June 14, 2007
Listening with our ‘third ear’
Recently, I heard something that I didn't get right away.
It came from an Orthodox married couple who live in the hood and who invited my kids and me for Shabbat lunch. At first, I was mostly focused on a display of Mediterranean salads that could have been photographed for the Museum of Modern Art.
Once I started paying more attention, however, I noticed that my hosts were talking about something called the third ear. It sounded like worn-out hippie schmaltz - this notion of tapping into our "third ear energy" to bring more harmony into our lives, and to the world.
I was hearing that the third ear is really our hearts, but that we need to teach our hearts to think, so that we can listen through it. The result is what's called "thoughtful emotion," an emotion that lets us safely open up to new experiences.
It sounded really cool, but it still reeked of spiritual schmaltz. I wasn't getting it - I needed more. A few weeks later, at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, I got more.
I got a little music.
You see, the man who was doing the Kiddush, the blessings and the dvar Torahs at the Shabbat table is a reggae-African-roots rocker named Maimon Chocron, and he's the lead singer of a band called Mongoose. The woman, who waxed passionately about the third ear and who created the culinary panorama on the Shabbat table, is his wife, Jennifer.
At the Temple Bar, she was again in schmooze-hostess mode, but this time, instead of a few Shabbat guests, there were a couple-hundred Mongoose fans.
Yamulkes, beards, dreadlocks, miniskirts, other rockers, a few wigs - I even saw some Caucasian Americans. In a tight space that could have doubled as an underground blues bar in Mississippi, the crowd rocked to the mystical rasta rhythms of the 10-piece Mongoose band, which featured two African American vocalists, a bassist named Ronnie "Stepper" McQueen and Maimon, in his Charlie Chaplin hat, working the crowd.
Everyone was there to hear Maimon's new collection of songs, which are in a CD titled - take a guess - "Third Ear." Nothing on this night seemed obvious.
After songs on "Coming to Pray" and memories of hell ("1945"), and the occasional interspersing of Hebrew lyrics, Maimon would belt out a festive riff in Arabic that I recall hearing at my parents' parties in Morocco. There was a soulful love song, and a song on police terror. And, out of nowhere, a whimsical song in French about a Chassidic rabbi. Just when you thought you had Maimon figured out, he'd tickle your ear with something odd and delicious.
I started to get it. Maimon was listening with his third ear. He didn't pander to please, but neither did he perform to please himself. His thoughtful heart knew just what to give to keep the crowd alive and guessing. Maybe it was his way of getting the crowd to listen with their own third ears - and hear something new.
When I got home and went over the lyrics from his CD, I started to get it even more. His songs were imbued with "thoughtful emotion." Open up but don't fall. Bend but don't break. Make a prayer, but don't forget to see that everything around you is a prayer, too.
But get this. There is no song called "Third Ear," not even a mention of it in the CD liner notes. That's either an enormous blunder, or brilliant marketing. If you ask me, I think they figured out that the surest way to kill a movement is to call it a movement - and then hype it.
For now, the Chocrons are letting the hype come to them. Although they've lived in the hood for many years, their gigs have been mostly in Santa Monica, where Maimon and the Mongoose band had a four-year run in a local club and developed a fan base affectionately called the Mongooseheadz. If things go as planned, they hope to be performing soon at The Joint, a hard-edged music bar in the heart of the hood, across the street from that other icon of edgy street life - Eilat Market.
My favorite part of this story is when I asked them how they came up with the phrase "third ear." I was expecting a story about some mystical revelation that bubbled up during a meditation with jasmine-scented candles and Chassidic chants. Instead, they told me it came from the friend of a girl who was visiting from Texas. Honest. Someone they barely remember gave them an idea for how to name their new music, and possibly a lot more.
It'll be interesting to see if this "third ear" idea catches on. When you see Maimon and Jennifer's laid-back enthusiasm, you get the feeling that if a small group of followers get turned on by their music and spread the message a little, that'll be OK with them. And if a few Jews reconnect with their Judaism through this path, that would be even better. I just hope they write a book soon; I can think of many of us who could use another ear.
But this obsession with making things bigger and more popular is my problem, not theirs. One of the things you learn when you live in a cozy hood is that not every great idea needs to go global, not every movement needs to go mainstream.
Sometimes, a small movement for a small group of people is just fine, even if we don't "get it" right away.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.