Yossi Mayer and the “Sweet Sound of Chassidish”

Williamburg’s Yossi Mayer gives it his all in his debut

album, Reb Meir Oimer

By Sender Gottenstark

If you’ve been to a Williamsburg wedding over the past few years, or if you’ve listened to a few Moshe Goldman albums, or if you happen to have heard Ruvi Banet’s recent CD, Invitation, you may have taken in an unusually sweet voice. Upon further inquiry, you may have learned that a young talent named Yossi Mayer has been singing since early childhood. But to learn about that same talent first full-length CD, you’ll have to read this article.

“I don’t know how I’m different than other singers,” Mayer tells this writer in our first telephone conversation. “People say you can feel the warmth, that my voice is very sweet.”

A few days later, when I finally meet him and producer Gideon Levine at his GYL Studio, that remarkably sweet clarity booms right out at me from the crisp studio speakers as Levine sits surrounded by a nest of electronic equipment, adjusting final sound levels on a song. Mayer stands casually to the side as we both listen to his recorded voice.

Mayer indeed has a voice that puts him in the company of the top Chasidic singers, themselves gifted vocalists who dominate the “sweet” niche—at least according to Levine. And Levine would know. Having produced numerous albums for quite a few of today’s leading voices, the studio pro is fairly smitten by Mayer’s vocal quality. “He’s definitely in the same category,” he says. “He’s a geshmake guy, and he sings very geshmak too.”

Unlike a producer who finds a singer, here the singer found the producer. It was two-and-a-half years ago when Yossi Mayer, already a veteran of the Williamsburg wedding scene, approached Levine to complete an album he was working on.

Two songs on the album, Harachaman and Lev Tahor, were composed by Reb Mordechai Friedman, and Friedman introduced Mayer to talented arranger Naftuli Mendlovitz, a rising star in the industry’s constellation of professionals. Mendlovitz, for his part, already had arranged individual songs for his esteemed father, noted Monroe singer/composer Reb Sheya Mendlovitz (not to be confused with noted producer Sheya Mendlowitz), as well as Shelo Asani Goy, a song on Lipa Shmeltzer’s new album. His work with Mayer constitutes his first full-length album project.

Levine reports being impressed most by Mendlovitz’s sheer devotion to the album. “He put the Chasidishe sweet feel into it on the one hand, and gave it a contemporary sound on the other,” the producer opines. “For a first-time full-length album, I liked the job he did. He’s also like Yossi—he’s really an eidele, geshmake guy.”

When Mayer and Levine finally connected, several songs had already been recorded, and the industry veteran added rhythm and vocal tracks, contributed one of his own compositions, and put his overall golden touch on the production.

That touch is readily heard as I settle in a studio swivel chair and take in Al Tomar, a Pirkei Avos-based melody set to a Caribbean-flavored Latin rhythm. The bright percussion and brass complement Mayer’s ringing vocals and the rich choir, with a surprise duet with a guest artist at the song’s end. “This song was added at the last minute,” Levine informs me. “It wasn’t supposed to be on the album.”

We then sample the album’s opening song, Ben Chorin, a catchy, contemporary and upbeat song. It would be great for any wedding’s second dance, I remark. Next up is Adir Oyoim V’noira, a soft ballad composed by Reb Pinky Weber, talented composer of Yaakov Shwekey’s Racheim fame.

Jewish music, Levine interjects, has to do with one thing: “Tons of simcha. Listen: mitzvah gedolah lih’yos b’simcha tamid, it’s poshut a big mitzvah to be happy all the time.” “And neshamah,” Mayer adds.

So if Jewish music is about neshamah, how “Jewish” is Reb “Mayer”Oimer? “[It has] a lot of neshamah,” Mayer smiles and says. “When I would come in a bit down, Gideon would force me to smile, to sing with happiness, to put in that special feeling.” He explains that the hardest thing to do in the studio is to sing with emotion. “I started working here a year-and-a-half ago. Until then I only did weddings. The studio is totally different. I thought I knew it all. “The way to do it,” adds Levine, “is to picture in your mind that thousands of people are in front of you listening at a concert. You have to transfer the simcha inside you to each one of them and make them feel your feelings.”

So, back to sampling those feelings we go. In Harachaman, a contribution by composer Mordechai Yoel Friedman, Mayer belts out a robust spiritual message, lucidly conveying not a small amount of neshamah. After that, we hear Kareiv Yom, a Carlebach-style kumzitz sure to appeal to a broad audience and which, like Adir Oyoim V’noira, was also composed by Reb Pinky Weber. “I think Kareiv will be a hit,” opines Mayer. Is it his favorite song? “I got attached to all of them,” he says, then admits, “but Ben Chorin is a really good song.”

Yossi Mayer was always the solo singer in cheder. As a little kid with a great voice, he frequently found himself in school “productions”: the little Purim plays and what not that make school exciting from time to time. As a young man, he developed his talents for singing and rhyming, combing both into something of a career in gramming, spontaneously reciting poetic, lyrical grammen for chasanim in the grand tradition of Chassidic Europe.

Shortly after his marriage six years ago, Yossi began singing at weddings, lending his crystalline delivery to simchas choson v’kallah a few nights a week. At one of them, a guest named Mendy Werdyger happened to be in attendance, and immediately offered Mayer a contract. Today, Yossi Mayer has arrived—he is currently doing a few weddings a week. He has done a few large-scale Rebbishe weddings. He is a regular student of popular vocal coach Nussen Glick, and if his voice is any indication, the new CD is sure to be a hit.

Which is where our attention is drawn back to. The title track, a hora called Reb Meir Oimer composed by the singer himself, is playing on the state-of-the-art studio speaker system. The title is also a reference to Yossi’s last name, a clever play on words visible in the creative cover artwork. “The words have a lot of meaning,” Yossi points out over his own voice and the rollicking beat. Indeed, in the ever-shallow, materialistic world surrounding us, the spiritual message of looking at inner content and not external “window dressing” is more important than ever. And it’s this song, along with the previously-sampled Al Tomar and Kareiv Yom that Yossi thinks will be the biggest hits.

The next song we listen to is Anim Zemiros, a simple, straightforward and thoroughly singable song. “Remember what I had told you about doing it over better and better?” Levine asks. When I had spoken to Levine a few days earlier, he had told me that when artists are new to the studio, as Mayer was, most songs are redone at least once. “This,” he says, referring to Anim, “was the first song Yossi recorded, and the only song that we left exactly as Yossi first recorded it. I just liked the way it came out.”

Tinokos shel bais rabban, the next song, is a touching entry composed by Sholi Brach, a personal friend of the singer. It’s followed by the stirringly original Yiddish lyrics of B’ni, a monologue from a loving father to his tormented son set to a melody composed by Eli Hartman. Yossi Mayer passionately brings the lyrics to a living, breathing life so vivid that you can imagine a distraught father in front of you, pouring his heart out to his headstrong son being tempted by corrupting forces. It’s a story we can tragically all relate to nowadays, making B’ni all the more poignant and hard-hitting—even if you don’t speak Yiddish.

“Most of the album is really a lot of soul on one hand yet with a lot of simcha on the other,” Levine says. “Ninety-five percent of the album is a pure Chasidish sound. It’s not wild music, but it does have the sound of today. We tried to maintain a fresh sound and yet still give it that Chassidishe arrangement.”

Still, I find plenty of “sechora” on Reb Meir Oimer to appeal to the entire Jewish-music listening world.

Levine pontificates at tremendous length about how quality Jewish music elicits what he labels “hisorerus” on the part of the listener. “What normally would be called a sad song is what we call a song of hisorerus: a bakasha to connect with Hashem, or [lyrics derived from] tachnun. So when you’re listening to a warm, slow song, if the song, the delivery, and the words, have a lot of regesh, like Adir Oyoim V’noira, you know it’s a good song—it gives you the goosebumps and you feel a connection to Hashem, or you want to sit down and learn, or do a mitzvah. That’s a good song.”

The same thing applies for more cheerful songs. “If he sings a happy song, you have to be able to feel it. Yossi has that ‘Chassidishe warm delivery,’ as I call it. I get connected to that. I’m all about soul. When I feel someone has it, I like to bring it out. The other thing about Yossi is his personality—that’s what comes through in the singing. I like the person and I like his personality, and that’s the first sign that you’ll achieve good results,” he says. “Yossi’s voice really has a very sweet sound to it. The way he delivers, I see in him potential.”

I end the interview with one final question: What does Yossi Mayer see as his personal mission vis a vis Jewish music?

“I think I can be me’orer Yidden with my voice,” he simply states. “Making people happy at weddings is one thing. But going around in hospitals and singing to patients… you see on their faces that things change.”

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