it includes a hip-hop version of “Dreidel” performed by the Orthodox Jewish rapper Y-Love.)

Mr. Baron Cohen, the frontman of the world-beat band Zohar (and a brother of the “Borat” comedian Sacha Baron Cohen), said that it was no coincidence that so many of these musical projects are promoted around Hanukkah, a holiday that often arrives hand in hand with Christmas. “With the record industry,” he said, “that’s their key time to sell anything.”

But Mr. Baron Cohen added that Hanukkah was more mirthful than the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “The big, serious festivals have great music, but they’re also very heavy,” he said. “They are about repentance and atoning for sins, so maybe doing a light-hearted album is not the most proper thing.”

The creators of these projects acknowledge that they are unlikely to achieve mainstream commercial success and emphasize that they are not simply looking to mine easy laughs from Jewish kitsch.

“There may be a tongue-in-cheek factor to some of the music, but that’s not why we do it,” said Courtney Holt, a founder of the Idelsohn Society and the next president of MySpace Music. “If that were all we were doing, we would have stopped a while ago. You burn yourself out on, ‘What wacky Jewish music can we find?'”

Several of the vintage artists celebrated by groups like the Idelsohn Society say they are more flattered than surprised by the interest of younger fans. “If I’m surprised, I’m surprised that nobody ever approached me before,” said Avram Grobard, the accordionist and owner of the 1960s-era Manhattan nightspot El Avram. “There’s a lot of stories of New York that I have in my bag, and all the clubs that I worked, that I’d like somebody to register them once and for all.”

For these performers Hanukkah is also an opportunity to remind young listeners that Judaism can be malleable. Years before artists like Mr. Baron Cohen, the cantor Sol Zim had a minor hit in 1974 with “David Superstar,” a religious record inspired by rock bands like Kiss.

As Mr. Zim recalled in an interview: “I found Gene Simmons. I said, ‘My God, here’s a guy from Haifa, whose real name is Chaim.’ All of a sudden I had ideas. Two years later I hear Styx, I hear ‘Come Sail Away,’ I went out of my mind.”

“Today,” he said, “it’s different audiences.” To encourage younger audiences to take part in Jewish tradition, he said, “you have to go with what’s out there.”
(Tags: Music, Jewish)


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