Saturday, December 20, 2008

What color is Jewish music?

What color is Jewish music? Jewish musicians are gravitating towards African American music, but the underlying issues aren't so black and white.

In the last 2,As I was scrolling through the songs on my iPod the other day, I came to a personal epiphany. We Jews like African American music. I know this is nothing new. Where was I when jazz and the blues were new and big, or when rock and roll rose out of those jazz and blues cultures with plenty of Jewish musicians in the mix? Well, I wasn't born yet, so cut me a little slack. But this idea is two-fold: not only do we like black music, but Jewish musicians like playing black music. Sure, we dabble in other musical forms too, but the list of Jewish musicians who play what has traditionally been black music is long and impressive (think the Hip Hop Hoodios, So Called, Y-love, and the Beastie Boys).
Why does African American music appeal to us so much? It's possible we're tired of being seen as part of a non-descript white culture, or maybe we just like what we like (hip hop is popular and thriving; why wouldn't we like it?). But I'd be a disgrace to my Jewish upbringing if I didn't ask the underlying question: So what does it all mean?
Eric Goldstein, author of The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and the American Identity, has suggested that Jews are now fighting against what they once sought as if it were the Holy Grail. After centuries of trying and succeeding to integrate into the white American majority, we're now looking for ways to retain some separation by means of borrowing from black culture. Lucky for us, hip-hop is popular with mainstream America while still retaining an aura of the ethnic outsider. It's a little convenient, and perhaps a little superficial, that we can take our cultural vitamins from black music and then eat our dinner with the white American majority.
But it's more than that. Jews have a long and complex history with black music tracing back through the blues-infused melodies of Bob Dylan and Billy Joel, to the swing era's Artie Shaw, to jazz enthusiast and innovator Irving Mills (a big-band era precursor of today's Jewish hip-hop moguls and managers). Though many times the effects of these musicians have been positive, the road hasn't always been pretty.
In 1927, Al Jolson (born Al Yoelson) starred in the first "talkie" movie, The Jazz Singer, playing a cantor's son who wanted to sing jazz. Jews were still struggling then to assimilate and become an accepted part of the white majority, so performers like Jolson happily catered to WASP bigotry using blackface, vaudeville, and humor to entertain whites. Though these methods were certainly crass and insensitive in today's terms, Jolson was just a performer, doing what performers did at the time. Clearly he is just one example, but the complex issues involved with Jolson's performances mirror the complexity of the relationship between Jewish musicians and black music.
Jewish musicians rock for Chanukah
In the last 2,000 years or so, the library of Christmas carols, jingles and Kenny G lounge hits has grown into a vast and almost unnavigable collection of cheer.
But, hark, the creators of Chanukah hits are making a Maccabean effort to catch up. Come sundown tonight, when the holiday starts, you can be shuffling numbers from klezmer to comic on your iPod dock as you prepare for the eight-day celebration.
This season's repertoire got a boost thanks in part to "Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert." The performance, filmed in Los Angeles in late October, has been replaying on PBS stations around the country, and the soundtrack is for sale on iTunes.
Produced and hosted by Craig Taubman, "Lights" featured guests including the Klezmatics, "Jewish Pavarotti" Alberto Mizrahi and saxophonist Dave Koz, and it turned the spotlight on local favorites Josh Nelson and Michelle Citrin, Brooklyn-based musicians who've made waves with radio-ready Jewish-themed music that embraces pop styles without straying from its roots.
Citrin, in particular, has charmed fans and become a YouTube favorite to the tune of 1.2 million hits and counting. Last year, she introduced her online persona, Rosh Hashanah Girl, and followed up this spring with her post-Passover tune "20 Things to Do With Matzah."
In preparation for the holidays, she created a music video entitled "Pass the Candle," cutting together video clips submitted by fans to show a shamash candle being passed through about four dozen homes, as well as trips and a Hollywood vacation, before it ends up back in her hands to complete the lighting of her menorah.
"There are a lot of other Jewish-themed videos that we found inappropriate or like they're trying too hard or it's really kitschy," Citrin tells us of her work with collaborator Will Levin, an animator. "We were looking for the kind of song we could have in the background at a holiday party."
Indeed, for many listeners the phrase "Chanukah song" instantly calls to mind the off-color kitsch of Adam Sandler, but Citrin boasts plenty of pretty, plaintive tunes in addition to her online opuses.
Likewise, even a new CD from one member of a comic family comes with hauntingly beautiful selections. Erran Baron Cohen, older brother of "Borat" creator and star Sacha Baron Cohen, released his "Songs in the Key of Hanukkah" in November, an electronica-influ enced collection laced with world beats.
"The idea was to update everything and sort of remix it — we have Y-Love, a New York-based rapper, rapping in Yiddish," Cohen tells us.
"A Chanukah tune like 'Dreidel' is very cool now. It's got this hip-hop groove but also a gypsy kind of feel." Cohen included collaborators such as Israeli singer Yasmin Levy, who performs a sultry "Ocho Kandelikas" in Ladino, a language derived from Old Spanish and influenced by Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic.
The track netted a rave review from Sheryl Crow, who called it her personal fave. The only downside of this holiday music diaspora? With Chanukah music growing faster than ever, it can't be long before celebrities get in on the mix — generating massive backlash.
Producer Marc Ronson recently told Rolling Stone that he's dreaming up a Chanukah album with Amy Winehouse.
"She's got songs called, like, 'Kosher Kisses' and 'Alone Under the Mistletoe,' " Ronson said. "She was kind of [bleep]ing around, but I was like ... 'We should do something.' "

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