No Schmaltz, Plenty of Soul

By Rebecca Spence

Published December 23, 2008, issue of January 02, 2009.
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Los Angeles — In celebration of Hanukkah, two groups under the Jewish music label JDub Records, The Sway Machinery and DeLeon, rocked a sparse but enthused crowd at the Troubadour in West Hollywood on December 20.

The Sway Machinery, a five-piece band that includes members of such indie rock stalwarts as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire, moved the crowd with its contemporary take on cantorial music. Backed up by a dazzling horn section and drummer Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the band’s lead singer, Jeremiah Lockwood — the guitarist for another JDub group, Balkan Beat Box — incanted, so to speak. As he riffed on Jewish prayers in a deep, Yiddish-sounding voice, a 20-something concertgoer could be heard saying to a friend, “I have no idea what he’s saying, but I like it.”

Dressed in a three-piece suit and a fedora hat, Lockwood harkened back to an earlier era. Appropriately so, given that his grandfather was Jacob Konigsberg, one of the Jewish world’s most famous cantors of yore. Lockwood seemed to channel the spirit of his grandfather at times: At one point, he grabbed the microphone and spewed a meandering, somewhat incomprehensible soliloquy about God and angels. The riff began, “When I first came to this country….”

Also evident in The Sway Machinery’s style is the influence of blues legend Carolina Slim, Lockwood’s mentor. The result of the band’s myriad influences is a kind of blues meets afro-pop meets a synagogue service on Manhattan’s Lower East Side circa 1930.

Trumpet player Jordan McLean — a member of the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat and funk-influenced band Antibalas — said of his involvement with The Sway Machinery, “I’m just getting in touch with a quarter of my heritage.”

And so, too, were the audience members; they numbered about 80 and ranged from a woman in a tight T-shirt that read “Old Shul,” to a few young men in yarmulkes, to a dreadlocked man with a silver chai necklace.

Next up at the event, which was organized by JDub in association with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and with sponsorship from L.A.’s Jewish Community Foundation, was DeLeon — a more rock-heavy act, based on Sephardic folk music from 15th-century Spain to 20th-century Israel. With a shock of black curly hair and a snug-fitting vest, DeLeon front man Daniel Saks looked every bit the Spanish crooner. The crowd bounced around as he sang ancient Sephardic melodies in a mix of Hebrew, English and Ladino, the language of the Spanish Jews.

Named for 12th-century kabbalistic philosopher Moses de Leon and Saks’s great-grandfather Giorgio DeLeon, the Brooklyn-based band sounds like indie rock with a Latin twist.

Asked what he thought of the bands, 35-year-old Michael Kadish, a former Obama campaign staffer, said, “No schmaltz, but plenty of soul.”

To listen to “La Serena” by DeLeon, click here.


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