From jazz to ska, musicians assert Jewishness in new CDs

NEW YORK, Dec. 23 (JTA) — Artfully sculpted sideburns emanating from a head of closely cropped hair and several small hoops running up each earlobe mark King Django as a ska hipster. Ska, a precursor of reggae that weaves together elements of American rhythm and blues with the laid-back sound of Jamaica’s easy native groove, has been embraced by anti-Nazi skinheads as the music of their movement. Yet while Django, as he’s known to everyone but his parents — who named him Jeffrey Baker — may be big on the downtown alternative music scene, he’s no Jamaican rasta. He’s a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who now makes the Lower East Side his home. Now, after years working toward success in a non-Jewish musical idiom, Django is coming out of the Jewish closet. He recently put out a CD titled “Roots and Culture,” which brings together reggae rhythms and Yiddish lyrics, songs about the sanctity of Shabbat and a folksy version of “Shalom Aleichem” with a ska sound. On the CD’s back cover, Django reiterates Maimonides’ 13 articles of faith without identifying them, giving simple testament to his Jewish faith. It puts Django in the company of other musicians — including the hip-hop duo M.O.T. and the hard-core metal band Sons of Abraham — who are putting their status as Jews front and center. Suddenly it’s hip — or at least acceptable — to be Jewish. That’s in strong contrast to the earlier part of the century when Jewish musical talents like Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline) changed their names and devoted their skills to penning songs such as “White Christmas.” In recent years, too, Jewish musicians such as Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand have put out Christmas albums. The Jewishness of band members of the Beastie Boys (who now identify as Buddhists), Rush (Geddy Lee, born Gary Lee Weinrib), and KISS (band members Gene Simmons, born Chaim Witz; and Paul Stanley, born Stanley Eisen) is well known but invisible in their work. The most explicit reflection of a mainstream group’s Jewish identity may be a few lines of the High Holidays prayer “Avinu Malkeinu” in the middle of a song by Phish, added in by band member — and Conservative day school alumnus — Mike Gordon. Many musicians, of course, have long focused their entire professional effort on Jewish music — and found themselves limited to that niche. What’s new is that those who have not been so visibly Jewish are staking a proud claim to their religious and ethnic identities and making them explicit in their work. Avant-garde jazz musicians John Zorn, Anthony Coleman and Marc Ribot, among others, have for the last few years been playing free-flowing and often dissonant music that, they say, is inherently Jewish because it’s coming from a Jewish place inside them. This year they and others are playing “Jewsapalooza” at the Knitting Factory, a New York club, during the week surrounding Christmas. The trend may well have started with the Klezmatics, the popular neo-klezmer group which roots world-beat music and progressive themes in traditional Jewish sounds. They have been more successful than just about any other overtly Jewish group, selling more than 25,000 copies of their recordings when other acts sell a fraction of that, said music industry sources. According to Klezmatics fiddler Alicia Svigals, until now “a lot of Jewish artists were into being Jewish, but in a very compartmentalized way, outside of what they did professionally.” “It used to be that Jews were everywhere and nowhere. Jews were prominent in arts and politics and hid at the same time,” said Svigals who, along with klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman, played on King Django’s “Roots and Culture.” Now “it’s nice to see Jews doing something Jewish rather than hiding in shame,” said Svigals. The Klezmatics helped create the atmosphere that is making the new Jewish renaissance in music possible, she said. The band approached klezmer as not wanting to recreate the music of their grandparents, she said. Instead, “We incorporated sounds which were part of our musical psyche, but in an organic way. Then people realized you could do it,” she said. A Los Angeles duo — who have dubbed themselves Dr. Dreidel and Ice Berg — call themselves M.O.T. (Members of the Tribe) and are taking it a big step further. The hilarious pair, more a 1990s version of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks than the black rappers from whom they’ve liberally adapted their noms de musiques, recently put out a tongue-in-cheek CD titled “19.99.” In a staccato beat and rhyming lyrics they poke fun at stereotypes of Jews being matzah-ball eating, money-hungry kvetchers rolling around Hollywood in Lincoln Town Cars. Rather than being part of the hip-hop nation, which is part of black musical culture, “We’re part of the Hebe-hop nation,” said Berg, known to his mother as Andrew Todd Rosenthal. “We believe in power to the chosen people.” His musical partner, who goes by Dreidel but whose name is Hillel Tigay, offered a somewhat more serious analysis of what they’re about. “What we’re trying to say is that it’s okay to come out and laugh at these stereotypes,” Dreidel said. “We say we’re not embarrassed to be Jews, who have contributed so much to comedy and literacy. We will not shut the hell up, we’re proud of who we are. We’re a cultural phenomenon, not people with long beards. We’re proud of our stature in Hollywood,” said Dreidel, who spent three of his formative years in Israel, while his father, a Conservative rabbi who works as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, worked there. “Jews have achieved enormous success in the media and people only point out the negatives in that. It’s latent anti-Semitism. “We’re just laughing at those stereotypes,” he said. “It’s pretty ballsy to say ‘I’m super Jew.’ “ Django, for one, has gotten a gratifying response to his new visible Jewishness. “There are a lot of Jewish guys in reggae and ska music,” he said over an omelet at an East Village diner. “I’ve mostly gotten cheers from them, telling me ‘Burn on, man.’ A lot of them have asked to be on the next [Jewish] record.” Ska fans, mostly young men who attend the more than 180 club dates Django and his two ska bands play each year all over the world, have also given a warm response to his new Jewish music. “It feels good to give people who are assimilated a sense of their Jewish roots,” said Django, who credits his grandmother singing him Yiddish lullabies, and his experiences singing in a Conservative synagogue and at Jewish camps, with inculcating his love of Jewish music. “A lot of the anti-Nazi skinheads are Jewish” but feel really alienated from their parents, he said. “I had this blue-eyed blond kid in Atlanta come up to me and say ‘My mom doesn’t understand this whole ska thing. Now I can show this to her.’ ”

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