Thursday, July 31, 2003

On Jewish Music Criticism

For a critical take on the state of Jewish music today, take a look at Michael Steinhart's Jewish Music News and Views website.

I find the site interesting because Michael calls it as he sees it and it's interesting to see an opinionated view of Jewish music, as opposed to the positive "reviews" that are typically published in the Orthodox media.

(As a side note, about ten years ago I once watched a performer write a glowing review of his new album for publication in that week's Jewish Press. Apparently, a large enough ad purchase entitles you to a positive review published under their music columnist's byline. But, I digress.)

That being said, though, I find that much of what he writes can be summed up as follows:

1) Williger, Dachs, Wald, et al. are "kvetchers" who have nothing to say musically. Their music is always bad.

2) Carlebach and Carlebach-esque bands are always good. (Even off-key singers who only know three guitar chords. And I'm not referring to R'Shlomo here.)

3) Any music celebrities that Michael knows are good; even if they're part of the Brooklyn/Yeshivish music scene.

The main flaws with Michael's site are his inability to acknowledge any talent on the part of the "Brooklyn" artists and his attribution of motivations to these artists without any real facts to support his assertions.

Thus, with regard to Shloime Dachs' album K'ish Echod, Michael writes: "Real artists aren't in the business to get the next 'wedding hit.' They're in it to produce and play the music they love. So Shloime is being another good little gear in the vast Brooklyn machine with K'ish Echod, and we the dedicated freedom fighters must never let our guards down!!"

How does he know that Shloime doesn't genuinely love the music he's been recording and performing. The assertion may well be correct, but without proof, must be assumed to be untrue.

Or take his view of Yisroel Williger's Carlebach Friday Night release:
"Here's a quick note about Sruli Williger's new "Carlebach Friday Night" recording. Why did he (and the Sameach distributorship) put this out? To capitalize on the sudden explosion of Shlomo-style minyanim, and to bring the nusach to those who don't usually shop in the alterna-chasidus aisle at their local Judaica store... To sum up, I am not in favor of Yisroel Williger's Carlebach Friday Night. It's not sincere, it's not authentic, and it's not true to the spirit of Shlomo davenings. Despite what the artist, his handlers, or the liner notes may tell you."

Really? Perhaps, Williger released it because he was profoundly influenced by Shlomo's music and wanted to record a tribute to him in his own style? Why is a Williger recording of Carlebach tunes -- as unappealing as the idea may be to some -- any less legitimate than a Soulfarm recording of Shlomo's music? Shlomo influenced many performers who currently sing his music. Calling Williger's release "insincere" is an assertion made on baseless grounds. Using the same logic, one could call the Soulfarm (formerly Inasense) Carlebach recordings an insincere and cynical attempt to capitalize on the band's Carlebach connection -the lead singer and guitarist lived on Shlomo's moshav in Israel- and draw Jewish teens to their original rock music shows in NYC bars by being a "Jewish" bar band.

Michael obviously doesn't like the Williger album, and that's fine, but the fact that the singing and music are not his taste doesn't inherently make it illegitimate.

It's very easy to criticize the Jewish music coming out of Brooklyn these days, but would-be critics should stick to the facts. Criticize the music, and if the artist explains his motivations either in the liner notes, or publicly, than those are fair game as well. It is dishonest and unfair to make up "facts" and than mock or criticize the artists on the basis of said "facts."

For an alternative approach to critiquing today's Brooklyn/Yeshivish music, take a look at the reviews on Aryeh Steiner's Jewish Music website

Although Aryeh often points out flaws in the recordings, and expresses his likes and dislikes, he rarely ascribes motivations to the singers and avoids the kind of speculation and innuendo that Steinhardt seems to pride himself on.

Pop Goes the Weasel!

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the B section (high part) of Mordechai Ben David's song "Hinei Ma Tov" from the Ohel Concert CD bears a remarkable similarity to the children's melody "Pop Goes The Weasel" only with the rhythm changed to 4/4 from 6/8?

You can hear the song here by clicking on the track entitled Hora2k.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003


Another thing that troubles me is the seemingly shameless ability of many in the business to simply say whatever it takes to promote their product without regard to obvious contradictions between their words and their deeds.

Numerous composers, producers, and performers who have made public statements of how terrible the secular influences are in today’s music have also released albums that are part of the problem.

Here, for example, is an album description taken from the website.
This album has been recorded with one purpose in mind. That purpose, simply stated, is to return Jewish Music to its former glory and splendor. It is our hope that we have captured the Neshoma of a Heimishe Simcha in its most pure and basic expression. That is, we have attempted to let the Niggunim and the words speak directly to the heart and soul of a Jew-without the extraneous influences that unfortunately have begun to corrupt many of our meaningful and most treasured Niggunim. We pray that you, the listener, will discern the emes amiti of the music included on this album and will allow it to elevate your Neshoma to an even higher plane.
This is simply laughable. First, a listen to the album shows many secular influences. They are especially noticeable in the arrangement of “Ilon, Ilon” from the album Aish by Abie Rotenberg. The screaming electric guitar solo by guitarist Mike Coon is great, but if that doesn’t count as “extraneous influences” then I can’t imagine what would.

Second, a listen to the album, “Neshoma @ Your Simcha” which is directly below it on their website, reveals that the band does in fact incorporate a myriad of secular influences into its arrangements of popular Jewish music. Also, anyone who has been at a “Neshoma” wedding has heard their contemporary pop and funk stylizations of today’s Jewish music. It’s what they do best!

The band did make an effort to incorporate a more traditional sound by hiring guest musicians like clarinetist Michoel Lamm and accordionist Zevy Zions to add an old-style klezmerish touch to the album. Much of the music is more laid back and less edgy sounding than the Neshoma @ Your Simcha album. The band was clearly trying to achieve a more traditional sound and that’s perfectly fine with me. I’m not criticizing the album musically (That’s perhaps for another post :). I just take issue with the grandiose, self-righteous pronouncements in the liner notes for “A Heimishe Simcha” which simply ignore the band’s twenty year plus history of incorporating secular influences into the music they play at simchas.

I’d like to point out that the people at Neshoma are not the only such offenders. They are simply following in the tradition of others in the industry like Yerachmiel Begun of the Miami Boys Choir who regularly make pious pronouncements about the unfortunate and inappropriate use of secular music styles and influences, all the while releasing a steady stream of recordings which –rather poorly, to my mind – attempt to incorporate those very styles and influences.
More later.

More on Plagiarism

In addition to the three songs mentioned in the previous post, here is a by no means complete list of songs that have been stolen by Jewish performers from secular sources.

"Turkish Kiss" by Tarkan was taken by Piamenta and released as Kol Hamesameach on their album "Big Time."

"Close Every Door" by Andrew Lloyd Webber --from the musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" was taken by MBD and recorded as a Yiddish tune about Shabbos. I can't remember the song/album name, but it included the Yiddish lyric "Vi voil is ehr, der Shabbos hiter..."

I haven't included bands such as Shlock Rock here because they acknowledge their use of secular material and don't pretend that it is original.

An example of the way I’d like to see the use of a secular song credited can be found on “The Next Generation’s” album “The Iron Butterfly” whose song “When The Children Sing” is credited as follows: Lyrics by Richard A. Stone/S. Bluth, Music by White Lion. The song uses the music for “When The Children Cry” by the band White Lion.

About Yidden

One of the things which has always perturbed me about the Jewish music scene is the lack of honesty some artists have about tunes they've "borrowed" from secular sources. My problem is not with the use of secular music per se, its the misrepresentation of such music as being original. A few examples: The Piamenta Bands use of Men At Work's "Land Down Under," Lev Tahor's Use of the intro to "Rock You Like A Hurricane"from the Symphonic Scorpions album as the intro to Asher Bara on their album Lev Tahor 2, and Dedi's use of an Abba tune credited to "Nigun Mibeis Abba" on his album Bitchu Bashem.

The most egregious violation is Mordechai Ben David's song "Kumt Aheim" (commonly referred to as "Yidden") on the Yerusholayim Is Not For Sale album.

Check out the following link for an audio clip and music video of the original song.

The song is called"Dschingis Khan" (Genghis Khan) and was Germany's entry in the 1979 Eurovision contest held in Jerusalem. The fourth place song, “Dschingis Khan” was no doubt widely played on Israeli radio. The lyrics of the song glorify the Mongolian warrior, Genghis Khan, and include lines like "there is no wife he hasn't known" and "he fathers seven kids in a single night." (Note: I've translated the lyrics from the German original.)I've heard that the song was used as a soundtrack for German pornography films.

The thing that I find especially troubling is that the album cover appears to have been deliberately laid out to give the misleading impression that the song was composed by Yossi Green; there is no acknowledgement anywhere as to the source of the song. MBD didn't only borrow the melody, the album uses virtually the same musical arrangement as well.

This song has been a popular dance request at Orthodox affairs. It has evolved over the years and is now played at a much faster tempo then the original recordings by Dschingis Khan and MBD. There are even two line dances that have become associated with the song.

I’ve found that most people do not know the origins of this song and think that it is an original Mordechai Ben David song. I don’t have anything against the music itself; it’s the apparent deception that I find troubling.


Hello all and thanks for stopping by. This blog is an experiment and your comments may influence its direction.

A little about myself:

I am a musician performing Jewish music professionally in the NYC area. I'm not going to give too many details now because I haven't decided if I want to remain anonymous or not. In the meantime, I'll just say that I have worked with many if not most of the "names" in the Orthodox/Hasidic end of the Jewish market and am very familiar with the Jewish music scene.

I intend to post periodically on Jewish music as the muse strikes me. I look forward to sharing and discussing these thoughts with you