Jewish Journal

Hectic, eclectic songs of the season

Evan Henerson

Posted on Nov. 21, 2013 at 4:48 pm

The closer we get to candle-lighting time, the more we warm to sounds of the season. Of course, there is no rule that every note of every song must be to-the-letter traditional (or even particularly Jewish), as a handful of new and recent releases demonstrate. As you’re preparing to spin the dreidel, give some of these gems a spin: 

The first and only English spoken words of “Putumayo Presents: A Jewish Celebration” (Putumayo) are heard nine songs into the 13-track CD, at the conclusion of the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s buoyant rendition of “The Dreydl Song.” The line is shouted, not sung. 

“Alonzo, make me a dreidel!”  

And that’s it, folks. If you want to follow the lyrics with this globe-spanning compilation, you’d best brush up on your Yiddish, German, French and Spanish. What, you expected heterogeneity from a CD published by Putumayo World Music? More than half of the artists are from the United States, but the songs are decidedly international in flavor.

It shouldn’t matter. These songs are presenting decidedly new spins on some very old favorites (as well as a few that aren’t so old). In addition to the oleo of languages, “A Jewish Celebration” serves up a blend of musical styles, including reggae, bossa nova and African tribal rhythms. Chances are you have never come across a rendition of “Ocho Kandelikas,” suffused with the promises of Chanukah quite like the sultry tango beat that accompanies Alisa Fineman’s version. Or such a unique melding of choral voices from the Abayudaya Congregation of Uganda, united in the chorus of “Hinei Ma Tov.”

The liner notes supply some tasty background, including thematic links behind the lyrics of “Vehistakel” and the Jamaican reggae stylings of Bob Marley favored by Kayama’s Mikael Zerbib. Zerbib contends that had Marley been an Orthodox rabbi, he would have created music in the vein of Kamaya. Reggae and rabbis? Why ever not? 

The Idelsohn Society — historians of Jewish culture through recorded sound — had me with the title “It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba” (Idelsohn Society). The somewhat bawdy 1952 ditty by Ruth Wallis is more than just the title track for this two-CD compilation tracing the overlap of Jewish and Latin music. “It’s a Scream …” sits firmly within the musical tradition of Jews gloriously discovering salsa sounds, learning to shake their maracas and — in many cases — being made to look royally silly while doing so. 

The Idelsohn collection has several representative examples of this largely satiric (and quite dated) silliness, from the opening “Moe the Schmo Takes a Rhumba Lesson” by Irving Kaufman to the Barry Sisters’ “Channa from Havana,” wherein a housewife’s trip to Cuba produces comic results, to “My Yiddishe Mambo” by the klezmer comedian Mickey Katz and his orchestra.  

Fortunately, the bulk of the “It’s a Scream …” numbers are not satiric. By chronologically tracing the musical crossover between the two cultures from the 1940s through the 1980s, the Idelsohn Society unearthed some real gems and illustrated some fascinating links. Xavier Cugat is represented (“Miami Beach Rhumba”), as is his wife Abbe Lane (the former Abigail Francine Lassman), who sizzles her way through “Pan, Amor y Cha Cha Cha” alongside no less a figure than Tito Puente. 

There are no fewer than three distinct and spiced-up versions of “Hava Nagila,” with Celia Cruz’s “Hava Nageela” being especially smoky. When you can put Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, Mongo Santamaria and Damiron in the same collection as Carole King and Larry Harlow and locate the Jewish presence in every number, you’ve got something.

Tradition takes a holiday of sorts on “The Best of Festival of Light” (Six Degrees Records), the digital-only compilation of seasonal airs. Folk rocker Marc Cohn kicks things off spectacularly with a rendition of “Rock of Ages” (“Ma’oz Tzur”) so straightforward yet stirring that it could keep those candles aglow for another eight nights at minimum. Take a seat, Adam Sandler, this one should be the new Chanukah perennial. 

From that opening track, things cool off a bit, even though the artists are no less skilled or eclectic. Wally Brill is in full cantorial — indeed, near operatic — splendor with “Kiddush Le-Shabbat.” Klezmatics founder Frank London lends his pixie-ish trumpet to the swinging “Oh Hanukka Groove” (accompanying his Big Band) and, later, soloing with “Song of Praise.”

With elaborate strings, lively percussion and the occasional unusual sound added to the mix — could that have been a didgeridoo on the aforementioned Brill “Kiddush”? — none of the renditions feels the least bit ordinary. 

They Might Be Giants gets the collection’s most comic entry, the yenta-ish and  borderline snarky “Feast of Lights”: “The only thing we have is fights / But there’s got to be a change tonight. / Please be nice on this feast of lights.” Contrast the Giants with the hugely earnest laundry list of Peter Himmelman and David Broza’s “Lighting up the World,” and you’ve got a gamut-spanning album, indeed.

Then there’s the album “Shruggy Ji” (Sinj Records), by Brooklyn-based bhangra band Red Baraat. Its Web site touts the band’s extensive presence on the road and at targeted events (TED conferences, London 2012 Paralympic Games). Clearly when dhol player and group founder Sunny Jain and the eight members of Red Baraat show up — brass and drums in tow — parties start. 

Maybe not so much in your living room, though.  

“Shruggy Ji,” the group’s second full-length studio album, offers some seriously frisky and upbeat tunes with drums bolstering horns or vice versa, depending on the track. Fusing a big-band sound with Indian rhythms, Red Baraat belongs in neither camp. Three or four numbers into the 13-song album, however, those beats, exultations and breakdowns start to feel a bit repetitive, particularly in the instrumental tracks. It becomes even a relief to hear actual lyrics, particularly the attitude-laced raps of John Altieri in numbers like “Private Dancers,” “Mast Kalandar” and “F.I.P.”  And while I’m not sure what a “Tarantino car chase” is supposed to sound like, sorry Web liner notes …“Burning Instinct” ain’t it

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