Get Down, Moses

Upstart local Jewish musicians weave a coat of many colors

On one level, Brooklyn's good doc means dipping into the Other's musical well is the way of our world, but there's more. Even Marley-and-Sizzla-loving Matisyahu probably doesn't realize how much America's white Jews have in common with Jamaica's Rastafarians or how far and deep ancient Hebrew roots extend into Africa's soil.

In Judaism and Race in America (work-ing title), a revelatory documentary by Avishai and Shari Rothfarb Mekonen (slated for 2006), African American rabbi Capers Funnye states, "My return to Judaism was a return to my Africanness . . . to who I was before the Middle Passage and slavery." In another scene, Avishai observes, "Before I left Ethiopia, I knew there was at least one other Black Jew in America," and the film cuts to Sammy Davis Jr. shilling for Manischewitz wine on TV. How little Sammy also knew. Both Avishai and another Ethiopian in Haim's film confess that before they left their homeland, they thought all Jews were Black.

History and genetic evidence support the contention that at least one of the 12 ancient Hebraic tribes was Black, and that the scattering of those tribes took Jews all the way through China to the east and sub- Saharan Africa to the south. Common sense alone dictates that the 40-year desert exile following the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt required more melanin than a good suntan. As Ethiopian-Yemenite Jew and Princeton scholar Ephraim Isaac says in Judaism and Race in America, whenever people tell him, "You don't look Jewish," he responds, "Friend, Ethiopia is mentioned in the Bible over 50 times, Poland not even once."

Downtown collective Balkan Beat Box mix punk, Jewish, Gypsy, Arabic, rock, reggae, and electronica.
photo: Shaune McDowell
Downtown collective Balkan Beat Box mix punk, Jewish, Gypsy, Arabic, rock, reggae, and electronica.

Details

Joshua Nelson
Mi Chamocha
unlabeled
Stream "Avot " (Quicktime)
Stream "Adon Olam " (Quicktime)

Matisyahu
Live at Stubb's
Sony
Stream "Stream "Chop 'Em Down" (Macromedia Flash)

Soulfarm (C Lanzbom and Noah Solomon)
Jerusalem Ridge
Desert Rock Records
Download "Mayim Rabim"
Download "Tal" (Mp3)

Balkan Beat Box
JDub 2005
JDub Records
Download "Bulgarian Chicks"
Download "La Bush Resistance f. Tomer Yosef" (Mp3)

Yossi Fine's Ex-Centric Sound System
West Nile Funk
The Birdman Recording Group
Stream "The Original Ragga"
Stream "Alice In Voodooland" (Windows Media)

Pharaoh's Daughter
Out of the Reeds
Tzadik
Stream "West African Niggun"
Stream "Hevel (Ecclesiastes)" (Windows Media)

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    So Matisyahu may point to the Baal as his forefather, but if new Jewish music is headed where it really needs to go—toward a long-overdue inclusion—it would be better to follow Shlomo Carlebach, the "Singing Rabbi" and Nina Simone confidant who founded the '60s Haight-Ashbury temple House of Love and Prayer and preached human connectivity through good music. Even L.A.-based Jewish rap duo Blood of Abraham had the right idea, with a '93 CD, Future Profits (on the late Eazy-E's Ruthless Records), that included the rant against racism and anti-Semitism, "Niggaz and Jewz (Some Say Kikes)."

    While America's Jews are barely aware of their own racial rainbow, it's clear that boundaries between temple and club are blurring. Upper West Side synagogues are stirring nonobservant Jews out of religious apathy with drumming sessions and music concerts featuring artists like Pharaoh's Daughter; Moshav Band, led by Israel-raised firebrand Yehuda Solomon; Soulfarm, fronted by Solomon's brother Noah; and seminal klezmer fusionist Frank London. Kippah-wearing producer dj handler spins in Lower East Side clubs by night and, by day, produces Jewish-infused hip-hop, electronica, and jazz for his Modular Moods label. There's even a singing yeshiva rabbi, Sidewalk Café fixture Rav Shmuel, whose "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion Are True" slyly deconstructs Henry Ford's Jewish paranoia. Then there are the working musicians who used to "just happen to be Jewish"—like Bruce Berger, whose brainstorm struck while he was singing at a Shabbat table, or trumpeter Steve Bernstein, who suddenly felt compelled to inject New Orleans swing into the inevitable Jewish-tune medley at a wedding gig, thus leading to his Diaspora CD series.

    Last March, Balkan Beat Box—a collective of musicians, dancers, and performer juggling an unhinged rush of punk, Jewish, Gypsy, Arabic, rock, reggae, and electronica—threw a Purim masquerade at S.O.B.'s. BBB's members are downtown music fixtures, but this was their U.S. debut as a band. Five hundred revelers packed the club, with 300 more turned away at the door. Guest artists included a Spanish flamenco troupe, the Bulgarian Chicks, and Jeremiah Lockwood, a guitarist-singer from a cantorial lineage who's best known for subway performances with 80-plus-year-old Piedmont blues player Carolina Slim. That night, though, Lockwood transformed a '30s Greek rebetika song into Brechtian-punk swagger. The crew of JDub—the indie label that released BBB's self-titled September 20 debut CD and won Matisyahu the deal for Youth—wandered the room dressed as the Steve Zissou crew. A guy in a powder-blue suit and matching hat styled like a mackin' Hasid, while another had tucked his ponytail into an oversize white silk yarmulke and twisted a set of side locks for the occasion. These are the young, Jewish, and hip, and they've got a soundtrack to prove it.

    But the first new wave of Jewish fusion-ists came from the late-'80s downtown. John Zorn created his shoestring Tzadik label by asking likely musicians to record Jewish-jazz fusions, thereby altering many career trajectories. The Knitting Factory, under the equally visionary direction of Michael Dorf, promoted shows and tours and launched the JAM (Jewish Alternative Movement) label, featuring Roy Nathanson, Marc Ribot, Zorn, and others injecting Jewish elements into jazz, avant-garde, and punk rock—including the Klezmatics, who were "the first to strike a path between copying old music or only doing something new and radical," says leader Frank London, whose new CD Carnival Conspiracy: In the Marketplace All Is Subterfuge brings a playful musical spirit to the history of Jews in Brazil. In '89, singer- guitarist Gary Lucas debuted his dazzling non-klezmer-yet-Jewish fusion score to the 1920 German expressionist film The Golem, while African American clarinetist Don Byron blended jazz with the borscht belt parodies of actor Joel Grey's father, Mickey Katz. Jamaica entered the mix after Profile Records asked King Django to record a Christmas CD, and instead he gave them 1998's seminal Jewish-ska fusion Roots and Culture.

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