July 23, 2008
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.