Latin-Jewish Duo Bridges Cultures in Rhyme

By Jason Hernandez-Rosenblatt

Published July 08, 2005, issue of July 08, 2005.
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Shout “1492” in a crowded bar, and some alter kocker may sing out, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” While the equally truthful “Ferdinand decreed killing Jews the thing to do” maintains the rhyme, it lacks the singsong syncopation necessary to indoctrinate generations of school children. Alas. Inquisitionally, 1492 was a banner year — 200,000 Spanish Jews were burned, forcibly converted or shipped out. Like an alarm clock going off every few hundred years, one of the larger Diaspora reshufflings followed, tumbling and jumbling Jews all over the globe like so many scrabble tiles. Some stayed in Europe, some headed across the Mediterranean. Many others headed across the Atlantic, to Spain’s territories in America’s Southern hemisphere. The resultant intermingling, intermarriage and intercourse produced a unique cultural mix of Latino and converso that — some say — includes among its descendants such luminaries as Pancho Villa, Carlos Santana and Fidel Castro.

The Hip Hop Hoodios (a twist on “Judio,” Spanish for “Jew”), a natural addition to the above canon (joining Jamie-Lynn DiScala and Brett Ratner repping this generation), break down all this and more on the track “1492” (pronounced “mil cuatro ciento noventa y dos”) on their insightful new release “Agua Pa’ La Gente” from Jazzheads Records. The plaintive horns and wistful flamenco guitar lines reflect on what might have been lost, while the lyrics make the simple case that millions of Latinos have Jewish blood. The album offers many flavors, lyrically and musically pretzelling two divergent heritages into a common conversation in English, Spanish and Hebrew, like a note from Juan Epstein’s mom wrapped around a DNA helix.

This bold organic Latino-Jewish urban music collective is miles apart from novelty acts like 2 Live Jew or 50 Shekel. Like the Beastie Boys’s, the Hoodios’s “beats are clear and their rhymes are bold.” The band’s heart and soul are songwriters Josué Norek (singer) and Abe Velez (guitarist), but the two fill their shows and albums with an extended mishpocheh of percussionists, horn players and backup singers — a mélange that, in the group’s live shows, recalls the funk and flamboyance of outfits like Mandrill, Santana, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Members of the group are proud to represent their specific identity and culture, and they are hardly shy about politics. But these unabashed lefties were honored and gratified to support Israel, manning a float in June’s Salute to Israel Parade that had heinies shaking on both ends of the political spectrum, rolling down Fifth Avenue blasting such crowd pleasers as “Nose Jobs” and “Ocho Kandelikas,” their catchy riff on a Ladino Hanukkah melody.

The title track of the new album translates as “Water for the People,” and it’s a good indication of the group’s engagement with politics (and of its particular political sensibility). Few 21st-century issues loom as large as water rights, a statement that doubles in importance for Latin America and Israel. In many Latin American countries, water privatization wreaks as much havoc on the poor as death squads: Those who can’t pay must drink acid rain and bathe in the cancerous runoff from factories and sweatshops. In the Holy Land, water access affects every level of the peace negotiations, from border placements to arability, to which settlements will be disbanded (and which ones never will).

At a recent live show at Makor, before launching into “K*ke on the Mic,” lead singer Norek, an American Jew with Colombian roots, dropped an impromptu etymology lesson. Most 20th-century American ethnic slurs got their genesis at Ellis Island, and “kike,” he explained, is no exception; it is a bastardization of “kikel,” the Yiddish word for circle, what many Jewish immigrants put next to their name between the disembarking and the typhus-diphtheria spray down. Over a raunchy klezmer riff, Norek and guitarist/co-conspirator Velez’s Django-esque guitar licks reclaim the word, pointing out that there are worse things to be called than a circle, while taking pride in keeping a foot in two distinctly variant cultures. (Velez is a shining example of the Jewish-Puerto Rican hybrid known in New York as Jew Yorican.)

“Agua Pa’ La Gente” can be found in the Latin hip-hop or Latin alternative sections at Virgin, Tower, Borders, Amazon — and at iTunes, for the digitally inclined. The band offers a full money-back guarantee on the album, something on which, thus far, only one buyer out of thousands has taken them up. Buy it. If you don’t like it, they’ll give you back your shekels. If you want to check out their videos full of Jewish Elvises, kabbalistic profundities and bagel-bra clad hoodias, keep an eye peeled for MTV España or Telemundo, where the videos for “Ocho Kandelikas,” “K*ke on the Mic” and “Gordito Cosmico” are all in heavy rotation. Hip Hop Hoodios are up for five Latin Grammies this year including record of the year, album of the year, best music video, best rock song and best urban album of the year.

Jason Hernandez-Rosenblatt is a writer/director whose work has appeared in Vibe, Nerve and DC Comics, as well as on MTV, Country Music Network and The Sundance Channel.

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