Jewish fusion music key to Budapest’s ‘Jewstock’ festival

Flora Polnauer, 28, tilts back her head, half closes her eyes and hums a few bars of a song by her hip-hop/funk/reggae band HaGesher.
July 22, 2010

Flora Polnauer, 28, tilts back her head, half closes her eyes and hums a few bars of a song by her hip-hop/funk/reggae band HaGesher.

The song is "Lecha Dodi," the Shabbat evening prayer—sounded over a Yiddishized version of the Beatles song "Girl." It’s just one of the many unconventional songs of the band, whose vocalists rap their own lyrics in Hebrew, Hungarian and English.

"It’s modern Jewish music because it’s influenced by Jewish things, but it’s not the replaying of old Jewish songs," says Daniel Kardos, 34, a composer and guitarist who plays with Hagesher and several other bands. "I pick up many things and mix them."

Hagesher is one of about half a dozen bands in this city of European Jewish cool blending jazz, hip hop, rap and reggae with Israeli pop and traditional Jewish folk tunes and liturgy to form an eclectic urban sound.

"It’s a big mix of contemporary Jewish musical identity," said vocalist Adam Schoenberger, the son of a rabbi. "All of us find Jewish culture very important. Hagesher is a platform for us to articulate musically our different musical interpretation of Jewish cultural heritage."

As the program director of the popular Siraly club, whose dimly lit basement stage is a regular venue for Hagesher and other groups, Schoenberger, 30, is a leader in Budapest’s Jewish youth scene.

He is also one of the organizers of Bankito, sometimes referred to as "Jewstock"—a youth-oriented Jewish culture festival Aug. 5-8 on the shore of Bank Lake, north of Budapest.

Bankito includes concerts, exhibitions, performances, workshops, seminars and lectures, a poetry slam, sports events, movies, and Jewish and interfaith religious observances. A number of events at this year’s festival will highlight Roma, or Gypsy culture, and focus also on social and civic issues such as the rights of the Roma and other ethnic minorities.

Music is a highlight of Bankito. Hagesher, the Daniel Kardos Quartet and other Jewish bands such as Nigun and Triton Electric Oktopus will perform.

"We’re at a fascinating moment in Jewish music: It’s hip again," said Michigan’s Jack Zaientz, who authors the Teruah Jewish music blog. "There’s an amazing gang of musicians who are young, smart, urban and Jewish, and making their Jewish identities a core part of their music and stage identities."

The Budapest musicians take their cues from Jewish bands in North America, Paris, London and elsewhere that also experiment with new forms and fusions. Among their models are John Zorn, the avant-garde composer who has promoted "Radical Jewish Culture" on his Tzadik label since 1995, DJ Socalled and Balkan Beat Box, and Orthodox reggae star Matisyahu and rapper Y-Love.

Trumpeter Frank London, who regularly tours Europe with the Klezmatics and other bands, has had a particularly strong impact with his mash-ups of klezmer, Balkan brass and even Gospel.

"Everyone is influenced by Frank London through the Klezmatics," said Bob Cohen, a Hungarian-American musician and writer who has lived in Budapest since the 1980s. "But another big influence in Hungary is Israeli raves on Tel Aviv beaches."

"I played at Jewstock a couple of years ago," Cohen said. "People there had an academic interest in klezmer, but what they want is to go out and rave."

In some ways, Cohen said, the new Jewish music scene in Budapest developed as a reaction to a more traditional klezmer music scene that many young people now perceive as part of the stuffy mainstream establishment. The Budapest Klezmer Band, for example, the city’s best-known Jewish music group, performs internationally in opera houses and concert halls as well as theaters and mainstream festivals.

Formed in 1990, the band also collaborates on elaborate klezmer stage productions and ballets.

"The new Jewish music scene is a party scene, not a concert scene, and the older generation doesn’t relate to it," Cohen said. "In a way, they want an art form that won’t be understood by the traditional Jewish establishment."

In many ways, Kardos exemplifies both the musical variety and the variety of influences that help shape the scene.

In addition to Hagesher and his own quartet, he composes film music and plays with several other bands. One of them, Shkayach, is a collaboration with Polnauer, a rabbi’s daughter and powerful vocalist who raps with Hagesher and other groups. Shkayach forms a contrast with their rap and progressive jazz work by creating an intimate acoustic sound based on traditional Yiddish and Israeli melodies.

Kardos attended a Jewish high school in Budapest and made aliyah after graduation. In Israel, he learned Hebrew and studied jazz at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. But like many young Hungarian Jews who moved to Israel in the 1990s, he decided after three years to return to Hungary, where he continued his studies.

It was only back in Budapest, Kardos said, that he realized the importance to him of both Jewish music and his own Jewish identity.

"It was strange because when I was in Israel, I wasn’t open so much to the Jewish musical traditions," he said.

Away from Israel, though, Kardos said that "I realized that it was more important than I thought. I was very young when I was in Israel, and I didn’t realize that it’s very important to be Jewish and have all these traditions."

He added, "I think I was too young for the music, too. After some time I realized that when I hear those Eastern melodies, I just feel like home. It’s so natural to me. Like being in a swimming pool and floating."

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