The chosen music

With two Grammy Awards nominations, Jewish music is poised to break out of the ghetto.

By
January 25, 2007 13:11
The chosen music

12 tribe sound 298. (photo credit: Courtesy photo)

 
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On February 11, the 2007 Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles is set to honor big-name nominees from the mainstream entertainment world, including the Dixie Chicks, Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gnarls Barkley, Justin Timberlake, Matisyahu and the Klezmatics. That's right - two performers from Jewish culture's vanguard are now finalists hoping to receive coveted statuettes from the Hollywood recording industry's most influential trade group, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Matisyahu, the Chabadnik who has sold nearly two million copies of his various Jewish-themed reggae/hip-hop recordings, would trump real-deal Jamaican reggae artists like Buju Banton and Ziggy Marley if he were to take home the Best Reggae Album award. The East Village's Klezmatics, meanwhile, have been making genre-bending progressive shtetl jazz sounds relevant for more than 20 years; the band's Wonder Wheel album, which sets Woody Guthrie verses to original, klez-inspired melodies, has been nominated for the Best Contemporary World Music Album alongside works by Timbuktu's Ali Farka Toure and Mali's Salif Keita. What do these watershed accolades mean? Why does the creation of Jewish-themed contemporary music suddenly connote value? Has Jewish music become so big that it has finally penetrated the general public's consciousness? With a growing army of edgy Jewish bands selling out shows, an increasing number of Jewish recording labels disseminating CDs and plenty of philanthropic interest in making Jewish culture cool, one can't help but wonder where it's all leading. While America's immigrants from the shtetl defined their identities by bringing the entertainment traditions of their native communities out to bigger audiences, today young Jews are exploring who they are by absorbing Jewish elements from the mainstream entertainment culture. Song steeped in Jewish dogma used to wield power over budding Jews through synagogues and community centers, but a recent report from the New York-based National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) argues that entertainment is the name of the game for the Jews of Generation Y. According to the NFJC study, which surveyed nearly 5,000 American Jewish households, today's Diaspora youth are more inclined to explore their Jewish identities by dancing at a Jewish-themed rock concert than by attending Shabbat services. As the 27-year-old Matisyahu sees it, the confines of the preexisting Jewish community were never part of his career's picture. "It was never in my mind to get out of the box, because I never saw that there was a box there," he says. "When we started, it was good to have a Jewish fan base that helped things get going, but it didn't stop there. When we started booking shows, we might've made $1,000 more to play at a JCC, but we went to the Mercury Lounge and places like that, because that's where we wanted to be." JDUB RECORDS, the label that introduced Matisyahu, currently represents novelty indie supergroup the Leevees, klez-punk act Golem and the Israeli gypsy world-electronics of Balkan Beat Box. JDub was founded on principles that line up well with NFJC's platform and is now engaged in a partnership with the foundation. "The goal of our not-for-profit is to get out innovative music and to promote cross-cultural dialogue outside of traditional Jewish spaces and into the world," JDub co-founder Aaron Bisman explains in a non-conventional description of a record label. Despite having built Matisyahu's career from the ground up, the artist broke off his ties with the not-for-profit shortly after JDub secured a partnership for Matisyahu distribution with Sony. But the house that built contemporary mainstream Jewish pop is moving on with ease: The latest releases from Balkan Beat Box and Golem have been praised in Spin magazine and The New Yorker, and the label's recent series of Hanukka parties, some of which were co-sponsored by Heeb magazine, entertained thousands around North America. DJ Handler, whose Modular Moods label recently put on its second annual progressive Sephardic Music Festival, is involved with all sides of the current funky Jewish music renaissance. His own DJ sets mash together Yemenite Hebrew chants and Jewish avant-jazz with electro-pop and old-school hip-hop. The scene is bracing for the release of This Is Babylon, the debut album from flagship Modular Moods artist Y-Love, an African American convert to Bostoner Hassidism. Y-Love is being touted as the next Matisyahu, because he raps in Yiddish, English, Aramaic and Hebrew. In a sense, Bisman, Handler and the like are merely picking up on where the Knitting Factory scene of the mid-'90s left off. A Greenwich Village club that specializes in cutting-edge live music, the Knitting Factory was run by Michael Dorf (who founded it with his bar mitzva gift money) until 2001, when he sold much of his ownership and stepped down from the club's leadership. Under Dorf, the club had become a hotbed of new ways to express Jewish identity. Landmark performances from Pharaoh's Daughter, Piamenta, the Klezmatics and John Zorn melded jam band sensibilities with shtetl melodies and Middle Eastern grooves, and Dorf even enjoyed some success with his now-defunct Jewish Alternative Movement (JAM) imprint on Knitting Factory Records. Today Dorf has dedicated himself fully to projects that push the envelope of new Jewish music's popularity under the Downtown Arts Development and Oyhoo brand names. "There's been a lot of interest lately in Jewish music in a broader sense," he says. The third Oyhoo Festival took over New York for 60 shows last September, showcasing the talents of David Broza, Piamenta, Hadag Nahash, the Moshav Band, Y-Love, Neshama Carlebach and Zorn. The festival culminated with a multi-venue Jewzapalooza all-day concert. Dorf founded Oyhoo and ran its first festival with his own money; now the organization is privy to grants from a laundry list of big-name funding bodies, including the Michael Steinhardt Foundation, the Bronfman family, the Educational Alliance and New York's UJA federation. "If the mission is not business then what are the realistic goals?" Dorf wonders. "It needs to go somewhere defined from here." RICK RECHT, on the other hand, a St. Louis-based pop-rocker who gigs on the stages of the Reform movement several times weekly, has some clearly defined goals for contemporary Jewish music. "Jewish music is the biggest ingredient in getting people involved in a meaningful way in their Judaism," he says. Under his Jewish Rock Records and St. Louis Live Agency organizations, Recht employs several full-time staffers, maintains an in-house recording studio and produces movies, albums and even branded boxer shorts. He also champions a curriculum aimed at training the next generation of Jewish rock leadership through community organizations. "I want to build the next generation of leaders and watch it grow exponentially," he says. "That's where we're going to leave our mark on Judaism and not just on Jewish music." According to Recht, the Jewish soul is at a crossroads, and not even Grammy nominations should make us feel like our work has enough impact. He scoffs at conclusions drawn by the NFJC study: "People have been bored and excited about Judaism in every generation. Rabbis are feeling threatened, but everybody is being included in this picture - we all have to be in this picture: rabbis, cantors and rock stars." "Whether it's a service or a rock show, it doesn't matter if it's in a synagogue, a field or on a mountaintop. You need something that speaks to them," he says. Basya Schechter, whose band Pharaoh's Daughter works closely with Dorf as well as with Zorn's Tzadik Records, sums up the mission simply. "The way to make Judaism contemporary and hip - which is very important to the powers that be - is taking genres that are big in general society and putting a Jewish spin to it," she says cynically. "A lot of new Jewish music is that." Dan Seliger, whose 12 Tribe Sound initiative is involved with Jewish artist development and album production, thinks that the future of Jewish music is a lot bigger than merely rehashing secular pop with lyrics about faith and hoping that it keeps the youth thinking Jewish thoughts. "Jewish music was corny and uninspired," he notes. "We just want to make it a little cooler, a little more accessible, a little more meaningful. It's partly for outreach, and partly because everything just sounds better with a booming beat." Booming beats are not new to Seliger, who served as a vice president at Rawkus Records, the label that introduced alternative rapper Mos Def. 12 Tribe Sound produced Matisyahu's debut disc in his days as an unsigned artist, and its newest creation, a pop rap album by West Coast duo Ta-Shma, has been enjoying substantial airplay on college radio in the US. Despite 12 Tribe's religious mission, "we are a music company like any other," says Seliger. "We want to make the best records we can and touch the most people possible." The organization is now moving ahead at top speed, working on the Y-Love album, a Jewish reggae compilation called Thunda 'Pon the Mountain and a documentary called And the Faith Goes Boom, which is a full-length report on the state of progressive Jewish music. HANDLING THE business side of the Ta-Shma project, the Thunda compilation, the Klezmatics' Grammy-nominated disc and plenty more is Jewish Music Group (JMG), a relatively new label out of Los Angeles. JMG president David McLees says that his company is unequivocally "trying to break Jewish music into the mainstream," and it seems that he's succeeding. McLees founded JMG with Richard Foos, financing it with their own money. The two had worked together as A&R executive and owner, respectively, at Rhino Records, the reissue label that brought the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, the Eagles and Aretha Franklin into the CD age - until Foos sold Rhino to Warner Brothers in 1998. After converting to Judaism in the '90s, McLees noticed that Jewish music was being marketed with tunnel vision: The product was always targeted within specific Jewish sects, and professionalism was sorely lacking. When recording budgets are small, he noted, CDs are cut in living rooms and meant to be sold at concerts only. "Once you have a bigger goal, like outselling a Bruce Springsteen album," McLees says, "you approach making an album differently." Foos and McLees have marketing know-how, they have industry connections and they have a budget. They looked at Christian rock as a model for how spirituality can be sold on a mainstream level, and they forged a partnership with Red, Sony's indie distributor. "The idea was that we were both from the regular music industry and we had a chance to get together some established Jewish acts and to get them into the mainstream," McLees says of JMG's early projects. Now releasing plenty of debut albums as well as old-school Jewish reissues like Jackie Mason albums, the label has been around for less than two years and has released over 30 CDs. McLees estimates that JMG will be solvent some time this year, which is way ahead of their original five-year goal. The first two acts JMG signed were Debbie Friedman, the Reform-movement folkie who had sold more than a quarter million units on her own, and the Moshav Band, the Israeli hassidic hippie-grunge band that has gigged non-stop for nine years now - acts which had enjoyed considerable success but could surely find more with some marketing muscle backing them up. Moshav was especially exciting to McLees. "I thought they were the best thing that I had heard in the whole Jewish rock scene," he says. "For me they stuck out, and I've probably listened to 5,000 albums." JMG's groundbreaking approach to Jewish music uses Christian rock as a model and sees high production value as a key, so big-time record producer Ron Aniello was a natural choice for overseeing sessions that would lead to Moshav's major-label debut, Misplaced. In addition to his work with the power pop band Guster (which shares a band member with JDub artists the Leevees), Aniello had collaborated with the successful spiritual band Lifehouse and big Christian rock acts Jars of Clay and Jeremy Camp. In terms of the greater mainstream music landscape, Aniello, raised Catholic, thinks that Jewish-themed rock may have a better shot than its Christian counterpart. "People are more distrustful of the sincerity of the Christian artists," he says. "With these guys, it feels fresh to me, and these guys are coming at it from real views with real creativity." As the popularity of downloads and live performances began to threaten the music industry's basis of album sales in recent years, Aniello and his friend, band manager and Orthodox Jew Ronny Vance, began to panic. "People were getting fired and records stopped being made," says Aniello, so the two Rons began to look for a new model that could keep them involved with music. Eventually, they agreed that the key was to work with bands that lived on the road - "regardless of if they have a hit record" - so as to exempt themselves from the fickle whims of the major labels. Also crucial to the new model was the spirituality of those who had envisioned it, so the duo founded the God on Our Side (GOOS) indie imprint and the Good Ron Bad Ron (word play based on their opposing theologies) management company. Soon GOOS was hard at work on Misplaced, trying to find the proper balance between Moshav's hassidic upbringing, guitar rock leanings and pop aspirations. "When they play American music it's kind of different sounding - I encouraged them to not run away from their roots," says Aniello of the sessions' stylistic search. "The Eastern flavor had to be mixed in. That's what excited me about it." Whether or not the disc is representative of what is happening and what can continue to happen in Jewish music as a whole, Misplaced has sold relatively well, and JMG's backing has meant more headlining club gigs for Moshav and even some spots opening for Matisyahu at large auditoriums. "It's hard work - you need a team behind you," says Moshav bassist Yosef Solomon. But with the Jewish music industry kicking into high gear, he's got more of an army than a team backing him up.

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