Have I got a band for you!

A new generation of musicians tackles the wedding scene.

Trumpeters 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photos)
Trumpeters 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photos)
There's nothing like a Jewish wedding. A special ceremony for people in love, a wedding symbolizes many things close to the Jewish heart: continuity, family, joy, blessings and much more. A huppa not only allows two people to enter into holy matrimony, but also provides the extended family and friends a chance to feast, socialize and, most importantly, dance. At an Orthodox wedding, the band provides the heartbeat and soundtrack of the joyful event. Much like the wider religious world, the wedding band scene is fractured into distinct groups catering to their respective constituencies. Somewhere in the broad groupings of religious Jewry where religious Zionism and hozrim b'teshuva (the newly religious) meet, over the past few years a group of ensembles have emerged with a new, eclectic and creative sound. Incorporating world music, reggae, Middle Eastern, rock and Latin flavors into the old base of hassidic, Klezmer-style dance music, these groups are striving for artistic expression within the limitations of the wedding format, and are actually continuing the time-honored tradition of updating Jewish music to contemporary aesthetics and taste. Avichai Paz Greenveld, keyboardist and lead singer of the group Kumi Ori, which takes it's name from a phrase in the Lecha Dodi prayer from the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service, has seen the new sound develop right under his nose. At just 23, he is already a 10-year veteran of the simha (Jewish celebration) world. At age 13, he started playing solo hassidic music on the keyboard, with automatic drum machine backup. "Years ago, religious music was only wedding music," he tells In Jerusalem while driving to a wedding. "Now, you have all these bands putting out their own CDs of original music but also playing weddings too, and bringing in so many different styles." Greenveld, who grew up in Gush Etzion and currently lives with his wife and two children in a small settlement near Hebron, attributes the change to the newly observant. The religious world, he explains, is sometimes closed and those entering it from outside are able to bring in creative energy. "It's all because of [the late] Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach," he says. Carlebach, who passed away in 1994, had a huge influence on the hozer b'teshuva movement and on the Jewish music world in general, as many of the artists interviewed for this article were quick to point out. Kumi Ori has been together for three years and is known for playing tight arrangements of high-intensity hassidic and rock rhythms mixed with Klezmer horn melodies, roots-reggae interludes, drum and percussion breakdowns and jazzed out bossa-nova versions of classics like Mizmor L'David. Despite this eclecticism, the group is - musically speaking - on the conservative side of the spectrum and is more focused on re-interpreting wedding music than on developing original material, although it does some songs written by Greenveld, who recently released a CD of his own compositions. "Most of our weddings are for young couples in the yeshiva-oriented religious Zionist world," explains band leader, trumpeter and manager Yoav Amitzur, 26, who directs the group onstage with a constant series of gestures indicating rhythmic breaks, shifts in tempo and soloing opportunities. While Kumi Ori is on the more traditional side, the Jerusalem-based Aharit Hayamim (The End of Days) is an ensemble known as a spiritual, religious reggae band that also plays weddings. Most of the members grew up in Gush Etzion and they have been together for four years. "It has always been an artistic thing," says Yehuda Leuschter, their perpetually happy lead singer and keyboardist. "But we've done weddings since the beginning, and now we are playing a lot. This week we played a very straight kind of wedding, then we have a freaky hippie wedding, and then on Thursday we are playing for a couple from Peru... I don't know how they heard about us." Aharit Hayamim regularly performs its original music in venues around Jerusalem and over the years has built up a strong local following. The members also organize a music festival each summer in the hills of Gush Etzion which this year attracted more than 1,000 people, and have just self-produced their debut CD. "Lately, we are doing our own songs at the weddings and also wrote some new music, reggae stuff, and people are liking it," Leuschter says. "It's totally different from doing a concert and I think it's better... at a wedding people are already hyped, you start rocking and they are moving. The bride and groom are there, the whole crowd is already happy... it's precious." While Aharit Hayamim seems to have found the balance between creative drives and the wedding world, for others the schism is too much to bear and a clear distinction must be made between their more creative music efforts and performing at weddings. "You know, if you are trying to make original music out in the world you have to be careful how to present yourself," says Shmuel Nelson, the soft-spoken leader of 'Eden Mi Qedem. "If you go out to a wedding, your main obligation is to make music for the couple, for the audience. It's a service. People are there to be happy, not necessarily to connect to the music on an artistic level." Nelson, a guitarist and singer from an Ashkenazi-American background, became enamored of Middle Eastern music while learning at Yeshivat Bat Ayin, and through diligent study and immersion in Middle Eastern music, he grew proficient in the complicated scale system and singing style of piyutim (Middle Eastern religious songs) and Arabic classical music. The 'Eden Mi Qedem band, originally conceived as a creative endeavor that would also play a lot of weddings, quickly evolved a unique sound combining Middle Eastern music, heavy rock, psychedelic jamming and electronic elements. This mix turned out to be popular for the hozer b'teshuva crowd, but sometimes clashed with the sensibilities of wedding guests who had pre-conceived notions of what Jewish wedding music should be. While recording the group's recently released, debut CD, Nelson realized that he needed to separate the project from the wedding scene. "What I am trying to do with the original music is distinct and not something that people associate with wedding music, but it has the influences," he explains. "For 'Eden Mi Qedem, I needed to have creative freedom, to be able to play other venues." To that end he recently formed a new band, Etz Zamir (The Singing Tree), which uses the same rhythm section as 'Eden Mi Qedem, but draws from a larger pool of other musicians at need, giving the ensemble greater stylistic flexibility than many groups out there. With Etz Zamir, he says, "We can provide what's appropriate for the crowd, couple and family. We do traditional music and can also do Jewish and Arabic Middle Eastern music and classic rock, but the focus is on wedding dynamics." Another creative ensemble that is making waves in the wedding scene is Noar Carmi's Tizmoret Ha'amamit (The People's Orchestra). Carmi, who lives in Motza and who became religious many years ago, is one of the most respected bassists in the Israeli ethnic music scene and was a member of the very influential Bustan Abraham, the Jewish-Arab ensemble that kick-started the world music scene back in the Nineties. "The Tizmoret is a gypsy-Klezmer band," he explains in a brief telephone conversation on the way to a gig. "[Playing weddings] is new for me... I have mostly been inside the ethnic music scene doing performances. We do traditional songs and it's very energetic. We also have our own original material but that has asymmetrical rhythms and isn't really for wedding dancing." In performance, Carmi eschews the traditional placement of bass players - performing at the front of the stage next to the audience - and acts as conductor for the ensemble, which includes a horn section of three players and Latin-style percussion. The group also sometimes performs a set gypsy-brass band style, with Carmi playing the tuba (his original instrument) and the band members descending into the midst of the dancers, resulting in Balkan-esque, horn and drum renditions of traditional hassidic melodies. The Tizmoret released a CD of Carmi's original compositions last year and most recently performed to an enthusiastic crowd at the Israel Festival, but the group is something of a side project for Carmi, who is in constant demand as a freelance bass player. At the other end of the spectrum are groups like Inyan Acher (A Different Idea), one of the most successful bands focused specifically on weddings. Together for six years, the group was formed by a group of students at the Rimon Music School and was actually not intended to be a wedding band at all. "We wanted to be a Jewish music band, we thought we would record and perform," recalls drummer Akiva Meller, 31. "We figured if we played a few weddings a month we could be able to scrape by, get an old car and pay the rent. But before we even entered the recording studio a friend of a friend heard about us and wanted us for his wedding... since then most of our paying work has been weddings and that was a big surprise. We were doing acoustic rock, post-Shlomo style. Now, we play 120 events a year and during the summer we play five nights a week." He continues: "In the wedding world, we were able to bridge the gap between the Israeli crowd and the post-Carlebach crowd. We filled a need that was stronger than we knew. After Rav Shlomo died, there were his close students that had bands, like Yehuda Katz of Reva L'Sheva and Chaim Dovid, but they were mostly in the English-speaking world. "Now we are in the second era with a bunch of bands like Sinai Tor, Yirmiyahu, Shlomo Katz, and Aaron Razel... there is a whole Israeli scene of bands that do weddings and also release original material... it's hard to survive if you are not going to do weddings; there are just not that many performances." Wedding music, Meller says, used to be more standard, "The 'Nagina' style that came out of New York, the keyboard and brass section style. It was more American, more classically Jewish. Now there are so many influences... we were one of the first to play Irish and country music at weddings, now there is a lot... there are nearly a dozen bands that play the style that we do." Inyan Acher, through its connections with Bnei Akiva, has performed concerts in Vienna, Denmark, Sweden and in the US and is currently booked solid with weddings through Rosh Hashana. Despite their success, the band members, like nearly every musician mentioned in this article, still have day jobs. "The money is pretty good but people think it's better than it is," says Meller. "For about three months of the year there isn't work; during the Omer [between Pessah and Shavuot], the Three Weeks [between the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and Tisha Be'av] and around the hagim [festivals] you don't have weddings. You can't raise a family just playing in a band... three guys are teachers, one guy works at a bank and I am entering school to study psychology next year. It's normal for our genre, and for Israel especially." According to Meller, for bands in the religious Zionist or modern Orthodox worlds, there is another barrier to achieving success, namely competition from the rest of the Israeli music scene. In the haredi world people only listen to haredi religious music, so even with its limited market it is possible to achieve exposure. Religious groups that are more open to mainstream Israeli society also listen to regular, Israeli pop music and many other kinds of music, so a band doing original material faces competition. There are also those who play weddings and produce original music, but have another agenda, like Nahla'ot's own Shlomo Katz, who just released his long-awaited album Vehakohanim and is currently touring in the States. Katz's music, while diverse, is solidly rock-oriented and he has even been known to pull out Neil Young covers in concert. "In terms of neo-Carlebach, or whatever you want to call it, Shlomo Katz is the man," confirms his childhood friend and drummer Eli Farkas, 26, who has also performed with Reva L'Sheva, Chaim Dovid, Kumi Ori and many more. "Throughout the year we play several weddings a week, but he doesn't want that to be his main thing. He just got smicha [rabbinic ordination] and he wants to teach Torah and to change the world, to bring people closer to Judaism." The diversity of the worlds of the modern Orthodox and the newly religious is reflected in the emerging music performed at their weddings and by the musicians that come out of these communities. "It is amazing sometimes," reflects Rabbi Shaul Judelman, 27, who moonlights as a saxophonist with the Shlomo Katz band. "Playing some of these events, seeing Jews from all different backgrounds... Russians, Ethiopians, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, all dancing together... then you realize they are dancing to an Irish jig!"