December 8, 2005
Punk Princesses: Jews With Attitude
There were always Jews in punk, even before there was punk.
"It really begins with Lenny Bruce," says Steven Beeber, whose new book "The Heebie Jeebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jewish Punk," will be published next year by A Capella Books. "Bruce sort of epitomizes the attitude, the whole smart-ass, clever truth-telling."
In fact, the punk attitude is also a Jewish attitude that begins with the midrash, in which Abram smashes all but one of his father's household idols and blames the sole survivor for the wreckage.
In its early days, punk was not only a form of music but also a philosophy, a way of looking at the world. And for three Jewish women musicians, it still is all that and more.
Jewlia Eisenberg, the founder and leader of Charming Hostess, a constantly mutating musical aggregation from the Bay Area, embraces the label "Jewish punk diva" with glee.
"Punk is a form of opposition," Eisenberg wrote in an e-mail interview. "Real punks are radical in politics and culture. Punk is about screaming and dancing your way out of the margins. Punk is anti-materialist, DIY, direct, and in your face. Punk is a point of view; it's a site of resistance, it's a community.... And I can get with all that."
But if you listen to records made by Charming Hostess -- or Annette Ezekiel's band Golem or Sophie Solomon's Oi Va Voi -- and expect shrieking three-chord rock played at the speed of light and the threshold of permanent hearing damage, you will be surprised. And if you are looking for torn T-shirts, safety pins and Doc Martens ... well that's so 1970s.
Or as Eisenberg dryly observes, "[Punk] is not defined simply by its symbols, which indeed are used to commodify punk and the energy it represents."
Although the original spirit of punk was a kind of working-class outrage, expressed through a do-it-yourself homemade aesthetic, Eisenberg, Ezekiel and Solomon are university-educated, trained musicians. Of course, punk itself moved beyond three chords and inchoate snarls almost immediately, but the music of Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi is stunning in its complexity.
Which is not to say you can't dance to it.
When Golem played a couple of weddings during their West Coast tour this fall, there were horas and mosh pits side by side.
"Oh, yeah, that was our moshiest tour so far," Ezekiel says with a grin.
So is Golem punk?
"It's hard to label our music," Ezekiel says. "I'm doing straight-up Yiddish music with a punk or rock attitude, but it's not something you can see from the music."
Heeb Magazine thinks they are punk, so much so that they won the award as "best punk band" at the publication's first Jewish Music Awards. Reminded of this, Ezekiel laughed a little then noted that a friend of the late Joey Ramone, who was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award at the same ceremony, came up to her after hearing Golem and said approvingly, "You are so punk!"
For Ezekiel, too, it's a question of attitude. She compares Golem's approach to that of some of the more tradition-bound klezmer revival bands.
"I know deep down that we are punk, that we are a wild, edgy band," she says. "I love the klezmer revival, but sometimes it's missing the visceral energy, and everyone is playing the same material."
By contrast, Golem leans more heavily on songs from Yiddish theater, perhaps not in a style that Molly Picon or Seymour Rechseit would recognize.
"People are always asking us why we don't play more originals," Ezekiel says. "I have no interest in writing songs. The research is what I love, and we reinterpret the songs we find by adding new elements."
By contrast, much of Charming Hostess's material is written by Eisenberg, although she draws on a bewildering variety of texts for her lyrics, ranging from the correspondence and diaries of Walter Benjamin to the verse of Bosnian poet Sem Mehmedinovic. She runs them through her own cerebral Mixmaster and creates delirious music for three female voices and occasional instrumental accompaniment. The result is best described by Ari Davidow, proprietor of the splendid KlezmerShack Web site (www.klezmershack.com) as "what Sweet Honey in the Rock might sound like if they had a bit more punk sensibility and broadened their range to include Balkan Ladino and Jewish campfire tunes."
Eisenberg herself describes Charming Hostess' music as "nerdy-sexy-commie-girlie," and can number Ezekiel as one her most enthusiastic fans. Golem and Charming Hostess played a number of concerts together in California last fall, each described the experience as a joy.
"We even did some tunes together, which was great fun," Eisenberg notes.
"I've never been so happy with a double bill before," Ezekiel says. "We're both really into the background and research and culture behind the music we perform, but we're not bogged down by it."
"I was talking to Annette today," Eisenberg wrote, "and I told her why I think the ... music of Charming Hostess and the raucous klezmer of Golem are a good double bill; Charming Hostess does avant music framed by a folk sensibility and Golem does folk music framed by an avant sensibility."
Sophie Solomon, like Eisenberg and Ezekiel, was trained as a classical musician. Her own sensibility is certainly avant, although she would probably opt for hip-hop rather than punk as a label, and Oi Va Voi's wildly energetic mix of Yiddish, Balkan, Roma, rock and rap undoubtedly draws on as wide a range of folk musics as Hostess or Golem.
Asked about Solomon, Ezekiel exclaims, "Yeah! She's taking the old stuff and making it sexy, wild and contemporarily relevant. Totally!"
Solomon's own musical background includes stints as a DJ at clubs and raves in her native England, and she is probably as well-known here for her collaboration with Josh Dolgin, better known as Socalled, on the "Hip-Hop Khasene," a spirited meeting of Jewish wedding, turntablism, sampling and rap, as for her frenetic fiddle playing with Oi Va Voi. Coincidentally, Golem was also part of a highly publicized musical spoof of Jewish wedding traditions, "Golem Gets Married," featuring a cross-dressing bride and groom and the band's spirited musical readings of traditional tunes.
"Hip-Hop Khasene" is a project that speaks directly to Solomon's own interests and underlines her affinities with Eisenberg and Ezekiel.
"I want to evoke the Jewish musical experience of the past two centuries," she says, discussing the live version of "Khasene." "You hear a sample from Naftule Brandwein at the same time that [80-year-old] Elaine Hoffman Watts is playing onstage with David Krakauer and me."
Socalled's sampling magic and breakbeat manipulation speak directly to Solomon's desire to combine Jewish music cross-generationally and her own cross-cultural influences.
"The collage nature of what Josh does is particularly interesting to me," she says. "I wanted to do something that is authentic -- these are real, living wedding traditions -- and the concert is like a wedding from beginning to end, the wedding ceremony from 'Dobriden' to 'Zay Gezunt.' But I also wanted to do something that raises questions about what 'authentic' is. This isn't 19th-century Eastern Europe."
In a way, Solomon's remark about authenticity sums up the distance that punk has traveled from the Sex Pistols, the Dictators and the Ramones through the hip-hop world and into the contemporary Jewish music world inhabited by Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi. As Steven Beeber says, "Hip-hop is the new punk, and has been for a long time."
So are these women Jewish punk divas or Jewish hip-hop divas or what?
Ari Davidow, a particularly astute observer of everything klezmer and beyond, remarks, "The issue ... is less punk than mash-up -- the incredible variety of sounds you get when people who have grown up part of the rich tapestry of musical heritages now care enough about Jewish sources to do a Jewish remix."
Charming Hostess's most recent album is "Sarajevo Blues," on the Tzadik label. They will probably be performing in Los Angeles in February. Golem's most recent CD is "Homesick Songs" on Aeronaut Records. Oi Va Voi's most recent recording, "Laughter Through Tears," is on the Outcaste label, and "Hip-Hop Khasene" by Solomon and Socalled is widely available.
George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, "Essential Torah," will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.