May 11, 2010
Bagels, Bongos and Josh Kun
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As Kun dug deeper into Jewish recordings, he was surprised to find “all this Latin music.” He started collecting Latin Jewish recordings, primarily but not exclusively New York-based Jewish-Latin exchanges from the 1930s through the 1960s. “That became my hunt.”
How did Latin and Jewish music cross-pollinate? There are several theories. One has to do with Sephardic heritage, Latin by definition. Another has to do with what musician Steve Bernstein has called “the Gulf Coast theory,” concerning the Jewish retirement disapora and the similarities of the rhythmic signatures between the horah and Latin music.
Kun, for his part, believes that “it’s really about population contact and culture.” Or, as he put it, “We have to look at the ways that Jews and Latinos were bumping up against each other, both speaking English and non-English languages, and both making music inspired by the mainstream and outside of it.” For this you would have to look to East Harlem, both Spanish Harlem and Jewish Harlem and, of course, to the Catskills, where mambo mania took hold — refusing to put Jewish music — or Baby — in a corner!
“One of the stories,” Kun said, “is that the guys who would buy the liquor [for the Catskills Jewish resorts] would go to Cuba and Puerto Rico, and they would hear all this [Latin] music and say, ‘We’ve got to bring this back.’”
Kun was not alone in his enthusiasm for these hybrid music discoveries. “I met three wonderful guys: Roger Bennett, David Katznelson [of Birdman Records, among many other music labels and projects], and Courtney Holt [president of MySpace Music]. “When we met, we bonded over our love of music and our interest in rethinking Jewish American music.”
The Rosetta Stone was the discovery of Fields’ “Bagels and Bongos,” a collection of mambo tunes based on Yiddish classics — or, as Bennett and Kun call it, “The White Album of the Jewish Latin Craze.”
In 2005, they formed Reboot Stereophonic, a record label to reissue records they thought were important, many of which were forgotten or had never been released on CD. Over the last few years, they issued several genre-expanding recordings, from “Jewface,” an anthology of transgressive vaudeville songs about Jews, to Gershon Kingsley’s “God Is a Moog,” a collection of Jewish liturgical Moog experiments, to Fred Katz’s Buddhist/kabbalist “Folk Songs for Far Out Folk.”
However, as the music industry began to change over the last few years, they decided they didn’t want to be a record label. They decided to re-form as the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (named for Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the legendary musicologist and writer of “Hava Nagila”). Which means that they will still put out records but will also be “a digital site that can function as the hub for Jewish archival musical thinking,” as well as a place for archives to find new audiences; a revamped Web site is planned to launch later this year.
The publication of “And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl” can be seen as a manifesto for the breadth of Jewish music that Kun and the Idelsohn Society are trying to preserve: cantorial albums; Yiddish songs; comedy albums in English, Yiddish and Yinglish; Mickey Katz; records about the Holocaust, the struggle to free Soviet Jews; even Israeli disco fever. It is a declaration of all the ways in which Jews contributed to and sought to become part of the American melting pot — a conversation about the places where cultures clashed and melded. It is also plea to mail in your own cherished, eccentric and “lost” albums to be rediscovered and reclaimed. As the Idelsohn Society is wont to proclaim, “History sounds different when you listen to it.”
Last summer, Idelsohn staged a live Latin Jewish music event outdoors at Lincoln Center in New York that attracted a large and diverse crowd — the old and the young, Jew and non-Jew, a veritable cross section of ages, ethnic backgrounds and sensibilities.
In the same vein, this summer, the Skirball Cultural Center, along with the Idelsohn Society, will stage a “Jews on Vinyl” live event Aug. 19.
Until then, you can go to the Skirball and enjoy a freilach cha-cha. And if you see Kun or Bennett, quote Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen: “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos.”
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com.
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