Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Matisyahu, et., presumably, al.—What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish . . . (oy): Calling all Jewish musicians—please chime in

This rant was inspired by, in chronological order:

Chaim’s Sunday, December 11, 2005 post, “How the Moshav Band changed My Life.”

Fudge’s Saturday, March 04, 2006 post, “The Matisyahu Phenomenon: Good for the Jews or Bad?”

And this conversation with one of my co-workers, who insisted that she didn’t want to go to a recent Matisyahu concert until she knew more about Matisyahu.

“He’s Lubavitch. What more do you need to know?”

“I just don’t know whether that’s the right kind of work for a Ben Torah.”

“So do you think talent is a matana min hashamayim (a gift from heaven) or a michshol (a “stumbling block” [leading to sin]) from the sitra achra (the Other Side [also known as Satan])?”

I’m afraid that attitudes like the following probably sound depressingly familiar to many Jewish musicians. How do you deal with this sort of abuse, and what keeps you going?

You sing/play _______________________ (pick as many as apply: rock, reggae, rap . . .)? That’s not kosher.

You play ____________ (pick as many as apply: rock guitar, folk guitar, . . . .)? That’s goyish.

Why are you doing all this modern narishkeiten? Isn’t good old-fashioned simcha music good enough for you?

Why are you singing in Ladino? Isn’t Yiddish good enough for you? So what if you’re Sefardi?

That’s no job for a nice Jewish boy.

No respectable Jewish girl is a professional musician.

Jewish rock music is treif. A synagogue is no place for a Jewish rock music concert.

Why are our children going to nightclubs to hear Jewish rock music? A nightclub is no place for a Jew.

From a July 29, 2005 e-mail to a Jewish rock musician:

“[One day, at my office], I started playing [a Jewish rock song]. But a [black-hat Orthodox visitor] who was hanging around with the [some of our part-time employees] heard Mendel's opening segment, and immediately said, "That's not kosher." "How can it not be kosher? He's singing from Yishaya [the prophet Isaiah]!"

As Chaim was saying, "One of the sad things about the frum world is that certain types of music are looked down upon.Anything that doesn’t involve an Oy or a Vey or a combined Oy Yoi Yoy Vey is considered “goyish music”.

A comment:

PsychoToddler on 8:24 PM
You're preaching to the choir here, Chaim. OOPS! GOYISH!-
Moshe Skier
Banned in Yeshivos for 20 years and going strong

“So vhy don’t you play something ve can dance to, already?”

To all Jewish musicians: Kol havod! Keep the music coming, please, for heaven’s sake—and for Heaven’s sake!



Blogger PsychoToddler said...

I don't think Music is a good job for anybody--Jewish or otherwise. Terrible way to make a living.

But anyway...it sounds to me like your friend should stay home. She won't like Matisyahu. She wouldn't like me either. And you know what? She doesn't have to.

Nobody forces you to like a particular style of music. You like what you like. If you like reggae, by all means go and see Matis. If you like Monster Guitar Rock, come see The Moshe Skier Band.

If you hate those kinds of music, stay home, because you don't get extra points for coming to our shows just because the words are "Jewish".

If, on the other hand, you don't care for what Boro Park and the Shiny Shoe industry wants to force-feed you as "Kosher" music, it's nice to have an alternative.

Tue Mar 21, 10:34:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Why are you singing in Ladino? Isn’t Yiddish good enough for you? So what if you’re Sefardi?

People actually say that?? El Dyo miyo!
(note: i don't know if that is actually an attested Ladino exclamation)

Tue Mar 21, 02:28:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Steg, uh, actually, I've never heard anyone say that, but I imagine there are a few hard-core Ashkenazim out there--well, you've already commented on my next post--who may very well think that way.

Mark/PT, some of the reactions I've had to the Jewish-music CDs I've bought in the last six months or so have been a bit unexpected. On the one hand, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that listening to a back-up singer sing in thirds for half an hour straight can get pretty boring. I don't always succeed, but I try to avoid that when I sing, which is why I do one harmony for the line "etz chaim hi" and a different harmony for the next line, "d'racheha." On the other hand, I was a bit surprised to learn that I don't *always* like klezmer. On the third hand (you should pardon the expression), if I ever get a chance to hear your band live, I'll be the one in the last row with the earplugs in her ears, dancin' her feet off. :)

Tue Mar 21, 11:36:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This argument has been going on for centuries. Jewish Music is the music of your surroundings made Jewish. Klezmer is Eastern European Songs. Chassidic Niggunim are Polish or German Polkas. As far as Matisyahu goes - I say more power to him. It is irrelevant whether or not you like reggae. The man is a Chassidic Jew wearing a Bekeshe and he went gold in a field dominated by non-Jews. The important thing is that as long as you stay within the boundaries of Halacha there are definitely 70 roads to Music. You can listen to whichever path you want to. This is not about being Good or Bad for the Jews. It's just a different flavor. So Enjoy it or dont listen to it but either way respect it.

Sun Mar 26, 02:08:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Lenny, I definitely like the "different flavor" approach. We've been doing that with food for centuries, figuring out a way to cook the local cuisine in a manner that accords with kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). So we take a non-Jewish musical style, use Jewish words, and poof, it's Jewish music. I've always been convinced that the tune for Ein Kelokeinu that I've most frequently heard in synagogue was originally a German drinking song. So what? It's ours *now,* and that's what counts.

Years ago, I was a member of a synagogue whose cantor emeritus was the late Moshe Nathanson, alav hashalom. One of his favorite stories was of walking around kosher-hotel dining rooms and asking where the tune for the first paragraph (hazan et hakol) of birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, came from. He was tickled pink when people said it was "MiSinai" (from Sinai). It meant a lot to him that a tune that he'd composed had become such an accepted part of the Jewish musical tradition that it was thought to have been given to Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, on Mount Sinai.

Obviously, not all Jewish music is composed for liturgical use, and "you can't please all the people all the time." But it's important for us regular Yossis and Yaels in the audience to respect different kinds of Jewish music, because you never know what meaning someone else will find in music that's not of interest to you--or what meaning you'll find in music that's not of interest to someone else.

Sun Mar 26, 08:56:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Noam S said...

Divide Jewish music into two broad categories: music for listening, and ceremonial music. If you think about it, much of Jewish music started as wedding and simcha music, and/or music to achieve an ecstatic experience(niggunim). That tradition has come down to the present in the form of "shiny shoe" music in two types. Slow usually waltzy types with few words and much repetition, designed for swaying and walking down wedding isles, and faster music designed for dancing in a circle, with a very defined beat and rhythm. Both archtypes usually have simple tunes, simple biblical or siddur lyrics, and in the best of hands and occassions, inspire spiritual feelings. Think of the music that accompanies a bride down the isle, a rebbe and his chassidim singing a niggun,or 100's of yeshiva bochurim dancing in circles yelling 'l'shana ha'ba'a b'Yerushalayim'. Most music that creates this type of experience is simple tunes and simple repeated lyrics.

However, this music drives many people crazy when taken outside their spiritual confines, since it is.. simple tunes, and simple repeated lyrics. You have to be in the mood and receptive. So, we have the other category, Blue Fringe, Matisyahu, Moshe Skier, Israeli pop, that sounds more like contemporary music, but has Jewish content, lyrics, and hopefully soul. It is more interesting musically and lyrically, but frequently doesn't have the beat or rhythm to be used ceremonially, and frequently doesn't evoke the same sort of emotional/spiritual response.

I actually love the ceremonial music, but the main problem nowadays is that it is frequently written, arranged, and recorded without any inspiration and therefore is just repetitive music and lyrics with minimal to no spiritual pull. The contemporary sounding music is much more interesting, but frequently doesn't have the spirit that I am looking for, and thus isn't much different than ashley simpson or the black eyed peas, only the lyrics or themes are Jewish.

There is growing sophistication in the arrangments and technical virtuosity of the recordings in the traditional types of music, so frequently that music winds up sounding more like category two, until the singers open their mouths and the verse and chorus wind up being exactly the same and we realize that the wrapping is different but the inside hasn't changed.

Lenny and Mark are correct: Jewish music has always reflected the surrounding culture. However, just like gefilte fish and lox are considered Jewish foods, the klezmer and the offspring of klezmer(which is what the ceremonial music really is) is considered "authentic Jewish music." Those who object to anything else are actually just entombing in stone the cultural adaptation of a few hundred years ago.

Of course, there is much in modern music that is objectionable in terms of blatent sexuality, obscenity, scantily clad and suggestive dancers, etc. So there are dangers in adapting all that modern music has to offer. If one loves Matisyahu and wants to look for more reggae, one might find more(non-Jewish) reggae, and get into Rastafarianism and other things that are not exactly consonant with Judaism(as an aside, one of Matisyahu's band members, in the liner notes on the cd 'youth' thanks Jesus and Haili Selasi inter alia). However, the music itself is not the problem, it is the stuff that people bring with the music, or the people that are singing it. If you can keep the music and discard the rest, then you are fine.

I have already gone on too long, but one final observation. Neshama orchestra(a major New York simcha band that has a bunch of albums out) put out an album portrayed as back to the roots, with none of the modern 'stuff.' However, there are electric guitars and other electronics on it, its just no blatent synthesizers and they went back to clarinet rather than sax. Its all in the ear of the beholder.

Tue Mar 28, 02:42:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I performed on that Neshoma Orchestra Album. I agree that the guitar did not exactly match the old style totally, but that's really a quibble. The key on that album was the general avoidance of disco rhythms, and the simpler,fuller, warmer sound in the horns, instead of the usual Jim Hynes horn section with Moshe Laufer or Yisrael Lamm arrangements.
klezmer should not be used as a whipping boy in this discussion. It is a music that did evolve in the diaspora, but in many respects, it does reflect many of the elements of ancient jewish music. The reason behind that has to do with the modes employed, which are ancient, and can be found in Arabic, Balkan, Greek, and central asian music, which is probably the closest we have to what ancient Jewish Music sounded like. Rhythmically, the twos and threes grouping of the rhythm in Klezmer music is much more closely based on what we might have heard in the ancient near east.
So overall, while the points made about the assimilative nature of much jewish music are true, it would be inaccurate to equate klezmer music with Blue Fringe et al.
The discussion gets more tricky when we start to discuss Chassidic music of Poland and Russia as opposed to Rumania and Hungary, as the further north we get in Europe, the further away we get from the syncopated and modal roots of jewish Music.

Wed Mar 29, 09:56:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Hold that thought.

Will respond when awake--went to a concert at YU Washington Heights campus tonight. Aaron Razel, Noah Solomon & C. Lanzbom, Tikkun Chatzot, etc. Two hour schlep home by subway after two hours dancing my feet off in back of the last row. :)

Gotta catch some zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Thu Mar 30, 02:20:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Jordan, I don't think the complaint is against klezmer music per se, much of which is marvelous. It's against the tendency to overproduce, to throw in everything but the kitchen sink by way of arrangements. Both Dilbert and Mark/PT have complained about this before. Sometimes klezmer is better "straight up" than as a cocktail.

I very much appreciate your historical take on klezmer. "the modes employed, which are ancient, . . .can be found in Arabic, Balkan, Greek, and central asian music, which is probably the closest we have to what ancient Jewish Music sounded like. Rhythmically, the twos and threes grouping of the rhythm in Klezmer music is much more closely based on what we might have heard in the ancient near east." Hmm, it behooves me to listen more closely.

What about traditional Sefardi and/or Mizrachi musical styles? Are they closer to the "original," as well?

Thu Mar 30, 09:23:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Sephardic and Mizrachi music probalby has a sort of parrallel relationship with Klezmer, although I might compare real Mizrachi music with Klezmer of 150 years ago, before western musical influences introduced more tonality and less modality. But Mizrachi music, like Chassidic music tends to be WAY overproduced.

Thu Mar 30, 10:42:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Lenny Solomon said, this debate ahs been on forever. As "The Jewish Rapper" I get a lot of crap from Jews about rap, its origins and what it represents. The goyim, on the other hand, love it becasue they feel a connection. When Jews represent themselves as Jews, positively, the world connects, they respect it becasue it connects to something in their soul. If Jews would stop judging their own people the infighting and dissention might end.

Music is subjective. I cant stand reggae but totally appreciate Matisyahus success and role in the big picture. He has hundreds of thousands of people singing about Moshiach, saying Shema and singing words of Torah - there aint a rabbi around that can do that - and the people doing it are Jews AND non-Jews. If that aint a light unto the nations Im not sure what is.

Jewish music is a bit of everything arond us. What makes Jewish music today suck is that it lacks soul and emotion. Somewhere after 1995 Jewish music became overproduced crap, with high pitched voices singing repetitive words over and over again. Its ridiculous. Then SHlomo Carlebach passes away: enter Soul Farm, The Moshav Band, Shlomo Katz, Etan G, Matisyahu and many others who couldnt stand the change in Jewish music and wanted to make music that connected to the people at large and not just the orthodox crowd. I became a rapper cuz i could use the power of speech to connect to all the people that were listening to rap, i was good at it and I love music. Moshav connected to all the people who didnt have any Jewish music they could connect to. I cant stand Klezmer and am not a fan of Israeli music. Jewish music today makes me want to tear the hair out of my head. I listened to rock and roll, rap, disco, funk, blues, jazz and classical and the Jewish music i listened to spoke to to my heart and soul. I feel Jewish music lost that. What is Jewish music you ask - it is ANY music with a Jewish theme that connects to your heart and soul - to God, that you can sing praise to God and dance to God and unify His people with love, dancing and singing - thats Jewish music - if there is electric guitar in that music so be it- if it is rap - great- if it is reggae - great - but you will know such a song when you feel it - - its a bit different feeling you get when you listen to a Britney Spears song. I simply say to people who dictate what Jewish music is or is not - if you dont like it dont listen - but dont dictate what i can listen to.

Sun Apr 02, 04:19:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Noam S said...

Jordan- first of all, I have tremendous admiration for anyone with the skill to be a professional musician. Second, I certainly was not using klezmer as a 'whipping boy.' I was not aware that klezmer was seen as having a special relationship with 'ancient Jewish music', other than being older than yiddish theatre music, or any other more chronologically newer music. I have not heard the claim that klezmer is closer than say mideastern music to the music of the second Temple.

As far as the Neshoma album, my point was that the definition of 'heimish' or traditional was an arbitrary one. The instruments and arrangements of a particular time were selected as traditional, when in reality, they could have gone further back in time and selected a different group of instruments and arrangments. There isn't anything specific about the pre- or early Yisroel Lamm arrangments that make them traditional, its just someone making that designation. I was only pointing that out and also the lack of consistancy with the definition that was being used. Neshoma usually has more interesting arrangments than Negina(more interesting as in more jazzy, less I,IV, V type stuff).

Quick story. I had a patient who is a studio keyboardist and arranger. I told him that he has my dream job. He told me that I had his dream salary.

Mon Apr 03, 02:26:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"What is Jewish music you ask - it is ANY music with a Jewish theme that connects to your heart and soul - to God, that you can sing praise to God and dance to God and unify His people with love, dancing and singing - thats Jewish music . . ."

Etan G., I love that definition!

Dilbert, sorry your earlier comment got lost in the shuffle. I think your discussion of the distinction between Jewish "ceremonial" and Jewish "listening" music is right on the mark. I've noticed that, in many cases, the more interesting the arrangement is, the more difficult it is to sing a capella on Shabbat (Sabbath) or Yom Tov (a holiday). That is, I guess obviously, especially true when the arrangement in question is heavy on the instrumentals. And I don't mean just big orchestral arrangements. Take an allegedly simple arrangement involving nothing more than lead guitar, bass, and drums, knock out all the instruments and try to sing the melody unaccompanied, and, the more interesting the instrumental arrangement is, the more likely it is that the entire song will fall flat on its "punim." But such music is often much more fun to listen to.

And here's my quick note: "I told him that he has my dream job. He told me that I had his dream salary." Well, I have neither of the above, so I guess I'm doubly out of luck. :) No complaints, though--I enjoy my job, for the most part, except for the so-called salary.

That said, I'm with Dilbert on this one, too: "I have tremendous admiration for anyone with the skill to be a professional musician." Did I ever mention that I auditioned for cantorial school twice without success? In retrospect, quoth she ruefully, they were right to turn me down--the truth is that I've never had a good enough voice to be a professional singer. I remember all too well just how bad I sounded singing Mozart for my voice teacher. I shudder to think of what a dreadful impression I must have made on my auditioners. I may sing well enough to lein a short aliyah, chant a haftorah or a chapter of Megillat Esther or Ruth, or lead a service using nusach, (the traditional musical "modes" of the various services, "learnable" and "singable" by any frequent-synagogue-going Jew with a reasonably decent voice, and which I wish I knew better), but chazzanut (the operatic-style part of the traditional cantorial repertoire) is beyond my capability. I often joke that the only difference between my voice and the voice of the chazzan/cantor of our local shul is that neither of us has a good enough voice for chazzanut, but I know that (which is why I avoid chazzanut on those rare opportunities that I have, these days, to lead a service) and he doesn't. Woe to the synagogue whose cantor thinks he's Pavarotti, while, in truth, he's barely a better singer than most of the congregants. So, yeah, I repeat, "I have tremendous admiration for anyone with the skill to be a professional musician." :)

Tue Apr 04, 01:20:00 AM 2006  

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