Alternative Jewish Music – The Israeli Scene, Part I

January 15, 2010 5 min read

In my ongoing, lifelong search for creative and talented Jewish music, I’ve been indelibly assisted by my brother-in-law, Chaim. Chaim’s a great guy with a great musical ear. But more specifically, he lives in Israel, while I live in a literal as well as figurative “Pina Nidachat” – neglected corner. Every time he comes to visit, he brings me a CD or two of Israeli artists. And as such, he has enriched my music collection with some incredible albums. I’ve presented jazz saxophonist Daniel Zamir earlier in this column, and now it’s time for a very interesting grouping: the Israeli mainstream artists’ return to tradition.

What’s so interesting about this grouping, is that only four of them (to the best of my knowledge) are actively observant Jews. They are, of course, Baalei Teshuva: Ehud Banai, Ariel Zilber, Shuly Rand (of Ushpizin fame) and actor Gili Shoshan. The others I mention are secular Israelis experimenting with classical Jewish sources. Something in their souls is giving way. So the cool thing is that all these albums are part of mainstream Israeli music, despite being of truly religious nature. That, in itself, is a shocker, given the oftentimes intense anti-religious passion in the Israeli street. Be what it may, the fact is that the Jewish neshama never sleeps – and the language of the neshama, is, of course, music.

Shlomo Gronich – Masa el Hamekorot (Journey to the Source)****: Gronich is a world class composer and pianist, and is an old-time classic Israeli musician. He’s released more than 15 albums, but this one is his first “traditional” Jewish album. In it, he uses his finely controlled soprano voice, alongside other soloists (including Gad Elbaz), in a whirlwind tour of quotes from various Jewish texts. One of the highlights on the album is his passionate rendition of the Baal HaTanya’s Keili Ata, performed with a well-tuned shofar. (You can see that live here.) There are a number of new-ageish instrumental intros, which are kinda cool. In short, the artists who perform on this album are fiercely professional. The sound is crisp and clean. I find it hard to classify this album; but overall, I’d consider it world with a touch of the Mideast. A well-crafted and original album.
For more on Gronich click here.

Berry SakharofAdumei Hasfatot ****: The age-old question of the composer – from where do I pull my lyrics? In the Jewish world, we know: just count the amount of times you find the words “Ani Maamin” in your Ipod. Israeli rocker Berry Sakharof one-upped all his frum counterparts with this stroke of brilliance: he went all the way back to the Piyutim of Rabbeinu Shlomo Ibn Gabirol. These 11th century poems provided him with plenty of material for this beauty of an album. In fact, there is so much material, that the liner itself is unlike any other I’ve seen – it’s a full-fledged hardcover book, complete with ancient illuminations and historical notes! Anyway, the album itself is presented in a sort of electro-middle-eastern-rock. The music is almost meditative in a powerful way. It has ancient echoes with a very modern twist. Sakharof himself has a relaxed, smoky baritone of a voice, which is used to great effect. The musical arrangement is full, but a bit repetitive – specifically so; not from lack of ideas. And yes, the classic Sefardic zemer Shalom Lecha Dodi appears on the album, in fine form. All in all, a diverse and fascinating album.
For more on Sakharof, click here.

Ehud Banai –Shir Chadash (New Song)***: Banai is best known as one of the original and most important Israeli rockers. That’s why I was a bit surprised by this album – it’s a softy. I also found out, after listening through the album, that his wife sings along with him on a few songs. (She does not have a very feminine voice – in all honesty, I totally missed it until I did some work online to find the album art for my Ipod.) He starts the albums off well enough, with the gorgeous version of the Yemenite Lecha Dodi, and some other acoustic fun on the Yemenite Shlosha Devarim, but it just seems like he filled up the album with extras. Half the album is Carlebach stuff that have already been reworked to death. I wish he would have stuck to the Sefardi zemirot. I was also disappointed with his version of the classic Mizmor LeDavid. But for a light, earnest album, it’s a worthwhile listen; even if you have to ignore three songs because of Kol Isha.
For more on Banai, click here.

Shuli Rand – Nekudah Tovah (Good Point) *****: This folk-rock album is unbelievable; particularly if you speak Hebrew. It has sold over 65,000 copies so far, winning a gold album in Israel. Why, you ask? Well, the lyrics are delicious. The language, the rhymes, the descriptive genius – all of it is awesome. Shuli’s raw, untrained but vibrant voice lends extra expression to the words. And on top of that, the instrumentation can be just extraordinary: the haunting and intense Refael; the exhilarating Arafel; and the sweet, unadorned Ayeka. (BTW, Ehud Banai backs him up on vocals and some instrumentation. Daniel Zamir, who’s making the rounds in a big time way, is also on this album.) Shuli hit it out of the park – on his first shot. What an album!
For more on Rand, click here.

And heads up – actor Gili Shoshan, now a full-fledged Chabadnik, has an album coming out, called “Rishon VeAcharon”. Here’s his music video, which is very professional, and somewhat intriguing. And here’s an interview with Ynet. (That guitarist looks like Nadav Bachar, from A Groyse Metsie. If Bachar is in fact involved in the album, it may be a worthwhile listen.) The sound seems to be pretty eclectic; not really my type.

On the other hand, we have no news of an album, but Ariel Silber – another oldtime Israeli musician – finds himself in Chassidic dress. Here’s an interview with him, describing his life-swap:

SLICES: Sometimes, you can find a wild interpretation of a Jewish classic on a random album. A friend once showed me a live version of Avinu Malkeinu… by Phish (if I recall correctly). Obviously, in Israel, you can find plenty of that. But here are two albums that have outstanding versions of classics. In the ITunes age, you can find these singles as well as others, and download them.

Esta – Mediterranean Crossroads: Oy Vey, Dror Yikra:This unbelievable band consists of Shlomo Deshet on drums, Bentzi Gafni on bass, Amir Gvirtzman on strings, and Ori Beanstock on winds. (You may recognize Deshet and Gafni – they’ve done a lot of work in the JM world. This album is where they really shine.) This album is all instrumental (and it’s a real disappointment that they hired a female vocalist for their following album). Oy Vey is the Stoliner Moshe Emes, played in triple speed. It’s good, it’s cool; but their Dror Yikra is out of this world. It starts off with brash bagpipes and thick drums and percussion and just blasts you forward. It’s an authoritative piece. You can download Dror Yikra and Oy Vey for free here.

Avishai Cohen – Shaot Regishot (Sensitive Hours): Shalom Aleichem, Azamer Bishvachin, Dror Yikra:Cohen is a jazz bassist who used to play with the legendary Chick Corea. On this album, he pulls out three songs – one of his own make (Shalom Aleichem – watch the awesome music video here, and a live big band version here) and the other two are stunning light jazz versions of the Yemenite tunes. (Yeah, it’s the same Dror Yikra as Esta. But this is one tune that I adore every version I’ve heard of it. RebbeSoul has a nice version of it as well, on his album Fringe of Blue.) Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous.
For more on Cohen click here.

Any others? Please let me know in the comments!