Get Down, Moses
Upstart local Jewish musicians weave a coat of many colors
The Maccabee warriors’ trouncing of synagogue-defiling Greeks (a victory, incidentally, that blew Jewish chances to trade patriarchy for paganism) pales next to the Savior’s birth. But Hanukkah offers its own charms and boost to the economy-eight days of presents and that catchy “Dreidel” tune. This year’s Hanukkah could beat out the Christmas competition in New York, thanks to a burgeoning wave of musicians recording and performing individual takes on Jewish identity.
What separates this new breed from older, super-Jewish music legends like name changer Bob Dylan and Buddhist Leonard Cohen is that even the irreligious among them insist on Jewishness in their art. And as some venture far beyond the overgrazed turf of their grandparents’ kitschy Yiddishkeit, they are joined by Jews of color, for whom Yiddish and klezmer were once as alien as bagels and lox. Take all-Black, all-Jewish New Jersey gospel singer Joshua Nelson, who’s re-energizing the synagogue experience through glorious, rock-the-rafters soul. Or rapper Y-Love, a local Black convert to the mystical Bostoner sect of Orthodox Judaism, who spits verse in Aramaic.
But the leading new Jewish contender for pop’s next big bang is Matisyahu, a figure attracting almost as many rude bwoys as yeshiva boychiks. His sold-out September 8 Webster Hall concert was full of surreal and evocative equations. The stage backdrop was a huge Rasta-inspired red, green, and gold cloth sun with a Star of David dead center. Pre-show, the sound system rum-bled with spare dub and Eek-a-Mouse’s wordless vocalizings, which, come to think of it, sound just like a Hasidic niggun. The screams hailing Matisyahu’s entrance were as worthy of a reggae prophet as a Jewish messiah, and as he roamed the stage, dipping a shoulder and knee to the band’s gritty one-drop riddims, the lean and lanky 26-year-old came off authentically cool and deadly: reminiscent, in fact, of the 1980s’ Gregory Isaacs, the Cool Ruler who set reggae’s sartorial fad for cris’ dark suits, white shirts, and “crowns,” just like the Hasidim that Jamaicans pass every day on the streets of Crown Heights.
Kickass sounds and Hasidim may not go together like rice and peas, but the Hasidic movement started with an 18th-century Eastern European shtetl rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov, who used music and dance to restore his flock’s joy in God. That somber, black-suited stranger who won’t meet your eye may dress like the Baal did back in the day, but within the walls of his community, he’ll cut loose like a man possessed. At Matisyahu’s concert, we got a taste when a Hasid bounded onstage to execute a whirling Napoleon Dynamite-style dance, a geeky yet strangely wonderful kaleidoscopic image of pointed elbows and knees, followed by an endorphin-pumping circle jump executed by Matisyahu, his percussionist, and a down-cheeked 19- year-old sporting a cris’ black Borsalino.
The former Matthew Miller credits the ultra-religious Chabad Hasid sect with his transformation from dreadlocked, heavy-spliffin’, soul-searching Phish follower who couldn’t get an open-mic band together to kosher-keeping, yeshiva-attending, mitzvah practitioner with major-record-label push. Once he became Matisyahu, it was as if the waves parted so he could sing out the truth.
Those less persuaded grumble about the novelty of a reggae-singing Hasid and Jewish Sony execs eager to sign one of their own. But his ’04 Shake Off the Dust . . . Arise debut, 2005’s reggae-chart-climbing Matisyahu Live at Stubb’s, and performances steeped in reggae’s hortatory urge to spread the vibes prove it’s no shtick. When he launches songs like Arise’s “Tzama L’Chol Nafshi” or “Aish Tamid” full throttle with an ancient Hebraic lament, then smoothly slides into less feverish but equally rapt roots-rock stylings, Matisyahu re-enacts over and over his-and our-longing for and discovery of God. For Youth, his Epic/Or Music/JDub mainstream bid (due January 31), Matisyahu forgoes his Hebrew psalms for a more generic-and therefore less distinctive-spiritual focus, mostly propelled by the winding and twisting chanting style Sizzla pioneered. Matisyahu’s light tenor lacks Sizzla’s dread weight, but his bluster-free candor and the band’s spectacularly agile reggae adaptations project an infectious emotional commitment of their own.
His reggae-ized accounts of his religious life are radiantly convincing, in part because Jewish-Rasta echoes are nothing new, even if each pretends the other doesn’t exist. Awake Zion, Monica Haim’s humorous, sometimes mind-blowing new documentary, explores the reasons why Matisyahu’s “wah-wah-yo”s are a shade away from reggae’s “whoi-yoi-yoi”s. Equivalent rules of conduct-Jewish payess versus Rasta dreadlocks for men and covered hair for both groups’ women, kosher versus Ital diets, “right speech” (Jewish lashon hara versus Rasta “word + sound = power”)-illustrate a deeper commonality. Both mythologize prolonged exile in Babylon and longing for return to Zion, be it Israel or Africa-history as recorded in the Old Testament. Some of Zion’s interviewees straddle both sides of the equation-for instance, African-Caribbean, Russian Jewish, Israel-raised Yossi Fine, founder of the concussive Ex-Centric Sound System, one of the first to frame a musical fusion within that Jamaican template. Not to mention Jamaica-born white Jew Nigel the Admore (“Don of Rabbis”), who once reggae-rapped in downtown NYC but now, as a silk-robed, fur-hatted Breslov Hasid, lavishes hilarious lyrical skills on fellow Israelis. As African American hip-hop-reggae singer-producer Doctor Israel tells Haim, “My history, your history-who cares?”
On one level, Brooklyn’s good doc means dipping into the Other’s musical well is the way of our world, but there’s more. Even Marley-and-Sizzla-loving Matisyahu probably doesn’t realize how much America’s white Jews have in common with Jamaica’s Rastafarians or how far and deep ancient Hebrew roots extend into Africa’s soil.
In Judaism and Race in America (work-ing title), a revelatory documentary by Avishai and Shari Rothfarb Mekonen (slated for 2006), African American rabbi Capers Funnye states, “My return to Judaism was a return to my Africanness . . . to who I was before the Middle Passage and slavery.” In another scene, Avishai observes, “Before I left Ethiopia, I knew there was at least one other Black Jew in America,” and the film cuts to Sammy Davis Jr. shilling for Manischewitz wine on TV. How little Sammy also knew. Both Avishai and another Ethiopian in Haim’s film confess that before they left their homeland, they thought all Jews were Black.
History and genetic evidence support the contention that at least one of the 12 ancient Hebraic tribes was Black, and that the scattering of those tribes took Jews all the way through China to the east and sub- Saharan Africa to the south. Common sense alone dictates that the 40-year desert exile following the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt required more melanin than a good suntan. As Ethiopian-Yemenite Jew and Princeton scholar Ephraim Isaac says in Judaism and Race in America, whenever people tell him, “You don’t look Jewish,” he responds, “Friend, Ethiopia is mentioned in the Bible over 50 times, Poland not even once.”
So Matisyahu may point to the Baal as his forefather, but if new Jewish music is headed where it really needs to go-toward a long-overdue inclusion-it would be better to follow Shlomo Carlebach, the “Singing Rabbi” and Nina Simone confidant who founded the ’60s Haight-Ashbury temple House of Love and Prayer and preached human connectivity through good music. Even L.A.-based Jewish rap duo Blood of Abraham had the right idea, with a ’93 CD, Future Profits (on the late Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records), that included the rant against racism and anti-Semitism, “Niggaz and Jewz (Some Say Kikes).”
While America’s Jews are barely aware of their own racial rainbow, it’s clear that boundaries between temple and club are blurring. Upper West Side synagogues are stirring nonobservant Jews out of religious apathy with drumming sessions and music concerts featuring artists like Pharaoh’s Daughter; Moshav Band, led by Israel-raised firebrand Yehuda Solomon; Soulfarm, fronted by Solomon’s brother Noah; and seminal klezmer fusionist Frank London. Kippah-wearing producer dj handler spins in Lower East Side clubs by night and, by day, produces Jewish-infused hip-hop, electronica, and jazz for his Modular Moods label. There’s even a singing yeshiva rabbi, Sidewalk Cafe fixture Rav Shmuel, whose “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion Are True” slyly deconstructs Henry Ford’s Jewish paranoia. Then there are the working musicians who used to “just happen to be Jewish”-like Bruce Berger, whose brainstorm struck while he was singing at a Shabbat table, or trumpeter Steve Bernstein, who suddenly felt compelled to inject New Orleans swing into the inevitable Jewish-tune medley at a wedding gig, thus leading to his Diaspora CD series.
Last March, Balkan Beat Box-a collective of musicians, dancers, and performer juggling an unhinged rush of punk, Jewish, Gypsy, Arabic, rock, reggae, and electronica-threw a Purim masquerade at S.O.B.’s. BBB’s members are downtown music fixtures, but this was their U.S. debut as a band. Five hundred revelers packed the club, with 300 more turned away at the door. Guest artists included a Spanish flamenco troupe, the Bulgarian Chicks, and Jeremiah Lockwood, a guitarist-singer from a cantorial lineage who’s best known for subway performances with 80-plus-year-old Piedmont blues player Carolina Slim. That night, though, Lockwood transformed a ’30s Greek rebetika song into Brechtian-punk swagger. The crew of JDub-the indie label that released BBB’s self-titled September 20 debut CD and won Matisyahu the deal for Youth-wandered the room dressed as the Steve Zissou crew. A guy in a powder-blue suit and matching hat styled like a mackin’ Hasid, while another had tucked his ponytail into an oversize white silk yarmulke and twisted a set of side locks for the occasion. These are the young, Jewish, and hip, and they’ve got a soundtrack to prove it.
But the first new wave of Jewish fusion-ists came from the late-’80s downtown. John Zorn created his shoestring Tzadik label by asking likely musicians to record Jewish-jazz fusions, thereby altering many career trajectories. The Knitting Factory, under the equally visionary direction of Michael Dorf, promoted shows and tours and launched the JAM (Jewish Alternative Movement) label, featuring Roy Nathanson, Marc Ribot, Zorn, and others injecting Jewish elements into jazz, avant-garde, and punk rock-including the Klezmatics, who were “the first to strike a path between copying old music or only doing something new and radical,” says leader Frank London, whose new CD Carnival Conspiracy: In the Marketplace All Is Subterfuge brings a playful musical spirit to the history of Jews in Brazil. In ’89, singer- guitarist Gary Lucas debuted his dazzling non-klezmer-yet-Jewish fusion score to the 1920 German expressionist film The Golem, while African American clarinetist Don Byron blended jazz with the borscht belt parodies of actor Joel Grey’s father, Mickey Katz. Jamaica entered the mix after Profile Records asked King Django to record a Christmas CD, and instead he gave them 1998’s seminal Jewish-ska fusion Roots and Culture.
In 2001, Makor curator Brice Rosenbloom promoted Hip Hop Hoodios’ and Matisyahu’s NYC debuts, thus launching the music’s even more eclectic second wave. The Hoodios (a play on Spanish for “Jews”), led by a pair of Jewish music industry toilers, have amassed a huge Latino following, thanks to blistering Latin-hip-hop beats, razor wit, and a mission to reinvent the image of Jewish men: “My sound is fresh, like a pound of flesh/My nose is large, and you know I’m in charge.” Producer-accordionist- rapper Socalled builds ferocious hip-hop tracks laden with recovered Yiddish music samples and collaborates with clarinetist David Krakauer. Socalled’s recent Montreal date featured 90-year-old mentor Irving Fields, who klezmerized mambo on a recently re-released ’50s album, Bagels and Bongos. 50 Shekel also had promise, but a single viewing of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ turned him goy.
But it wasn’t until NYU student Aaron Bisman founded JDub and invested as much in promoting music as making it, that industry heavy hitters pricked up their ears and took out their wallets, proving that sick Jewish sounds aren’t such hard sells after all.
All this poses the questions: Just what is a Jew, and what is Jewish music? The popular notion of a slope-shouldered, schlumpy Woody Allen-esque self-deprecator no longer fits. Neither do borscht belt jokes like Uncle Moishe and the Mitzvah Men. Having lived everywhere and representing virtually every human race, the original wanderers adapted their liturgy and culture to wherever they landed. So naturally, Jewish music is literally all over the place. As Rebbesoul’s Bruce Berger observes, the scale Yiddish speakers call “fragish” is the Arabic “hijaz,” the Israeli “Oriental style,” and the West’s harmonic minor based on the fifth. What makes music Jewish today can be any familiar reverberation- snatches of Rosh Hashanah melodies, a da-da-dee-da-dum niggun refrain, an explosion of cantorial flamboyance, a mother-in-law plaint. Or even the juju of African drums.