The Arty Semite

In Folk Music, Sincerity Is Not Enough

By Mordechai Shinefield

“Thoughtless Sounds,” Max Jared’s debut Shemspeed release and the first on Shemspeed’s new folk imprint, Soul Snack Records, follows the blueprint for sentimental adult contemporary rock laid out by Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson: light accessible vocals, sensitive acoustic strumming and unobtrusive tunes. Like those other artists, Jared’s lyrical pallet assumes a sacred hippie slacker pace, empathetic about others but still so sleepy. “It’s cold outside but I’m warm in my bed / others are hopefully living okay,” he sings on “Roots,” a track emblematic of disengaged concern. Maybe look outside and find out? Later on the song he muses that “Our generation will soon be the world / So what kind of change comes with it?”

On “Unify,” Jared recalls smooth Maroon 5 Adam Levine jams. “You talk about everything, but you say nothing,” he declaims, “My words come with the greatest intent to open the world’s eyes… I try to unify the world’s broken pieces.” Though he references tikkun olam in his extra-lyrical material, Jared’s project could use more social subtlety or theological sophistication. He seems well meaning and passionate, but the songs often take on the fuzzy optics of contemporary feel-goodism. “Unify is what I said, let’s get it through your thick head / because if we don’t join together we’ll soon be dead.”

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Monday Music: Diaspora Hip-Hop

By Max Elstein Keisler

Hip-hop has always been Diaspora music, or at least since the Jamaican-born Kool Herc started looping James Brown records in the early 1970s. Later on, people like the late Japanese producer Nujabes made the culture truly global. Shi 360, an Israeli raised in Canada by Maghrebi Jewish parents, who plays Afro-American music with roots in West Africa, is true to the culture in that sense. His new album, “Shalom Haters,” from Shemspeed Records, is explicitly concerned with issues of Diaspora, Sephardic, Israeli and Jewish identity.

Diaspora politics are a big part of the track “United,” which samples Helen Thomas’s infamous “Go back to Poland and Germany” screed. The bouncy drums and poppy vocals in the beat fit his flow well, and his Zionist verses (“I know my people can be divided at times…you can hate us, it only makes us stronger and more united”) are unusually sincere. The identity politics here aren’t for everyone, but they’re heartfelt.

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Monday Music: Moshe Hecht's Spiritual Pop

By Max Elstein Keisler

Courtesy of Moshe Hecht

The song titles tell you a lot about this album: “Master Of The World”; “The Soul”; “Father in Heaven.” Even Moshe Hecht’s last name suggests Orthodoxy. But the sounds of his first album, “Heart Is Alive,” are surprisingly diverse. While the lyrics of Hecht’s compositions come from a devout mindset, the sonic colors are those of a vinyl-collecting record nerd. It’s an interesting contradiction.

Track six, for example, “The Soul,” takes a funky bass line and “ooohing” blaxploitation backup vocals and uses them as the background for Hecht’s mystic narrative of a birth (“a soul descending into a body”). Around the halfway point, the track changes to a major key, and the guitar drops out for a propulsive violin solo. Hecht’s emotional vocals are at the front of the sound, but the instrumentation is extremely thought out.

Listen to ‘The Soul’:

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Monday Music: Orthodox Hipster Hip-Hop at CMJ

By Max Elstein Keisler

“So you’re the only non-Jewish artist on Shemspeed?”

“I would say so,” says TJ Di Hitmaker. TJ’s just finished his set at Littlefield and he’s losing his voice. Right now he sounds Tom Waits-level raspy.

“I met up with DeScribe, he was telling me he raps. I told him I’m a dancehall artist, he put me in touch with Erez [Safar], the CEO of Shemspeed. It’s different from what I was doing, but I got an in to the industry this way.”

I’m at the Shemspeed showcase on October 18, part of CMJ Music Marathon. I’ve never seen a crowd of Orthodox hipsters before, but apparently that’s a thing in Brooklyn. At 9:30 pm Moshe Hecht, the first headline act, is on stage, playing songs from his debut album “Heart is Alive.” He dedicates his set to Gilad Shalit, freed just a few hours ago. He’s jumping up and down, raising his arms ecstatically, like he’s caught up in a trance.

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Monday Music: Furious Hip-Hop for Comp. Lit. Majors

By Mordechai Shinefield

Courtesy of Yitz Jordan/Shemspeed Records. Photo by Jonathan Hunter.

Y-Love, also known as Yitz Jordan, is a black Jewish convert from Baltimore who feels just as comfortable at underground freestyles as he does at the Sabbath table. The son of a Puerto Rican mother and an Ethiopian-American father, Y-Love converted in 2000 at Brooklyn’s Conversion to Judaism Resource Center and has since become one of the most outspoken Orthodox artists alive. He makes hip-hop music in the tradition of N.W.A. and Public Enemy, raging political tirades chock full of deft wordplay and witty rhymes. He’s also, by self-description, “furious.”

Over the past few years Y-Love has undergone something of a musical transformation. His 2008 debut, “This Is Babylon,” borrowed heavily from backpacker socially conscious hip-hop artists like Taleb Kweli. His material traded heavily on his lingual prowess — often substituting Bakhtian polyphony and code swapping for more traditional hip-hop wordplay. You need a master’s degree in jargon to decode the in-jokes of most contemporary hip-hop artists. For Y-Love, you might be better equipped with a degree in comparative literature.

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Monday Music: Sephardic Culture Takes On the Club Scene

By Mordechai Shinefield

Courtesy PunkJews
Y-Love performs at the opening night of the 2010 Sephardic Music Festival.

When Erez Safar started the Sephardic Music Festival in 2005, he was thinking about the future of Sephardic music. Having spent the last decade watching klezmer explode in popularity among artists like the avant-garde composer John Zorn and the Brooklyn punk band Golem, Safar realized klezmer was moving into a brave new future and was leaving its Sephardic counterparts behind. If the annual festival is Safar’s response to that problem, “Sephardic Music Festival Vol. 1,” is the permanent document illuminating a musical movement at a moment of uncertain transformation.

“Klezmer had this hip factor, but that never happened to Sephardic music. So the idea was to have cool different styled Sephardic music,” Safar told the Forward. The 18-track compilation reads like a who’s who of Jewish Middle Eastern sounds. Movement names like Moshav Band, Sarah Aroeste, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Jon Madof and Galeet Dardashti pepper the tracks alongside less familiar figures. The most startling inclusion is a six-minute opener by rock-reggae Hasid Matisyahu. On the track, Matisyahu mostly discards the twisting breathless vocals he built his career on, in favor of softly spoken words over a funky electronic maqam beat. His inclusion indicates the scope of Safar’s Sephardic dream: a pan-ethnic space that draws musically on places as diverse as Morocco and Ibiza.

Listen to Matisyahu’s ‘Two Child One Drop’:

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Out and About: Jewish Hong Kong; Festivus in Orange County

By Ezra Glinter

Wiki Commons
Jean Epstein
  • The Arty Semite contributor Christopher DeWolf profiles Hong Kong’s Rabbi Asher Oser and looks at the city’s Jewish history.

  • The Jewish Chronicle talks to actor Elliott Gould.

  • VICE Magazine talks to author Sam Lipsyte.

  • “Lipstikka,” an already-controversial film by Israeli director Jonathan Sagall, will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

  • Anselm Kiefer’s latest exhibit carries a special message for Jews.

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A Rave Grows in Brooklyn

By Maya Klausner

Courtesy PunkJews

It is safe to wager that New York City has seen it all when an art rave fashion show spirals into an impromptu hora on an open, desolate warehouse block. These men’s dancing feet may have been inspired by a sudden spiritual impulse to be closer to God. But the sudden shakedown also could have been a reaction to the recent display of Jewish girls strutting down a catwalk wearing little more than their grandfather’s tallis.

On December 1, in a 20,000-square-foot loft in Brooklyn, Hanukkah was promoted from the festival of lights to the festival of art, music, and fashion. The event kicked off the sixth annual Sephardic Music Festival, which has been throwing light on Sephardic culture for the last six years through diverse artistic events in venues around the city. With a sumptuous arsenal of musical and artistic talent, the Sephardic Music Festival strives to revitalize a spiritually thrilling aspect of Jewish history.

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Hasidic Hip-Hop in Harmony

By Maia Efrem

The first few bars of DeScribe’s new video, “Harmony,” are an Auto-Tuned proclamation of love, respect and unity. Standing behind a microphone, surrounded by Jewish and African American teenagers, the bearded 28-year-old rapper advocates love and understanding between the two communities and the world at large.

On August 2 DeScribe, also known as Shneur Hasofer, launched the video with a press conference at the Brooklyn Borough President’s office. “The press conference was very emotional, I had a tear in my eye. I’m happy that all the leaders were around and they didn’t give up hope. A lot of people have been burnt out by trying to push racial harmony, and they put a lot of energy into this. It was exactly what I had hoped for,” he said.

It’s tempting to compare Hasofer with another prominent Hasidic artist, Matisyahu, and Hasofer takes the comparison as a compliment. “[Matisyahu] was a very big inspiration to me personally. He charged as a Hasidic Jew into the mainstream music scene and has an incredible talent and gift. I knew that everyone was going to compare me to him,” he said. But Hasofer also points out that the two singers have very different styles. “He has a strong reggae sound while mine is hip-hop,” he said, adding that there is always room for two Jewish artists in the mainstream.

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Shemspeed Albums from Bands That Start with "D"

By Ezra Glinter

The Brooklyn-based music label Shemspeed attracted international attention recently with their “Israeli remix of the Keffiyeh” (more of a tempest in a teapot, really, than a full-blown controversy), but that shouldn’t distract anyone from what the Jewish music production company spends most of its time doing: producing music.

Shemspeed has put out no less than two new albums in the last week: “Lishmah”, an EP from Darshan, and “Dreams in Static” by Diwon and Dugans. Despite the proximity of their releases, the two albums are profoundly different. Both, however, are best savored in meditative moment.

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