Ask your typical music fan about the Jewish connection to Latin alternative music, and you're most likely to get a puzzled look. Why would nice Jewish boys and girls be involved in a musical genre where klezmer isn't kosher?
Pose this question to Josh Norek and he'll give you an exasperated reply. "There is so much more to Jewish music than just klezmer and prayer hymns," Norek says. "And Jews [have] been a vital part of the Latin music scene as well."
As proof, Norek will play you a tune: "Havana Nagila." You hear the familiar rhythms of "Hava Nagila" emerge, but are surprised to find yourself shaking your tuchus to an addicting merengue version of the Jewish standard, which features lyrics no longer just in Yiddish, but also Spanish and English.
But now another question arises: Is this Jewish or Latin music? Well, it's both -- and neither. This is the work of Hip Hop Hoodios, Norek's rap group that's part Beastie Boys, part Molotov (a famous Mexican rap/rock group) and all Latino Jew. Generating underground buzz in both the Jewish and Latino hipster communities, the group is looking to give musical affirmation to a community that's a minority within two minorities.
As the Hoodios (a play on Judios, the Spanish word for Jews) suggest, the connection between Jews and Latin alternative music is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Some of the biggest names in Latin alternative have Jewish heritage, from respected critics Josh Kun and Ernesto Lechner (an Argentine Jew) to musicians like Andrés Calamaro and Toto Rotblat (both from Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs) and Alejandro Marcovitch (of Caifanes, the legendary Mexican group).
However, a lyrical examination of the Latino Jewish experience is lacking in Latin alternative, likely because of Judaism's there-but-not-acknowledged presence in the Latino world, something that the Hoodios are ready to lay bare. "Many Latinos don't realize that they have Jewish roots even though they follow Jewish customs," observes Federico Fong, drummer for the Hoodios, whose day job is being the bass player for major rock en espagnol act La Barranca. "I hope that with Hip Hop Hoodios, we can awaken the dormant Jewish heritage of Latinos."
Fong himself is not a Jew, but has one sister who is married to a Jew and another sister who works at a Second Avenue deli in New York where Hip Hop Hoodios was born. He also served as Norek's musical rabbi, giving him his Hip Hop Hoodio alter ego Josué Noriega. Norek is the only non-Latino in the group; the other members of Hip Hop Hoodios are Uruguayan Jew Adam Salzman de Weinstein and Puerto Rican Jew Abraham Velez.
"To tell you the truth, it surprised me at first that a non-Latino could be so into Latin alternative," Fong says. "But Josué and I prove that you don't have to fully belong to a particular culture to appreciate it."
The group has received an enthusiastic response from audiences with songs bordering between parody and pedantry such as "1492" (dealing with the repercussions of the Spanish Inquisition on Latino culture) and "Ocho Kandelikas" (an irresistible Chanukah song sung in Ladino). "Initially, we were fearful that all the interest in the band would be because of the ethnic novelty factor," Norek says. "But, the album ["Raza Hoodia," meaning Jewish race, will be released shortly nationwide] and concert reviews have been overwhelmingly positive." But not necessarily Jewish, where one would expect most of their support to originate.
"It's frustrating for us as Jews that the Jewish media has largely overlooked us," Norek says. "Until now, most of our support has come from non-Jewish Latinos."
So the question remains: Latino or Jew? Or something new? The fact that their upcoming March 31 concert at the Conga Room is being promoted differently by its co-sponsors (leading Latin alternative magazine La Banda Elastica treats it as a rock en espagnol concert, while Klutz Productions, a Jewish singles organization, advertises the event as a "Jewish dance party") only adds to the confusion, but that suits Norek just fine. "We want to bring Latino-Jewish hip hop to a wider audience -- as well as change the stereotypes of just what a 'Jew' or 'Latino' is," he says. "Even if the group were to dissolve tomorrow, I'd feel like we had accomplished a lot -- as well as overcome some enormous preconceptions of what a Latino Jewish hip hop band is all about.
Hip Hop Hoodios performs with Orixa at the Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. March 31, 8 p.m., $20. For more information, call (323) 938-1696.