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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

 

Jewish Music Rants - Going back a ways

This is a piece I wrote on 12/7/98 after attending the Shearit Israel benefit concert last night at Avery Fisher Hall. It's been around the Internet a lot over the last six years, with luminaries from BenZion Solomon to Carmine D'Amico commenting on its veracity. Some anonymous studio musicians and technicians have commented on it as well. I'll post more as we go...


Muddled Waters - the Sorry State of Jewish Music
by Michael Steinhart

What do Diaspora, Dudu Fisher and Oif Simchas have in common? Absolutely nothing.

Finding a shared thread between these three acts is like trying to link Placido Domingo, Puff Daddy and the Grateful Dead. It won't happen. The three represent the entire spectrum of "Orthodox" Jewish music, but the picture they painted at Shearit Israel's concert last night spoke volumes about the sorry state of affairs prevalent in Jewish music and communal life.

Let's start with Oif Simchas. Three Israeli 20-somethings with a drum machine and a synthesizer. They use old Yiddish tunes, sometimes compose a riff here and there (ones that sound suspiciously like every "oy-oy" bass line popularized by MBD, Avraham Fried and Dedi), throw a switch to start the window-rattling house beat, and off they go. Posing and strutting like the worst contestants on "Showtime at the Apollo," they prance and dance (loosely, and I mean very loosely choreographed) and bust moves and throw out standard lyrics like Asher Bara and Shalom Aleichem. The crowd loved it.

Much to my happiness and the group's chagrin, there were at least some in the audience with a rudimentary appreciation for class, talent and Judaism. For them, the appeal was lost.

Dudu Fisher is a classically trained chazan. He has a lovely voice. He has led services in the most maginificent synagogues on the planet. He has also starred in Broadway shows like Les Miserables. All of this was obviously not good enough. Brooklyn is where the money is. So he decided to record an album of "Chassidic" music. Basically, he wanted to join the ranks of MBD, Avraham Fried, Dedi, Mendy Wald, Sruli Williger, Shloimy Dachs, and all the boys who look and/or sound exactly alike. So he went to Yossi Green, the kingmaker and only purveyor of authentic Chassidic music, pulled out his checkbook, and got to work.

Y'see, if an album doesn't say "all songs composed by Yossi Green," on the front cover, it won't sell.

So who is Yossi Green? He's the guy who recently brought us Chazak, Lebinyamin, and all the wedding music that women simply must learn the dance steps for. His tunes are always simplistic, often catchy, rarely fit the words, never promote correct Hebrew pronunciation and couldn't possibly be considered sophisticated compositions by any stretch of the imagination. But people will sing them. And people will dance to them. Because people don't know any better. Dudu Fisher has a great voice. He could sing anything. But he, and Fried, and everyone else, have to crank out these cookie-cutter upbeat freilachs to stay afloat. That's sad.

Even more sad is the way Fisher told stories to open certain songs. Everybody does it. A little anecdote or vignette that makes a point and sets the stage for the song. But Fisher told stories about Yossi Green. The songs were composed by Green because Green was inspired by blah blah blah. So put Green on the stage and go get some of your own stories, Dudu. The transparency of the act was blatant and offensive. But just to me. When Fried and MBD are on stage, they never mention Green's name, but Dudu has to keep reminding everyone about his affiliation with the songwriter, else interest in his act may wane. Hopefully he'll soon get established enough not to have to name-drop.

So let's now turn to a band that has bucked every trend, broken every rule, and despite a brief brush with near-obscurity, is back on the scene: Avraham Rosenblum and Diaspora. What sets them apart? Let's resist the sarcastic one-liners running through our minds and focus on the facts. They write, play and sing their own music. Unheard of! Unthinkable! Each band member is a singularly talented musician. Recognized in the field. Hailed by "real world" critics. They're talented, they're dedicated, they're real. They have homes and families and jobs and communal lives and aren't afraid to speak the truth. Their compositions are inspired, and their spirit is infectious. And though they were well received at the concert, their work drew less applause than did the other acts.

Why? Well, their material was more raw, their sound more sophisticated, their arrangements more complex, and therefore more difficult. They had a glitch or two to work out during the show. Their intro didn't go as planned. Their new members were still getting accustomed to the traditional groove and their old members were still getting used to the new sound. This was not a "Negina players read off the sheet music" performance. This was real. And it rocked.

Gone were the twanging banjo and drawling fiddle of the "old" Diaspora. Hammond organ and smooth, smoking blues violin are now part and parcel of the band's equipment. The voices are familiar, but the music is designed for the 90s. (I am actually ambivalent on this issue. Diaspora's 1991 reunion concert was played following the original formula, and people still haven't stopped talking about it. I think their style worked then, and could still work now. But the new stuff is excellent - because these guys are good.)

Their songs were each crafted and lovingly presented, and each member was working hard to make the whole come together. Their work paid off, and "Jerusalem is Calling," Diapora's newest album, is a masterful collection of original material. I highly recommend it. As I said to my wife, "Even a flawed performance from Diaspora can trounce the best anyone else has to offer."

So where was the recognition? Why weren't they greeted with standing O's and dancing in the aisles? Because the average mainstream "frum" Jew has no appreciation for talent. It's a fact. How else can you explain the popularity of the carbon-copy kvetchers? Jewish talent brokers have found a formula, injected it into the culture, and are now fueling it with everything they've got. Diaspora represents a threat to that formula, and I hope more people see the truth of this soon.

Even worse, a Jewish concert now has to follow the formula as well. The band must be perfectly synchronized and nearly robotic - with all the mainstays (Carmine D'Amico, Rick Cutler, et. al) going through the motions. The performer has to come out happy and upbeat. The performer has to throw in a story about an IDF soldier losing some limbs (pardon the cynicism). The performer must pay tribute to Reb Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, and must come off to the audience as a caring, deeply feeling Jew. To do otherwise would be breaking the rules.

So last night, Yishai Lapidot of Oif Simchas prefaced his "Dor Metzuyan" song with a story about how he saw a soldier on TV, a soldier who was wounded seriously in battle (and lost a hand, else the story wouldn't work), and who still professed loyalty to God, the nation and the land. Lapidot saw this and said, "Wow. This is a Dor Metzuyan (exceptional generation)." Then the crowd cheered violently, and the thumping machine cranked up a few notches, and Oif Simchas began their theme song - Dor Metzuyan - complete with a Macarena-sampled bass line and their own take-off on the once-popular party dance. Very appropriate to memorialize the IDF's slain and wounded.

And the song was written because they saw something inspiring on TV? Wow. Remind me to be emotionally touched, after I stop laughing.

Dudu Fisher went one step further, He spoke of a sergeant who, by virtue of a last-minute change in marching position, was 20 meters away from his commanding officer when the latter was killed by a bomb. The sergeant carried his CO (sans arms again) a mile to the army base. That Shabbat, the sergeant recited the Birchat Hagomel, thanking God for delivering him from danger. "If the cry that went up from that synagogue wasn't enough to tear open the gates of heaven, I don't know what is," Fisher said. And I was crying from that story. Lots of people were. But then he delivered the killing blow (pardon the expression): He sang "Lord on High" from Les Miserables as a tribute to those soldiers.

Couldn't he have found something more meaningful - dare I say it - more Jewish? We were all a little stunned and insulted by his choice of song. It showed me that these stories, sad and poignant though they may be, are fodder for audience-baiting. That's also sad.

In point of fact, Reb Shlomo started the whole "this song is for soldier so-and-so who was killed/wounded ... etc." movement. But Reb Shlomo was there. In the army hospitals and on the front. He sat with these boys, held them, cried over their beds. He had a right. If he says God sent him a song while he watched the soldiers standing guard in the Chermon, I believe him. If Yishai Lapidot says he wrote a song after seeing a soldier on TV, I chalk that up to a good publicist.

The legacy of Reb Shlomo - this was celebrated by Fisher and Diaspora, and omitted from Oif's repertoire. Just as well, because they'd probably have butchered something beautiful. Diaspora's Ben Zion Solomon called Reb Shlomo "My Rebbe, my best friend, and my next-door neighbor." Solomon lives on Moshav Modiin, the settlement founded by Reb Shlomo, and carries on the teachings and songs of the "Singing Rabbi" to a new generation of seekers. Diaspora then sang "Uvnei," from Solomon's solo album, "Give Me Harmony," and "Days Are Coming," from "Jerusalem is Calling." The tribute was fitting, exuberant and thoughtful. It was also understated - the songs were sung, and the program moved on.

Fisher's Carlebach set started with "Venisgav Hashem," appropriate for that week's Torah portion. He prefaced it by saying that without Reb Shlomo, none of the popular composers could have existed. Then he chanted Reb Shlomo's "It's still Yom Kippur" monologue from "Yisrael Betach Bashem." My problem is, Reb Shlomo didn't write it or script it beforehand - he just went where the mood of the song took him. He was reflecting. Fisher copied the recording word for word and note for note. Granted, he sang it with intensity and vocal brilliance, but I still see his rendition as, "this appeared on album X," as opposed to, "this is a song that captures Reb Shlomo's uniqueness." Just my quibble - because coming from Fisher, it wasn't authentic.

So to recap, Oif Simchas is the opiate of the masses, a dodge for Yeshiva kids whose parents and teachers wouldn't let them near rap music. Oif is loud, obnoxious, and not particularly talented. Some would say the same of me.

Dudu Fisher is a wonderful vocalist with an identity crisis. He was a chazan, he was a broadway star, and now he wants to cross over into the "Chassidic" mainstream. Why? I don't know. Name recognition, maybe. He can render O Sole Mio with the same verve as any Yossi Green number, and his Yiddish is as good as his Yeshivish, but he's a man without a country, so to speak. If he's to distinguish himself as a personality, rather than a parrot, he needs to find a format and stick with it. And an original work wouldn't hurt, either. But then again, all the singers nowadays are relying on Yossi Green for the music and supplying only the vocals - so why should Dudu try to differentiate himself?

Diaspora is the stand-alone champion of innovative Jewish rock. They've distinguished themselves as non-conformists - artists who would rather fade away than kowtow to the all-powerful "velt." Their creativity is channeled to a real goal, that of reaching Jews with a positive message. To paraphrase Avraham Rosenblum, the band wants to show people that observant Jews can produce something fresh, vibrant, real. That Judaism doesn't mean dark, ancient ritual, but bright, joyful expression. With members of the original troupe spreading the message throughout Israel and the world (Chaim Dovid, Ben Zion Solomon, Yitzchak Attias and Moshe Shur, to name a few), Diaspora's style of music has engaged and will continue to engage the hearts and minds of Jewish truth-seekers.

If Diaspora succeeds, it may usher in a paradigm shift that could take us back to the days when Am Yisrael was recognized as the most gifted and artistic nation on Earth -- when the spirit of God wove through every inspiring note of the Beis Hamikdash Orchestra. That's when the majesty and brilliance of Jewish music and thought will truly be realized. May it be soon.


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