Beyond Klezmer: Jewish Music Today
Nothing signals the arrival of a musical genre like the emergence of a festival circuit. Folk festivals proliferated in the 1950s, rock festivals sprang forth in the ’60s and world music festivals began cropping up in the ’80s. Since its revival in the early ’70s, Jewish music has acquired its own fair share of festivals — events on which many Jewish ensembles have come to rely for income, especially during the slow summer months.
The New York Jewish Music & Heritage Festival, now entering its second year, is a relative newcomer to the Jewish festival scene. If it lacks the breadth of Toronto’s venerable Ashkenazic festival, with its plethora of film screenings and theatrical performances, or the almost ludicrously varied Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, where every day brings a fresh slate of scholarly seminars and historical exhibits, New York’s entry may already be the most musically diverse of the lot. Few if any of the other major Jewish music festivals can match the range of acts that will appear in New York September 13-25, from the breakbeat-klezmer band Juez to cutting-edge jazz bassist Avishai Cohen. “We’re trying very hard to program as diverse a festival as possible,” festival producer Michael Dorf said. “We don’t want to get stuck being a klezmer festival — though klezmer is a very important part of the Jewish sound.”
In a sense, the festival represents a vastly expanded version of the Jewsapalooza event that Dorf first introduced at the Knitting Factory, the downtown alt-music venue he founded in 1987 and ran until 2003. Under Dorf’s guidance, Jewsapalooza featured bands from both the traditional and experimental ends of the Jewish music spectrum. The final day of the New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival, an all-day outdoor blowout to be held this year at Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, carries the slightly modified Jewsapalooza name. But the entire festival is suffused with the same eclectic spirit as the original event.
The festival is a part of the Jewish Heritage Project run by New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council — a project whose goal, according to JCRC’s executive vice president, Michael Miller, is “to celebrate Jewish life in New York and the contributions we as a community have made to all New Yorkers, and to deepen the identification of what we have accomplished over the past 350 years.” (Last year’s festival coincided with the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in New York.) Toward that end, the JCRC recruited Dorf to create a festival “that would highlight the array of music that, globally, the Jewish community has developed.”
For Dorf, the festival also represents an opportunity to forge connections between Jews and non-Jews, as exemplified by the programming of Dave Brubeck’s “Gates of Justice” (1969), a cantata based on Old Testament texts and on Negro spirituals (Brubeck, who is not Jewish, also drew on quotations from Hillel and from Martin Luther King Jr.); and also within the fractious Jewish community itself. That kind of internal bridge building is symbolized by the inclusion of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic ensembles; of Simply Tsfat, a trio of Breslov Hasidim; of DJ Handler, a turntablist with a yen for Yemenite melodies, and of an entire evening dedicated to Russian Jewish music, which will conclude with a visit to Tatiana, a Russian supper club in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach (aka Little Odessa). But it’s also reflected in microcosm by such individual ensembles as New York’s Balkan Beat Box, appearing at Irving Plaza on September 22 along with London-based ensemble Oi Va Voi.
The very existence of this dance-oriented, pan-Judaic collective, which blends traditional sounds from Europe and North Africa with house beats and multimedia displays, testifies to Dorf’s contention that Jewish music has reached an “inflection point,” a newfound peak of variety and diversity. It also bodes well for his desire to expand the festival’s scope.
“We’re just scratching the surface of the festival’s potential,” Dorf said. “It can become New York City’s proud celebration of Jewish culture — or, for that matter, of world Jewish culture.”
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Many of the groups performing at the New York Jewish Music & Heritage Festival have been featured previously on these pages. Below are excerpts from select reviews and feature pieces. For complete articles, as well as our coverage of other Jewish musicians and performers, please visit our Web site, www.forward.com.
Golem is one of the hottest young groups on the vibrant Yiddish/ klezmer scene. Fronted by the dynamic, pixyish and brilliant Annette Ezekiel — she sings, she dances, she plays accordion, and she speaks five languages and understands several others — Golem specializes in reviving obscure chestnuts of the Eastern European repertoire and breathing new life into old favorites. The group’s 2004 CD, “Homesick Songs” (Aeronaut), showcases its brassy, boisterous approach on songs of longing for the shtetls and towns of the Old World — places like “Odessa,” “Bialystok,” “Belz” and, yes, “Rumenye,” which Ezekiel’s co-vocalist, Aaron Diskin, takes over the top in a theatrical version that would have made Second Avenue Clown Prince Aaron Lebedeff proud.
In 1997, Jewish American bassist David Chevan and African-American bassist Warren Byrd began exploring the fusion of African-American and Jewish music. By 1999, the two had begun performing the secular and sacred sounds of both cultures as The Afro-Semitic Experience. With songs like “Let Us Break Bread Together” and “This Is the Afro-Semitic Experience,” the band imbues well-known Jewish prayers with a universal appeal.
BALKAN BEAT BOX
Balkan Beat Box is a New York-based brass-band/hip-hop/electronica-fusion ensemble consisting of Israeli saxophonist Ori Kaplan and electronic musician Tamir Muskat and a tour band that can swell to as many as 15 performers.
BBB’s album features finesse without a touch of self-consciousness. The instruments include laptops as well as kitchen utensils; ancient Saharan dialects share the stage with neologisms. “Yaman,” for instance, is a hard-driving spat between French heavy-metal samples; a Yemenite sentir (acoustic bass); “tin metal scraps, pots and pans”; Kaplan’s horns, and sinewy, supplicating vocals in Arabic. In “Bulgarian Chicks,” the eponymous guest duo emotes in Bulgarian to a brass-band arrangement; “Adir Adirim,” is a remix of a prayer for Shavuot, and “Meboli,” which coins a new language entirely, features equally venturesome instrumental melees.
Josh Dolgin’s So-Called is best described, however ironically, as old-school Jewish hip-hop. In June of this year, JDub Records released his first studio recording, “The So Called Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah,” based on his self-recorded first album. The collection is akin to re-experiencing a lifetime of Seders — including some you wish you had never attended — while hallucinating in a roomful of record-freaks. Its futuristic, sample-laden sound evokes Coldcut — the British pioneers of sample-based music and founders of the groundbreaking record label, Ninja Tune — while at the same time evoking the music of our fathers.
Ben Sidran has hung out with Dizzy Gillespie, played piano with the Rolling Stones, written three books, hosted national radio and television shows, co-run a jazz record label, produced albums by top jazz and pop performers and composed a Grammy-nominated film score for the documentary “Hoop Dreams.” His critically acclaimed CD, “Life’s a Lesson” (Go Jazz, 1994), combined his philosophical material, including the title song, with jazz-rooted interpretations of Jewish songs such as “Ani Ma’amin” and “B’Rosh Hashana.”
Early klezmer was performed, like bluegrass music, in all string ensembles. It was that history which inspired Margot Leverett, a clarinetist who had made a name for herself as the original clarinetist in the Klezmatics, to call the great bluegrass fiddler Kenny Kosek and ask if he would become one of her Klezmer Mountain Boys. Four years later, the Mountain Boys include mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff of Silk City and Joe Selly on guitar. The bass player is Marty Conforius, who played with Andy Statman when Statman discovered klezmer in the 1970s.
David Krakauer’s the real deal. Where many are “faithful,” “eager,” “nostalgic” or even “virtuosic” in their attempts to breathe life into klezmer, Krakauer’s spectacularly propulsive and emotional clarinet playing obliterates the quotation marks. His sound is hot and sophisticated, prone to shooting off into the stratosphere of the clarinet’s clarion high notes with a dizzying combination of aggression and finesse. His klezmer playing seems personally guided by unseen spirits from vanished shtetls, and at times brings a listener near tears with the startling honesty of lyrical plaints voiced through traditional bulgars and horas.