To some, the phrase "hip Jewish music" is a natural oxymoron, an impossibility no less unlikely than "funky President" or "kosher ham." At worst, the notion of Jewish music conjures up images of fusty cantorial music and Hebrew school sing-alongs; at best, good music from nominally Jewish artists like the Beastie Boys and Bob Dylan with little connection to religious tradition.
You would be forgiven for rethinking this dialectic, and possibly gaping in utter disbelief, if you flip television channels or turn a radio dial, and come upon a song called "King Without a Crown," from an artist named Matisyahu. A fiery, full-blooded reggae anthem in the vein of Peter Tosh and Burning Spear, the song features, on closer inspection, lyrics like, "Sing to my God all these songs of love and healing/ want Moshiach now so it's time we start revealing." Without doubt the first-ever song to mention "Hashem" (the Jewish name for God) and yearn for "Torah food" to make its way onto MTV playlists, "King Without a Crown" is a delightful anomaly.
Hearing his voice, it would be easy for listeners to be convinced Matisyahu is some kind of Jamaican biblical prophet. Seeing him dressed like a yeshiva student in white shirt, black jacket, and black homburg, though, it is difficult to believe that that voice, so dramatic and stentorian, comes from so unlikely-looking a candidate. Matisyahu is unabashedly, unashamedly, a religious Jew, but he is also unashamed about being a reggae singer. His religious and artistic interests may not intermesh perfectly, but he proceeds as if they do, and that assurance is at the heart of Matisyahu's left-field appeal.
What unites the new wave of hip Jewish music, above all, is its dedication to Jewish tradition. Rather than whitewash its religious sources, or turn it into ironic cultural japery, a la Heeb magazine, labels like JDub (home to Matisyahu) and Reboot Stereophonic pump out Jewish music attuned to its religious underpinnings. JDub has become a home to the most forward-looking Jewish artists in the contemporary pop realm.
Matisyahu's labelmate So Called's debut album, "The So Called Seder," is a DJ's tour through Passover, sampling klezmer ballads, traditional music, and hilarious holiday-themed dialogue with an ear to emulating hip-hop mixmasters like DJ Shadow and RJD2. Bringing the story of Passover into the era of the iPod, "The So Called Seder," like Matisyahu, is loyal to both Judaism and hip-hop, without seeing any contradiction between the two. "The So Called Seder" is suitable listening for 50 Cent fans and Orthodox music buffs, and both will find much to enjoy in its dense mélange of samples.
One of the obscure artists sampled by So Called on "The So Called Seder" is the Irving Fields Trio, a 1950s jazz ensemble who brought a taste of the Latin beat to tunes like "My Yiddishe Momme" and "Hava Nagila" (rendered here as "Havanna Negilah"). The Fields Trio's long-obscure album "Bagels and Bongos" has been reissued, and reinvigorated, by the new record label Reboot Stereophonic, run by "Jews who grew up on new wave and punk, know what a dub plate is, and put mambo, Tupac, and The Ramones on the same playlist," according to their promotional materials.
Reboot Stereophonic are Jewish crate-diggers, searching the wide world of musical history for music both hip and Jewish. The label functions as a Jewish musical anthropologist, looking to resuscitate the lost classics of Jewish popular music. "Bagels and Bongos" is highly enjoyable, an odd experiment in musical mind-meld reminiscent of exotica acts like Esquivel and Martin Denny. Fair warning, though--it can sound to contemporary ears like a product of the assimilationist postwar era, less open-minded about its mix of rhythm and ritual than today's popular Jewish music.
Sounding like So Called a generation before his time, Gershon Kingsley, the subject of Reboot Stereophonic's second release, mixed and matched musical styles in the name of creating a Jewish music neither purged of religious sensibility nor overly didactic. Similarly attempting to bring Judaism and modernity together by synchronizing religious practice with the musical avant-garde, Kingsley composed unusual takes on the Friday night prayer service and Passover with his trusty Moog synthesizer. His albums "Shabbat for Today" (1968)and "The Fifth Cup"(1974), large chunks of which appear on Reboot's new 2-disc Kingsley retrospective "God is a Moog: The Electronic Prayers of Gershon Kingsley," are the work of an unsung performer injecting gospel choirs into Shabbat staple "L'cha Dodi," and turning Passover's story of bondage and redemption into a simultaneous children's story and bitter Nixon-era diatribe against poverty and the erosion of civil rights. Kingsley's eerie Moog playing is reminiscent of the minimalist electronic music currently in vogue in nightclubs around the world. And his voice-overs, sounding exactly like the kind of quasi-mystic oracular pronouncements DJ Shadow loves to sample, are a delight.