Hectic, eclectic songs of the season

The closer we get to candle-lighting time, the more we warm to sounds of the season. Of course, there is no rule that every note of every song must be to-the-letter traditional (or even particularly Jewish), as a handful of new and recent releases demonstrate. As you’re preparing to spin the dreidel, give some of these gems a spin: 

The first and only English spoken words of “Putumayo Presents: A Jewish Celebration” (Putumayo) are heard nine songs into the 13-track CD, at the conclusion of the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s buoyant rendition of “The Dreydl Song.” The line is shouted, not sung. 

“Alonzo, make me a dreidel!”  

And that’s it, folks. If you want to follow the lyrics with this globe-spanning compilation, you’d best brush up on your Yiddish, German, French and Spanish. What, you expected heterogeneity from a CD published by Putumayo World Music? More than half of the artists are from the United States, but the songs are decidedly international in flavor.

It shouldn’t matter. These songs are presenting decidedly new spins on some very old favorites (as well as a few that aren’t so old). In addition to the oleo of languages, “A Jewish Celebration” serves up a blend of musical styles, including reggae, bossa nova and African tribal rhythms. Chances are you have never come across a rendition of “Ocho Kandelikas,” suffused with the promises of Chanukah quite like the sultry tango beat that accompanies Alisa Fineman’s version. Or such a unique melding of choral voices from the Abayudaya Congregation of Uganda, united in the chorus of “Hinei Ma Tov.”

The liner notes supply some tasty background, including thematic links behind the lyrics of “Vehistakel” and the Jamaican reggae stylings of Bob Marley favored by Kayama’s Mikael Zerbib. Zerbib contends that had Marley been an Orthodox rabbi, he would have created music in the vein of Kamaya. Reggae and rabbis? Why ever not? 

The Idelsohn Society — historians of Jewish culture through recorded sound — had me with the title “It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba” (Idelsohn Society). The somewhat bawdy 1952 ditty by Ruth Wallis is more than just the title track for this two-CD compilation tracing the overlap of Jewish and Latin music. “It’s a Scream …” sits firmly within the musical tradition of Jews gloriously discovering salsa sounds, learning to shake their maracas and — in many cases — being made to look royally silly while doing so. 

The Idelsohn collection has several representative examples of this largely satiric (and quite dated) silliness, from the opening “Moe the Schmo Takes a Rhumba Lesson” by Irving Kaufman to the Barry Sisters’ “Channa from Havana,” wherein a housewife’s trip to Cuba produces comic results, to “My Yiddishe Mambo” by the klezmer comedian Mickey Katz and his orchestra.  

Fortunately, the bulk of the “It’s a Scream …” numbers are not satiric. By chronologically tracing the musical crossover between the two cultures from the 1940s through the 1980s, the Idelsohn Society unearthed some real gems and illustrated some fascinating links. Xavier Cugat is represented (“Miami Beach Rhumba”), as is his wife Abbe Lane (the former Abigail Francine Lassman), who sizzles her way through “Pan, Amor y Cha Cha Cha” alongside no less a figure than Tito Puente. 

There are no fewer than three distinct and spiced-up versions of “Hava Nagila,” with Celia Cruz’s “Hava Nageela” being especially smoky. When you can put Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, Mongo Santamaria and Damiron in the same collection as Carole King and Larry Harlow and locate the Jewish presence in every number, you’ve got something.

Tradition takes a holiday of sorts on “The Best of Festival of Light” (Six Degrees Records), the digital-only compilation of seasonal airs. Folk rocker Marc Cohn kicks things off spectacularly with a rendition of “Rock of Ages” (“Ma’oz Tzur”) so straightforward yet stirring that it could keep those candles aglow for another eight nights at minimum. Take a seat, Adam Sandler, this one should be the new Chanukah perennial. 

From that opening track, things cool off a bit, even though the artists are no less skilled or eclectic. Wally Brill is in full cantorial — indeed, near operatic — splendor with “Kiddush Le-Shabbat.” Klezmatics founder Frank London lends his pixie-ish trumpet to the swinging “Oh Hanukka Groove” (accompanying his Big Band) and, later, soloing with “Song of Praise.”

With elaborate strings, lively percussion and the occasional unusual sound added to the mix — could that have been a didgeridoo on the aforementioned Brill “Kiddush”? — none of the renditions feels the least bit ordinary. 

They Might Be Giants gets the collection’s most comic entry, the yenta-ish and  borderline snarky “Feast of Lights”: “The only thing we have is fights / But there’s got to be a change tonight. / Please be nice on this feast of lights.” Contrast the Giants with the hugely earnest laundry list of Peter Himmelman and David Broza’s “Lighting up the World,” and you’ve got a gamut-spanning album, indeed.

Then there’s the album “Shruggy Ji” (Sinj Records), by Brooklyn-based bhangra band Red Baraat. Its Web site touts the band’s extensive presence on the road and at targeted events (TED conferences, London 2012 Paralympic Games). Clearly when dhol player and group founder Sunny Jain and the eight members of Red Baraat show up — brass and drums in tow — parties start. 

Maybe not so much in your living room, though.  

“Shruggy Ji,” the group’s second full-length studio album, offers some seriously frisky and upbeat tunes with drums bolstering horns or vice versa, depending on the track. Fusing a big-band sound with Indian rhythms, Red Baraat belongs in neither camp. Three or four numbers into the 13-song album, however, those beats, exultations and breakdowns start to feel a bit repetitive, particularly in the instrumental tracks. It becomes even a relief to hear actual lyrics, particularly the attitude-laced raps of John Altieri in numbers like “Private Dancers,” “Mast Kalandar” and “F.I.P.”  And while I’m not sure what a “Tarantino car chase” is supposed to sound like, sorry Web liner notes …“Burning Instinct” ain’t it

JDub throws off the label and opts for change

Golem live (‘Romania, Romania!’) at the Knitting Factory in NYC June 2007

JDub was never supposed to be just a record label, and as JDub records celebrates its fifth anniversary with a free concert on July 27 downtown at California Plaza, it is more clear than ever that the organization’s founders have greater ambitions than merely putting out good Jewish CDs.

Aaron Bisman, who co-founded the label with Jacob Harris when the duo were finishing college in New York, readily admits those ambitions.

“We believed there were legs for the idea behind the label,” Bisman says, his eyes alight with the passion of someone who after a half-decade is still excited by what he is doing. “We wanted to change attitudes about Jewish music and culture. We wanted to create something for young Jews, our contemporaries, to create spaces and music that would make them want to be there.”

And it wasn’t about making money. What sets JDub apart from other Jewish music purveyors is their not-for-profit status, which allows them to seek grants and work closely with other Jewish nonprofits. The Six Points Fellowship program, a partnership among the label, Avoda Arts and the Foundation for Jewish Culture, substantially funded by UJA-Federation of New York, is a good example.

“We wanted to bring together artists who had never done a specifically Jewish project before,” Bisman says.

The two-year fellowship program provides 12 artists with a living stipend, financial project support, professional development workshops and ongoing peer- and professional-led learning opportunities.

The vision has already begun to bear fruit. Having built a strong foundation in New York, Bisman and Harris have begun the slow, hard work of expanding their outreach to Los Angeles and other cities with a substantial Jewish presence. They have already cleared a major hurdle, receiving a “Cutting Edge” grant of $250,000 from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. In the long run, the idea is to create spaces and events for young Jews, whether affiliated or not, with the goal of making Jewish culture cool.

“They have figured out a way to allow their contemporaries to find a way to comfortably express themselves,” says Marvin Schotland, CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation. “It’s another way in a complex environment to test what will attract other people to get comfortable with their identity and to take some step beyond showing up at a concert. JDub has the capacity to get them to show up at a concert, but they’re interested in doing more than that, and they are interested in connecting with other participants in the Jewish community. We believe this initiative will have a major impact on the Jewish community in Los Angeles.”

Of course, no one is expecting an overnight transformation of Los Angeles’ diverse, diffuse Jewish community. JDub’s program is designed to build gradually, creating links between self-identified Jews in the arts communities, the Jewish communal world and audiences. And somewhere along the road, JDub also hopes to nurture new bands and performers to sign to their label.

In the very short term, the July 27 concert is a useful launching pad for JDub in Los Angeles, highlighting two of their bands — Golem, a hard-driving klezmer-punk-gypsy fusion, and Soulico, a powerful crew of Israeli DJs whose guests for this performance will include the Ethiopian-Israeli MCs of Axum and Sagol 59, the grand old man of Israeli hip-hop. In its sheer atypicality, the double-bill is typical of JDub, Bisman says.

“Both [bands] help us fill in the picture of the diversity of the world of Jewish music we’ve always been striving for,” he says. “Eastern European Jewish — and non-Jewish — folk tunes played as rock and punk, led by an amateur female ethnomusicologist, and an Israeli DJ crew building original hip-hop out of Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms.”

Not coincidentally, both groups have new CDs scheduled for release in early 2009. (Hey, we said they weren’t just a record label.)

“New York has been our base of support and our home,” Bisman says. “But our plan is to grow as a national organization, to find artists and funding outside New York City.”

Schotland is optimistic.

“For us, while the art is significant, it’s the vision they have for the utilization of the art to provide a way for young Jewish adults to identify with their Jewish identity [that] was most impressive about their proposal,” he says. “The proof of the pudding will be five years from now.”

Golem, Soulico, with Sagol 59 and Axum as guest artists, and Slivovitz and Soul will be performing free at Grand Performances (California Plaza, Waterfront Stage) on Sunday, July 27 at 7 p.m.

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, November 20

Why just dust off that same old menorah when you can ring in this Chanukah with a shiny new one, too? The 24th annual Festival of Jewish Artisans comes to Temple Isaiah this weekend, featuring Judaica and decorative fine art by more than 30 artists. Kicking off the festivities this evening is a concert titled, “Miracle: A Chanukah Celebration,” by Angel City Chorale and Cantor Evan Kent, followed by a reception and artists preview, and the festival takes place tomorrow, too.

Nov. 20, 8 p.m. (concert), $15-$18. Nov. 21, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (festival), $2-$5. 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 277-2772.

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Then later, attend the American Cinematheque’s screening of “El Abrazo Partido” (“The Lost Embrace”), part of its “Argentina: New Cinema III” series. The film, which screens at the Egyptian Theatre, is described as “a Woody Allen-like portrait of a young Jewish man working in his father’s lingerie shop in Buenos Aires” and is the official Argentine submission for next year’s Oscars.

5 p.m. $6-$9. 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-3456.

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Music for All Ages

For the Kids

When Paul Zim sent me his new children’s CD, “Shabbat is Here,” to review, I did the only logical thing — I gave it to my 5-year-old son, Yair, for his opinion. The reviews are in — “This is great!”

Yair is a long-time fan of Zim, who is known not only for his children’s music but for his cantorial work and Yiddish songs.

In addition to some original songs written for “Shabbat Is Here,” Zim does his own variations on classics such “Bim Bam,” “Yom Rishon,” and “Gili Gili Good Shabbat,” and includes traditional favorites such as “Lecha Dodi,” “Mizmor Shir” and “Eliyahu Hanavi.” The musical styles vary from klezmer to jazz to something that sounded like a cowboy ballad.

Like Zim’s other children’s tapes, such as the Noah’s ark-themed “Zimmy Zim’s Zoo” and “Jewish Holiday Time,” “Shabbat is Here” establishes a friendly rapport with listeners by using children as back-up singers and narrators in the ongoing dialogue that carries through the tape, explaining various aspects of Shabbat. Zim’s singing is slow and enunciated so that even small children can learn the words to Hebrew songs they may not even understand.

“Shabbat is Here” is available at local Judaica stores, or by calling (888)3-SAMEACH, www.paulzim.com.

For the Bigger Kids

Just in time for Chanukah, Craig Taubman has produced “Celebrate Kids: Kids’ Kosher Cuts,” a fourth CD in his “Celebrate Series,” which includes theme albums on Chanukah, Passover and Shabbat.

This latest CD, like the others in the series, includes selections from about a dozen singers, from favorites such as Debbie Friedman and Craig ‘n Co. to some newcomers. The musical styles are diverse and tantalizing — you never quite know what might come next: ’50s bebop, a cappella, country, jazz, disco and even a song by “Visions” that sounds like it came off a Britney Spears track.

What holds the CD together is a broad, unifying message — being Jewish is cool, it’s fun and it gives you something to think about. Half of all revenues from this CD will go to Magen David Adom.

The CD is available at Borders Books, Gelsons and Ralphs, or at (800) 6-CRAIG-8, www.celebrateseries.com.

For the Grownups

The Western Wind Ensemble, in cooperation with National Public Radio, has released an updated version of its choral and narrative “Chanukah in Story and Song.” Narrated by Leonard Nimoy, the CD interweaves the story of Chanukah with vocal arrangements, both a cappella and accompanied, from the span of Jewish musical history.

With Chasidic melodies, Israeli folk songs and liturgical pieces set to both contemporary and classical compositions, the CD offers an evocative and thoughtful rendition of the traditional story.

Especially moving is solo performance of a Sephardic melody about Hannah, whose seven sons submitted to the sword rather than commit idolatry.

KCRW 89.9 FM will air the Western Wind’s “Chanukah in
Story and Song” Friday, Dec. 14, noon-3 p.m. To order the CD, call (800)
788-2187, www.westernwind.org .