Eclectic mix of music hip-hop even for holiday gift-giving
Mention Hanukka and most people quickly conjure up images of a menora, a dreidel, maybe a little gelt, and lots of latkes as they should. But the picture is incomplete without a little music. After all, it’s a happy occasion and what better way to celebrate than with a few songs and some dancing?
With that in mind, we’ve checked out some of the latest releases of decidedly Jewish music by artists known wide and far, and a few not so well-known. There’s something here for just about everyone klezmer (what would any party be without a freilach or doina?), folk, rock and roll, and even hip-hop. That’s right, you can make this a hip-hop Hanukka if you want. Here’s how:
Without doubt, the new collaboration between David Krakauer, the widely regarded clarinetist who fronts the aptly named Klezmer Madness, and SoCalled, the hotter-than-thou Yiddische hip-hop maven from north of the border, has arguably yielded the most inventive new sets of sounds of the year. Okay, the melodies are familiar; this is something of a klezmer outing, after all. But then Krakauer starts blowing through one reed after another, sending notes soaring into the air while SoCalled throws down a pulsating beat that takes the music in an entirely new direction. And the attitude. Oh, what attitude. Think Straight Out of Crown Heights. Just check out the album title: Bubbemeises Lies My Gramma Told Me. This is also the name of the first track, and they don’t give bubbe a break she gets chastised for failing to tell it like it is. Fair or not, it’s really catchy. On “B Flat A La SoCalled,” the boys mesh ancient Hebrew sounds with the din of a dark club. And their version of “Rumania, Rumania,” sounds as if the dearly beloved, departed klezmer legend Dave Tarras got caught in a funkadelic trance. If this isn’t enough to grab you, the cover makes you wonder if that’s an evil eye peering out or Gramma wondering what you’re up to.
Then there’s the newest album from Golem, a Lower East Side-based klezmer group that is as edgy as they get. Called Fresh Off the Boat, the songs hew more to the conventional than not (nine of the 13 tracks are traditional numbers). But what sets Golem apart from the rest of the burgeoning klezmer pack is an emphasis on adding a heavy dollop of gypsy music into the mix and fiery singing that makes most every song sound like an urgent message from the grave. This is especially true on the opener, “Ushti Baba,” and a strong original number, “Warsaw is Khelm.” Golem has succeeded in developing an avant-garde reputation over the past couple of years and with good reason. This one’s recommended for anyone with an urge for something unexpected.
If you want something traditional, here are two good choices. The first is from German Goldenshteyn, an immigrant from the region where Moldova meets Ukraine, who settled in Brooklyn in 1994. What made him special was an encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of klezmer tunes that he learned from decades of playing simchas in the Old Country. When he arrived here, it was as if a long-lost musical treasure magically appeared, because he knew melodies and versions of melodies that had been lost to assimilation, migration and, of course, the Shoa. Called A Living Tradition, the album has a familiar menu: sirbas, horas, bulgars, and freilachs abound, with help from such klezmer notables as Hank Sapoznik. But the playing is invigorating, and it’s unlikely you’ll hear the treatments given these numbers anywhere else. The only disappointment and what makes this recording all the more important is knowing that Goldenshteyn passed away.
Another exceptional choice would be either of the newest albums from Andy Statman, another klezmer stalwart who has been issuing music like there’s no tomorrow. He’s released no fewer than three albums this year two klezmer outings and another containing bluegrass (yes, he began his career by playing bluegrass before discovering his own musical roots). One release, Awakening from Above, features 14 instrumentals in which Statman plays a mean clarinet. Accompanied by double bass and drums, he floats along a spiritual cloud, mixing originals with songs written by various rebbes. (The companion album, East Flatbush Blues, features the same musicians but Statman plays mandolin instead). The other klezmer album is New Shabbos Waltz, and for this one, Statman teams up with David Grisman. Like their previous duet, Songs of Our Fathers, these Yiddishe bluegrass boys play their hearts out on traditional melodies that form a perfect soundtrack for a holiday or a relaxed occasion on any day.
For those who like folk rock, two recent offerings are recommended. The first is from the renowned Debbie Friedman, who returns with another batch of inspirational songs on One People. Blessed with a sturdy, appealing voice, Friedman has a knack for combining spirituality and earthiness, a talent she puts to good use on several numbers here. In particular, the catchy opener, “First To Rejoice,” “Sow in Tears, Reap in Joy,” and “Gather Round” show Friedman at her best firing up listeners with stirring melodies that reaffirm a commitment to religious observance. Although not every song works she has a tendency to get a little syrupy sometimes this newest album is likely to secure her place as a favorite among many Jews who enjoy such unabashed themes.
On a similar note, an album called @ Your Service, from Jules Frankel, is equally pleasing. An accountant from East Brunswick, Frankel doesn’t offer original songs; instead, he takes familiar prayers and sets them to a folk-rock beat. But in doing so, he manages to make the prayers accessible in a different, soothing way.
And for hard-core folkies, the newly expanded album from The Klezmatics, Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanuka, hits the spot. Originally released two years ago, the album boasts several songs that have Guthrie lyrics with a Hanukka-ish theme, suitable for kids and adults alike. However, there are a couple of sterling gems here: “The Many and the Few” and “Hanuka’s Flame” carry universal messages and in the hands of the Klezmatics are transformed into classics. This updated version also sports a few instrumentals that weren’t included on the first release.
Finally, what better accompaniment to wolfing down a few latkes than some toe-tapping power pop? If that sounds like you or someone you know, check out Hanukkah Rocks, from The LeeVees. The album feels a bit like a novelty effort, but Adam Gardner and David Schneider are talented songsmiths who show a flair for crafting a good pop tune and embellishing it with memorable riffs and harmonies. Moreover, the lyrics are genuinely witty listen to “Latke Clan” or “Applesauce vs. Sour Cream.” It’s the sort of silliness that can make your dreidel spin all by itself.
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