Erran Baron Cohen
Songs In The Key Of Hanukkah
New Line Records, $12.00
Every artist remembers the first time he or she re–masters another artist’s work. The poet Ezra Pound caught his artistic stride translating traditional Japanese and Chinese poems complete with Eastern “pigments” and blending them with his own Western perspective. In this way “In a Station of the Metro” and “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” brought distinctive new idioms into English poetry. For me, the re-mastering was more prosaic: a 7th grade mixtape for a Halloween party — with boys.
As Pound had done 44 years earlier, I employed my artistic sensibilities to produce a masterful mixture of the received and the new. If done right, a compilation of continuous music provides structure in an otherwise chaotic environment. The mixtape keeps the party going, ensuring no unlucky 7th grader endures two slow-dance songs in a row. No matter how unpredictable other party factors may be (7th grade break-ups, early-arriving parents, wardrobe malfunctions) the tape keeps playing the soundtrack of nascent sexuality.
The notion that transitions can make any good album a great album is not limited to the mixtape; case in point, “Abbey Road” by the Beatles. From the rattling shoops that open “Come Together,” to the cheeky end of “Her Majesty,” the listener is on board for a musical voyage. Unfortunately, an entire album as a work of art is becoming a thing of the past. The music industry now hypes hit records, which a fan buys (iTunes) or rips (Limewire) singularly, thus making an entire album’s integrity moot. Also, music lovers now use music-matching software like Shazam or Pandora to pick a cluster of songs based on the elements they like from another song. Even though this intuitive music technology has its moments (on my Pandora Bruce Springsteen channel, The Boss’s “Born to Run” is followed by John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” which is spot-on) it eliminates the journey an entire album provides.
But the Internet age also has its journeys: Witness Diwon’s nonskippable-between-tracks “Beat Guide To Yiddish” mixtape. While other producers have mixed Yiddish music with hip hop beats, like the British producer Tzadik who has a cameo on “Beat Guide,” this is the first mixtape of its genre. Diwon commented, “there were so many different elements, I didn’t know where to end each song and begin the next.” So he took command of the particular pace by which the listener travels in time and place: both familiar and exotic for Ashkenazi Jews.
The songs in the mixtape come from old Yiddish records which the beatmaster, or as the job is called in hip hop — “the producer” — has been collecting for the past 10 years. Diwon, a name referring to religious and secular poetry, sung on special occasions in the Yemenite tradition, scoured Jewish libraries cleaning out their vintage music, trawled Judaica stores while touring abroad, and asked friends to keep an eye out for Yiddish music.
Much of the original music “Beat Guide” uses comes from the Yiddish Swing movement of the late 1930s but remasters it with contemporary beats. In the footsteps of the Yiddish Swing Moment the “Beat Guide” tries to marry the culture of the Jewish Old World with the music of the New. Groups like the Barry Sisters (originally the Bagelman sisters) jazzified Yiddish folk songs such as “Tumbalalaika” and translated popular American songs into Yiddish, such as “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” They then performed on the NYC radio show “Yiddish Melodies in Swing,” as well as mainstream TV programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show” (which my Great Aunt Pauline swore was the Ed Solomon Show because Ed was too menschadik not to be Jewish).
Beatmaster Erez Safar, aka Diwon, doesn’t speak Yiddish aside from the minimal phrases, “they taught us in yeshiva.” But, since lyrics are secondary to the beat, this is no big deal: “(For most) music I love, I don’t understand the lyrics. I’m a big fan of Brazilian music although I don’t understand Portuguese. Coming at it from a producer, street-DJ perspective, I just think this sounds tight.” Diwon’s pursuit of good sounds comes through on Beat Guide. The album offers over-the-top instrumentation that could be from a Jimmy Buffet song one minute, a Brazilian samba the next, and finally part of the Hawaii Five-O theme. The New World music Diwon pulls from is as diverse as the sounds, but thanks to the structure from the mixtape, the album never quite feels schizophrenic.
Speaking of near-schizophrenia, have you ever wondered what an intermarried family listens to while decking the Chrismukkah Bush in the Welsh valleys? The Welsh Klezmer group The Klezmonauts cater to that challenge with their album, “Oy To The World: A Klezmer Christmas.” Traditionally, Christmas tracks like “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Deck the Halls” are clichéd in the extreme. The Klezmonauts’s tribal touch reinvents them, rendering even the Hallmark-iest songs like “Jingle Bells” (translated into Yiddish on the album) into joyful, authentic klezmer sounds. In fact, my Episcopalian stepmother has vowed to repeat play “Oy To The World” at her Christmas party this year.
Punk has joined Klezmer in the race to remix the holidays. The Aussie rockers YIDcore perform punked-up versions of Jewish classics, including Adam Sandler’s contemporary holiday classic, “The Chanukah Song” (Parts 1, 2, and 3.) Whereas Sandler lists Jews in Hollywood, “Punk Rock Chanukah” goes through all the Jews in punk music. Waxing (p)unk/oetic, YIDcore jams “Joey Ramone, ate matzo at the seder/ Just like Richard Hell and most of The Dictators. Louie (Reed) danced the Horah, at his bar mitzvah bash/ With little Jonny Richman, and Mick Jones from the Clash.” The Jewish influence on punk isn’t news (check out Steven Lee Beeber’s, “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk”) but lyrically and instrumentally remixing a new Hanukkah ‘classic,’ and tricking it out with a funky animated YouTube video, is.
Reaching out to the same audience that knows the aforementioned classic, but with holiday songs more than eight years old is Erran Baron Cohen’s “Songs in the Key Of Hanukkah.” He is a formally trained trumpet player, blowing a few swell riffs on the ska/reggae track “Spin It Up,” but, as he showed with the “Borat” soundtrack, Baron Cohen’s real music mastery is of arrangements. Like his version “Rock of Ages” in which a mellow back beat, a simple piano hook and a gospel choir (oh no he didn’t!) are all woven together seamlessly. Unfortunately, once the lyrics begin, the track feels self-consciously seasonal, perhaps as a result of its famously clumsy English lyrics. Luckily, most of the songs avoid this by staying in Hebrew, like the slow rock jam “Relics of Love and Light,” sung by Idan Raichel, a popular Israeli singer whose voice could literally melt candles (the shammas included). Another candle-melting singer on the album is Yasmin Levy, a.k.a. the Jewish Shakira. Levy offers a beautiful performance in both Spanish for the Flamenco-esque ballad “A La Luz De La Vela” and Ladino on “Ocho Kandelikas.”
The opposite of clumsy lyrics are heard on the two most ill (translation: cool in rap lingo) songs “Hanukkah oh Hanukkah” and “My Hanukkah (Keep The Fire Alive).” Both songs impress a younger listener, thanks to catchy hip hop beats, raging clarinet riffs, and the rhymes of Y-Love: a Jewish answer to the rapper Jay-Z brandishing lyrical skills in Yiddish and English. In “My Hanukah,” Y-Love (who has worked extensively with Diwon) raps, “Eight nights what we got/represent to keep it hot/the battle on the mountain top… Guerrilla warfare for 36 months, 40,000 soldiers couldn’t take out one…” And while I don’t know exactly what Y-Love was rapping about in Yiddish on “Hanukkah oh Hanukkah” he sounded so ill that even the most discerning hip hop fan, namely my 15-year-old brother was surprised. “Someone can do that in Yiddish?
Ezra Pound instructed that art should, “Make it new.” The great Kwanzaa-Christmas-Hanukkah mashup might not be exactly his taste, but he would have to tip his posthumous hat to these musicians, mixers, and animators making it new.
Margaret Teich is a freelance environmental writer and music reviewer.