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Weekend Edition's "goyish" take on new "Chanukah Music"

Okay, NPR's Weekend Edition this week featured a lot of neat Chanukah Stories. They also featured reviews of new Jewish music by Tom Pryor from Global Rhythm Magazine, who has great taste in music, but didn't seem to know much about Chanukah or other things Jewish. So, I wrote them a letter


I really enjoy the Weekend Edition show, and I really enjoyed most of this week's show that featured many stories about Chanukah (or Hanukah or whatever). But Tom Pryor's Klezmer Picks were a bit jarring.

Overall, I really liked his voice, and he certainly picked interesting music, but the fact that he doesn't know Jewish music, doesn't know how to pronounce Jewish words (the Hebrew/Yiddish word for pig is pronounced khhhhhhhhazir - with the first sound resembling the German pronunciation of "ch". The first character does not resemble "ch" in the English word "cheese"), and doesn't know much about Jewish culture, religion, history, etc., made for some interesting anomolies.

This is a time when there is an explosion of interesting and very, very exciting music with roots in the American Jewish klezmer revival of 20 years ago. It being Chanukah, the brand new "Pincus and the Pig" is a wonderful choice, and would certainly be on my list of CDs to consider for such a review. Had I not seen Glenn Dickson just last night, I might have believed that the band really was from Ohio as Tom claimed. In point of fact, they are one of the reasons I moved to Boston (where they are based) and they even played at my wedding.

Then, there is the segment on Golem. The band =is= interesting (I'm hoping to see them tonight). Tom spoke at length about Annette Ezekiel's research into Jewish roots. This is a good thing, and does show her commitment to the music, but it is also not so unusual and might not have wanted to be presented as such. (Of course, a casual listen to many Tzadik titles, not to mention "Jewish" music by folks such as the alleged Rebbe of Soul with the Hebrew words gloriously misspelled indicates that a more-than-casual awareness of Jewish culture is less usual than I might have expected. Maybe I'm being harsher on Tom than I should be.) What does matter, in my never humble opinion, is the way that the traditional music has been processed through the band's punk intent (the word "authentic" that he stressed here is both true and absurd at the same time), and the result is something new that also matches a "Generation J" sensibility. By me, this is a good thing. The band's name, by the way, is pronounced "Go-Lem", the golem being a myth from the Middle Ages about an automaton created from clay, using mysticism, and which protected the Jews. The word is not pronounced "Gollum" like the character in Lord of the Rings. (Klezmershack review, their latest, Homesick songs). On second thought, Golem is a good choice, although I have some alternatives, below, that I'd also want to consider.

Although, there is something really neat about doing punk takes on Eastern European Jewish music, and catching that spirit of deconstruction and making something new and American that has roots in Jewish culture. I would have been very tempted to talk about Aaron Alexander's Midrash Mish Mosh, which contains a fascinating mixture of Jewish music melded into some wonderful avant garde sounds. What makes Alexander's album so fascinating is that, like Golem's Ezekiel, Alexander is making new music based on very deep knowledge of mainstream American Jewish culture, prayer, and music, and then creating something fantastic and new and edgy. To me, Alexander's music speaks to the heart of what it means to live in a world where one is trying to balance multiple realities: Jewish, American, Jazz, Bagels, Mysticism, Intermarriage, the Yankees, and pulls it together in ways that are always exciting, and that prove that working on that balance is fun and worth doing - here, certainly worth listening to.

I have to admit, too, that I wouldn't have focused on Septeto Rodriguez for this broadcast. I love his music, love the new album (and will probably review it soon) and I reviewed the first glowingly, as well. But it's the sort of music that is more interesting to people listening for interesting world music (I think that Tom totally missed the way that Latin beats had become a part of Jewish weddings of a certain period—Rodriguez' liner notes are a good intro, but not the whole story. One could no more have a vintage American Jewish wedding without the rhumba than "hava nagila." And it's still true to a degree.) So, fusing latin rhythms with traditional Jewish music is a natural. But, for me, the bigger excitement came with the release of Rodriguez' first album a year or two ago. Now, there is other music that is new and exciting.

What is exciting when I am thinking about that fusion of Latin rhythm with Jewish music would be a hard choice between the Puerto Rican Jewish hiphop band, Los Hoodíos (whose take on the Chanukah song, "Ocho Kandelikos" has been anthologized _everywhere_). The Hoodios even have a Chanukah special where people can get their new release, scheduled to reach stores in March, in time for the holiday via their website. Equally exciting is a dynamite singer named Sarah Aroeste who grew up singing Ladino song (music of Sephardic Jews—Jews primarily from North Africa and the Moslem World) and has done an album setting that music to the most amazing current dance music. She'll be going into the studio this winter to record the follow-up. We've actually been giving copies of both of these CDs to all of our friends. They are that exciting and that new—and, in many ways, among the most exciting children of the klezmer revival. As musicians began exploring their Jewish roots, they became aware of the fact that there are Jewish cultures beyond Eastern Europe. This helped fuel a huge ferment in all Jewish music traditions, and now the kids of this ferment are making their own music, leading to a world in which you can walk down the street and hear everything from Bukharan rhythms to Sarah Aroeste to Golem.

But, this is Chanukah. So while I might have chosen Pincus, or Aaron Alexander, or the Hoodíos or Sarah Aroeste, as fun and interesting new Jewish music, I would also have looked at music specific to the season. There are a couple of recordings this year that really deserved mention on the holiday. The first one that would have come to mind is a new collaboration between New York's edge Klezmer-Rock-everything music group, the Klezmatics", with the estate of Woody Guthrie, where they have set several of Woody's Jewish songs to music. (Woody Guthrie? Jewish songs? Therein lies a wonderful tale—Arlo Guthrie's mother was the daughter of a wonderful, famous Yiddish poet.) The band has released a limited edition recording of the songs, complete with a cover that can be folded to make a dreidl, the spinning top used in popular Chanukah children's games. Seth Rogovoy wrote about the collaboration. You can read more about the Chanukah recording on the Klezmershack.

And finally, I'd have really wanted to mention the new CD from Washingto, DC-based Hungry for Music. "[Their] primary mission is to inspire disadvantaged children (and others) by bringing positive musical and creative experiences into their lives". They have just released "A Chanukah Feast", as a fundraiser fundraiser for their cause. The contents range from traditional children's music for the holiday, to "Honky Tonk Hanukah", to the aforementioned hip hop version of the Sephardic folksong "Ocho Kandelikos" (8 candles), to a Chanukah take on gospel, "These Chanukah Lights are a sign" to a perfect a capella version of "Maoz Tzur", the hymn sung as the candles are lit. I especially liked that last song, by a band called "Makela" (hebrew for "song group"), which closes the album because a capella singing groups, and especially, a capella Jewish song groups, have become the main Jewish music mainstay of college campuses. This cut may not be particularly edgy, but it's much fun, and that's what the holiday is about, no?

In summary, none of the albums that Tom selected is bad. All were interesting music and deserved publicity. Maybe the problem is just that there is too much good music, and that perhaps a Chanukah music show might focus on the holiday, and that this could be done better by someone who knows what that means, or can at least pronounce the words. We Jews aren't sufficiently exotic that our culture needs to be treated at quite so much distance. (Would that be true of anyone in this age of the Global Village?)

I guess this is late for this year, and in any event, this is probably less choate than I might have sent had I not started typing as soon as the show was over, but I do hope that you will continue to occasionally talk about Jewish music—I hereby volunteer to offer suggestions—or, if not me—perhaps it could be Seth Rogovoy who has written a book about klezmer, or George Robinson who writes for the Jewish Week and other publications or Elliott Simon who has already written about the new Klezmatics/Woody Guthrie Chanukah album—just, perhaps, let the reviews be by someone who actually knows what "Jewish" is and can pronounce Jewish words!


P.S. I suppose I should also make a couple of extra suggestions for a show on Jewish music in this season. For one thing, New York's Knitting Factory will again be holding some wonderful avant garde Jewish fare around the time of the well-known holiday at the end of the month, mostly featuring a show called "What I like about Jew". And, for nearly 20 years, those interested in Jewish music of a klezmer variety have been able to spend the week surrounding Christmas at the venerable, wonderful, and iconoclastic "KlezKamp" shut up in the Catskills with hundreds of klezmer musicians and afficionados for an entire week. I just thing that a segment about Jewish music at this time of year by someone familiar with the Jewish community might mention these two items, along with the new recordings. So, I'll mention them here, online.

To the readers of this edited letter online—what three picks would you make right now for such a show? What are your three (or more) favorites for 2004, and why?


A friend on the WELL notes that I am guilty of cultural ignorance as well:

"One correction: In the late 50's/early 60's Jewish weddings and bar
mitzvahs didn't have rhumbas as the "latin" selections. They played
mambos and cha-cha-chas. Cuban music has diverse dance forms in the
same way that Jewish music has freylahks, scissors dances, horas,
processionals etc. The Cuban dances came to America as dance crazes
and Jews supported and enjoyed all of them. The Catskill hotels were
swarming with mambo bands. Larry Harlow, Eddie Palmieri, Machito and
many more of the future top salsa musicians played in the mountains."

Rather than list all of my favorite 2004 releases, some of which are mentioned in your letter, I will just list a few more for consideration, in no particular order and with an eye toward diversity:

Neshama Carlebach "Journey"
Steve Bernstein "Hollywood Diaspora"
Yoel Ben-Simhon & the Sultana Ensemble
Kleztraphobix "Another Bottle of Vodka"
Shirim Klezmer Orchestra "Mayse (Tales)"
Ofer Golany et al. "Ruach"

And two top 2004 reissues:

Shelly Manne "Steps to the Desert"
Pharaoh's Daughter "Out of the Reeds"

P.S. I'll be doing an idiosyncratic "Best of 2004" edition of the "Sunday Simcha" radio show on January 2, from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., on WMPG-FM, streaming live at www.wmpg.org. Also on that program I will be interviewing Reuben Hoch of the Chassidic Jazz Project. I apologize in advance for all mispronunciations.

Michael Atleson

Looks like some interesting selections there Michael, but I always ask for context - other than names, WHY do these selections stand out? What makes them worth listening to?

Oy, I forgot the "why" part. For what it is worth:

Carlebach: For her beautiful voice and conviction and for the overall spirituality of this recording, which features a crack band including David Morgan and Greg Wall.

Bernstein and Manne: For Bernstein's fine trumpet and intriguing concept of filtering the experience of immigrant Jewish composers through the sound of 1960s West Coast jazz. Speaking of that genre, Manne's reissued album is well-played hardbop over non-cliched arrangements of traditional Jewish melodies, making them sound like jazz standards.

Ben-Simhon and Pharaoh's Daughter: For their mystical, hypnotic vibe arising from a considered mixture of Middle Eastern and Western musical traditions and styles.

Golany: For catchy numbers like "Redemption Time" and other Middle Eastern-flavored folk, and for the explicit message of peace delivered by this band of Jewish and Arab musicians.

Shirim and Kleztraphobic: For obvious reasons I defer and refer to Ari's own reviews of these two CDs. Plus I really dig the voice tracks and old photos on the cover of "Mayse (Tales)."

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