Music to hi-tech and back again

Ethnic African sounds mix with hassidic niggunim on new double album

Yosef Gutman Levitt (photo credit: LARRY BRANDT AND EMUNAH WINER)
Yosef Gutman Levitt
Yosef Gutman Levitt has come full circle, from musician to hi-tech entrepreneur and back to musician. The founder of the successful email newsletter app Mad Mimi, the Jerusalem-based Levitt has returned to his first love, releasing a double album of hassidic-inspired music.
Born Gary Levitt in a small, remote farm region of South Africa, he moved to the United States at the age of 18 to study jazz at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. His old college roommate, the Israeli-born Gilad Ronen, is a co-arranger and saxophonist on the new album.
“I hadn’t spoken to him in 20 years,” Levitt told In Jerusalem, but upon his wife’s suggestion the two old friends reunited for the album. Today both are in Israel.
“We both went through a process over there,” Levitt explained. “A lot of other Israeli colleagues at Berklee came back and are now contributing to the talent pool here.” Levitt’s journey spans not only the fast-paced hi-tech world, but that of spirituality. His process, as he calls it, has taken him through a variety of Jewish communities such as Sephardic, Moroccan and various hassidic movements, yet he always returns to a value of quality and meaning.
“The times I was most successful in the tech world were when I was building a product that I myself valued and needed,” Levitt related. “It is the same with music. I need good Jewish music to listen to, so I am making music for myself that I can leave playing in the house all day.” His two albums are called The Sun Sings to Hashem and The Moon Sings to Hashem. The mostly instrumental tracks are new arrangements on traditional hassidic niggunim, wordless melodies in which Levitt plays acoustic bass and contrabass. Other instruments include piano, saxophone, flute and a variety of Mediterranean instruments like the nei, oud and kamanché. Ethnic African instruments such as the balaphone and African harp are also featured.
“A lot of these niggunim have the vibe of the shtetl,” Levitt said, evoking the image of black-hatted Eastern European Jews from yesteryear, perhaps holding small glasses of vodka and swaying back and forth as they sing.
(Photo credit: Emunah Winer)(Photo credit: Emunah Winer)
What song does the sun sing?
Levitt mined old recordings for lesser-known traditional tunes. One in particular was an album of children’s songs called Perek Shira, which sounds nothing like the intricate compositions Levitt and his band turned them into. Other melodies came from Slonim, Breslov and Chabad traditions.
“The idea of the niggun is something we do together in a gathering where we can contemplate holiness,” he explained. “It represents a process, an experience.”
Levitt gives the example of a Shabbat niggun, which can “allow us to be in the headspace of the Day of Rest.”
Perek Shira, a historic text that incorporates selections from Psalms, attributes music and prayers to different animals and plants. This inspired Levitt to ask what song the sun or moon would sing to God. Each song on the first album follows the sun’s journey from dawn to dusk. The second album does the same with the moon and its cycles.
Another inspiration was the biblical story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho in which he famously made the sun stand still.
“In the midrash it says Joshua was able to sing the song of the sun,” Levitt clarified. “The sun no longer needed to sing because Joshua had taken over for it. This concept invigorated me.”
(Photo credit: Emunah Winer)(Photo credit: Emunah Winer)
Big break with Oprah Winfrey
As the moon waxes and wanes, so has Levitt’s career. After music school, he moved to New York where he worked as a restaurant busboy while looking for professional work.
In a bid to get gigs, Levitt started “spamming everybody in the creative industry.” His email blast targeted producers for TV, film, commercials and anyone else looking for musicians.
“I promoted myself as a South African musician who composes and creates South African music,” Levitt reminisced. “Thinking back, that sounds insane. Why would I pigeonhole myself in such a niche? But a crazy thing happened and the Oprah Winfrey Show called.” Levitt says he will never forget the day Parker Lee Williams, musical supervisor for the long-running American talk show host, contacting him about a special program Oprah was doing about South Africa. It seemed he got his big break and Levitt threw himself into calling in all the favors he could muster to create something breathtaking. This included recruiting well-known South African musician Tony Cedras, who had performed on Paul Simon’s award-winning Graceland album among other famous projects.
“I was so excited,” Levitt remembered. “I built a small studio in my brother’s bedroom. I put so much effort and energy into creating this incredible music, and they hated it.” It turned out that American network television was not so keen on music that sounded inaccessible to the average TV viewer.
“They wanted a Disney version of South African music and I had done the ethnic version,” he lamented.
“But the guy felt sorry for me and gave me another opportunity.”
That’s how Levitt ended up doing music for Oprah’s talk show for the next two years. Yet it was inauthentic for his trained ear.
“They told me exactly what they wanted, but for me, I thought it was cheesy and electronic sounding. But I was so happy with the opportunity.”
Williams went on earn two Emmy Award nominations and create music for Oprah’s African Leadership Academy and The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Levitt went on to leave music behind and pursue the email blast that got him his gig in the first place.
Creation of Mad Mimi
“The email campaign is what got me that crazy opportunity, so I decided to build an application to help musicians make these types of connections,” Levitt recounted.
Mad Mimi quickly morphed into an email platform for everyone, not just musicians. Despite stiff competition from the likes of Constant Contact and Mailchimp, it became a success story and a key part of Levitt’s new life for the next 10 years. Along the way, Levitt moved to Israel.
“I said, let’s see what Hashem [God] has in store for me and I worked really hard. In a strangely creative way, the entire company happened remotely.”
He described long hours of sitting at Jerusalem’s Nocturno Café with a laptop, managing his employees in 13 different countries while dealing with thousands of customer service requests and technical issues.
In 2014 GoDaddy, the American Internet domain registrar company, bought Mad Mimi in a multi-million dollar acquisition, a dream for most start-ups. Mad Mimi continues to be the sleek, user-friendly platform Levitt built and today sends over 40 million emails every day.
Levitt’s advice? Work with the best people, something he did with the musicians on his new double album and in his past tech ventures.
“It keeps me on my toes and brings me to a level of professionalism that I would not be able to get to if I were working with average talent,” he said. “I really try and shoot for the top and work my way down rather than starting in the middle and then end up going either up or down. It’s not always cheap, but always provides exciting and long-term good results.”
Gary Levitt Trio featuring the then 22-year-old bass guitarist Lionel Louke (Credit: Yosef Gutman Levitt)Gary Levitt Trio featuring the then 22-year-old bass guitarist Lionel Louke (Credit: Yosef Gutman Levitt)
Returning to music, retaining meaning
In the six years since the acquisition, Levitt has tried various start-ups and opportunities with mixed results. Many of them “did not go so well. A lot of blessing is needed for something to succeed.” That’s when he decided to return to music. But like his hi-tech ventures, he’s not settling for just so-so – it has to have meaning.
“In South Africa, I spent my time running away from Jewish music,” he said. For someone seeking to become a world-class instrumentalist, the simple melodies didn’t seem to offer much in terms of musical depth. But Levitt is taking those melodies and, like his apps, making them something he personally can use.
The new double album has what Levitt calls, “subtlety and nuance that excites me as a person sensitive to sophisticated music.” Whether it’s tech or music, he encourages “identifying what you would love to be listening to, identifying what problems you have in your life and then making that solution.”
The Sun Sings to Hashem / The Moon Sings to Hashem by Yosef Gutman Levitt is available on Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube and other music outlets.