Eight Nights of Hanukah

The annual survey, by George Robinson

from the author, 2 Dec '04.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Eight nights of Hanukah, eight packages of related music for the well-endowed gift-giver. Hey, you don't have to buy all of them, you know. All joking aside, the recordings in this column just fell naturally into groupings that cover nearly the entire range of contemporary Jewish music. So there's something for every taste, even music to eat latkes by.

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Klezmatics / Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanuka
A Hanukah Feast
Botton, Richard / Ladino Reverie
Celebrate Hip Hop: Jewish Artists From Around the World
Celebrate Klezmer
Celebrate Yiddish
Fleischer, Tsippi / Around the World with Tsippi Fleischer
Green, Marty / A Boy Named Sureh
Greenman, Steven / Stempenyu's Dream
Jaros, Bonita Nahoum / Kantigas de Mi Chikes
Kanter, Simcha / Wellsprings
Kleztraphobix / Another Bottle of Vodka
Lichtenberg, Lenka / Open the Gate—Break Down the Walls
Musleah, Rahel / Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India
Schubert, Gerry / Return to Eden—Jewish Music for the Universal Soul
Segev, Inbal and Ron Regev / Nigun: A Celebration of Jewish Music
Veroba, Gershon / Impressions

First Night—Hanukah recordings

album coverKlezmatics / Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanuka (self-distributed). A special, limited-edition recording by the 'Matics of songs rediscovered by Woody's daughter Nora in 1998. Like most of Woody's childrens' songs, this is cute and effervescent but wears thin pretty quickly. The playing is terrific, as one might expect, and Lorin Sklamberg's vocals are charming. Great packaging that kids will love. At 32 minutes this is just about the right length but as a full-price CD, it's a bit skimpy. Available from www.klezmatics.com. Rating: 3 stars, but add another star if you're under 12.

album coverA Hanukah Feast (Hungry for Music). Twenty cuts by as many artists, raising funds for a good cause, a DC-based program that brings music—sheet music, books and instruments—to poor children. This is about as wide and wild a range of Jewish musics as this entire column, from the neo-klez of Alexandria Kleztet to the pure Ladino folk of Flory Jagoda, the heavy metal Latino rap of Hip-Hop Hoodíos to the country-western of Honky Tonk Confidential. Uneven, but on the whole great fun. Available at www.hungryformusic.com, and you can also do a little tzedekah for the festival, too. Rating: 4½ stars.

Second Night—Comedy set to music

album coverGreen, Marty / A Boy Named Sureh (Benchmark). Any joke that needs explanation is going suffer, and Green feels obliged to open every cut with an introductory speech on the problems of translating Gentile songs into Yiddish. On the other hand, Johnny Cash, Goethe, Kris Kristofferson and "My Way" in the mame-loshn are pretty funny no matter how you slice it. Inventive translations, aided immeasurably by Green's deadpan delivery and his self-deprecating wit. To order, call 888-378-9273 or go to www.onforeignsoil.com. Rating: 4 stars.

album coverVeroba, Gershon / Impressions (Sameach). Veroba is a gifted mimic (as well as a trained hazan), and this set is a smarter version of the kind of loving parody that Schlock Rock have been dining out on for two decades. I'm not sure why you would want to listen to a frum version of Chicago or The Monkees or Lennon and McCartney, but if you feel so inclined, these are clever and the musical imitations are dead-on. Rating: 3 stars.

Third Night—Klezmer old-style and new

album coverGreenman, Steven / Stempenyu's Dream (Ohio Arts Council). This is an ambitious two-CD set of original compositions by Greenman, the violinist for Khevrisa, among others. He's one of the best of the musicians who are working their way back to pre-New World klezmer, emphasizing the interplay of fiddle and tsimbl in a sound that is at once more foreign and yet perhaps more natural to American ears. He is ably abetted by Walter Zev Feldman, Pete Rushefsky, Stuart Brotman, and several other high-caliber talents. At a time when the klezmer revival was beginning to feel played out, guys like Greenman have brought something new (i.e., very old) to the table with gratifying results. Rating: 5 stars.

album coverKleztraphobix / Another Bottle of Vodka (self-distributed). Meanwhile back in the new world, a brass-based wildly swinging set from Kleztraphobix. Their second CD is party music with an edge. Occasionally it's a rough edge, but the energy level they achieve is worth those rare slips. Great fun. Rating: 4 stars.

Fourth Night—Ladino songfests

album coverBotton, Richard / Ladino Reverie (The Songs of My Sephardic Life) (self-distributed). This record is clearly a labor of love. Botton, the cantor emeritus at Central Synagogue in NYC, grew up with Ladino songs in his family and he's obviously wanted to do this recital for a long time. The repertoire is a beautiful one and he clearly is deeply conversant with it. But his voice no longer has the flexibility, the lilt, that this material requires and power is no substitute. The result is a set that is only intermittently effective, most tellingly in the moments when Botton drops down to mezzo voce and treats the songs like the lullabies that many are. If only he had made this record a decade earlier.... Available from www.richardbotton.com. Rating: 3 stars.

album coverJaros, Bonita Nahoum / Kantigas de Mi Chikes (Los Tanyaderos). Jaros is another singer who grew up in a Ladinophone household and remembers her childhood songs fondly. Los Tanyaderos are a deft instrumental group specializing in Sephardic song and the match of band and singer is felicitious. I find Jaros's vibrato a bit insistent, her manner rather brittle, but this is an adequate sampler of a vibrant musical tradition. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or 1-323-655-7083). Rating: 3 stars.

Fifth Night—Classical recitals

album coverFleischer, Tsippi / Around the World with Tsippi Fleischer (Vienna Modern Masters). Late modernism at is spiky best. Fleischer is a sharp-thinking composer with a playful sense of harmonics and a taste for unusual instrumentation, sort of an Israeli Satie. This CD features 13 of her compositions, none of them longer than 16 minutes; she's a miniaturist of real heft. Rating 4½ stars.

album coverSegev, Inbal and Ron Regev / Nigun: A Celebration of Jewish Music (Vox Classics). This must be the fourth CD of Jewish-themed cello I've reviewed in the past year. Where would Jewish classical musicians be without Ernst Bloch? Inbal is an excellent cellist and she milks the melodramatic potential of Bloch and Paul Ben-Haim for all its worth. I prefer the cooler folkloric renderings of Joachim Stutchewsky, the most interesting material on this set. Rating 3½ stars.

Sixth Night—Female singer-songwriters

album coverLichtenberg, Lenka / Open the Gate—Break Down the Walls (Sunflower). Second CD from this Canadian artist, a step forward from her first, with some smart writing. I find her vocals a bit mannered, but she's definitely got something and the lyrics are frequently clever, in four different languages. Available from www.lenkalichtenberg.com. Rating: Rating 4 stars.

album coverMusleah, Rahel / Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India (self-distributed). The musical traditions of the Jews of India are among the least familiar to American listeners. Musleah grew up in these traditions and has a sure feel for them. Her little-girl soprano bestows a certain poignance on material that is already freighted with a certain sense of loss. The result is a lovely collection of piquant recordings that will be a revelation to those who have not been exposed to this vibrant musical tradition. Available from www.rahelsjewishindia.com. Rating: 5 stars.

Seventh Night—Male singer-songwriters

album coverKanter, Simcha / Wellsprings (IgraRama). A smart, hip set of neo-Hasidic acoustic rock. Kanter and Co. sound like "REM Unplugged and Frum," with that band's patented drive and snap. Definitely worth checking out. Available from www.igrarama.com. Rating: 4½ stars.

album coverSchubert, Gerry / Return to Eden—Jewish Music for the Universal Soul (self-distributed). Okay, this isn't a singer-songwriter set. Actually, it's a heavy-duty symphonic/choral version of liturgical standards. Think Montovani at the peak of his career. If you like "easy listening" music of the '50s, this is the set for you, polished, professional and bombastic. Available from www.gerryschubert.com. Rating: 2 stars, unless Peter Nero is your glezele tay.

Final Night—A groaning table of musical smorgasbords

album coverCelebrate Hip Hop: Jewish Artists From Around the World (Craig and Co.) Craig Taubman has been putting out his "celebrate" series anthologies for a while now, and they are a handy introduction to the state of Jewish music. If anyone needed proof of the pervasiveness of hip-hop or its validity as a cross-cultural site for asserting identity, this set should convince them. I'm convinced, 'cause this is a good a hip-hop sampler as I've heard all year. Period. Available from www.celebrateseries.com or 1-800-6-CRAIG-8. Rating: Rating 5 stars.

album coverCelebrate Klezmer (Craig and Co.). The second of Taubman's new anthologies (alphabetically) is a solid sampler of contempo klez sounds, geared towards mainstream but inventive bands like the Klez Dispensers, KCB and Shtreiml, but with a dollop of Old World New Klez—Veretski Pass, Steven Greenman, Pete Rushefsky, Khupe—and a couple of rad combos like the 'Matics and Frank London's Brass All-Stars. Smartly chosen survey of the scene and fun enough to stand on its own. Available from www.celebrateseries.com or 1-800-6-CRAIG-8. Rating: 5 stars.

album coverCelebrate Yiddish (Craig and Co.). One of the nicest things about the new "Celebrate" disks is that Taubman's producers (Frank London and Loren Sklamberg on this set and the klezmer CD) have gone for the unexpected wherever possible. I could do without the Theodore Bikel and Avraham Fried cuts (more for the '60s orchestral backing on each than the singing), but any set that includes Adrienne Cooper, Wolf Krakowski and Seymour Rechtzeit is not to be sneezed at. Available from www.celebrateseries.com or 1-800-6-CRAIG-8. Rating: 4 stars.

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