Monday, August 13, 2007

Music and Lyrics

Music is one of the most powerful ways of expressing a person’s feelings and ideas, and for centuries it has played a very important role in Jewish life. From the Shtetl’s folk wedding songs to the niggunim of the Hasidim, virtually all Jews share a great passion and admiration for tunes that inspire their lives.

Both the lyrics and the tune are the most important facets of an inspiring song, and they can convey to the listeners joy, excitement, insight or even sadness, depending on the lyrics and tune used by the composer.

Everyone agrees that Shlomo Carlebach had a special skill to choose the appropriate tunes for the lyrics he sang, and the vast majority of his songs seem to be in perfect harmony with the words. That might explain why his songs are still so popular even after his passing.

Today, the biggest trend in JM is borrowing non-Jewish songs and singing them with lyrics from Tehilim, Tefila or whatever. Some singers copy the whole song (see Life-of-Rubin's list here), some composers simply use the beats and style that are typically used by techno or pop singers and so on. I once saw a teshuva from Rav Ovadia Yosef stating that it’s actually a good thing to transform these tunes into Jewish music because by doing that, the singer brings something that was used for the Sitra Achra (“Dark Side”) and elevates its use to Hashem.

But even though it might be ok to bring “alien” music into JM, we must keep in mind that these songs were composed for different lyrics and by definition they have nothing to do with the Tehilim or Tefila lyrics. In other words, many JM songs we are listening today has no “soul” and has little or nothing to do with the lyrics. The tunes might be good and catchy, but it’s hard to enjoy music that has no meaning to it. That’s why I can’t hear The Chevra anymore, for example. They sing techno and pop-style songs but even though the music is modern and the arrangements are good, I feel like there’s nothing to the songs. But the same holds true for many other composers today. For instance, Yossi Green’s thing today seems to be techno songs – like “Gedoilo Shiro” in Ohad2 and “Im Ain Ani Li” in Gertner’s album. I must admit that I like these songs but in the other hand, I feel that there’s no connection between the lyrics and the melody. The same thing happens when I hear Blue Fringe or AKAPella. Not to mention Variations (remember?).

I believe that the singers and composers should focus more in producing original music that is connected to the lyrics. If they keep focusing in finding the most catchy goish tunes and arrangements, we will be flooded with Jewish songs that are nothing more than copycats of non-Jewish music, with no originality or meaning to the songs. That’s why I like Shalsheles so much. And Chaim David, Chaim Yisrael, A. Fried, Abie Rotemberg and even Razel. These guys are busy singing real music, with real lyrics. Kein Irbu.

For the discussion thread, please mention Jewish songs that you think that have nothing to do with its lyrics. I came up with another one: this very very old-school Jewish tune, "ציון הלא תישאלי לשלום אסיריך" a very joyful song from... the Kinos of Tisha Beav.

PS: Although I brought a negative example from two of YG’s compositions, these are exceptions, and I think the vast majority of his music is very real and meaningful.


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Joel said...

I haven't read your blog in a while because the you post so infrequently.
I hear what you are saying, but as usual I must respectfully disagree.
Generally from what I have seen in Jewish music over the past two decades the the music follows the trends of pop culture. In the 80s much of the music had a dance disco beat i.e. Avraham Yagel by Fried, and over the last few years much of jm has had more rock infused productions with some heavy guitar riffs even MBD and Miami, the few holdouts, have relented and put in electric guitar into their production. The Chevra was the JM response to Nsync and the Backstreet Boys to much success. Much of your post seems redundant as a lighter less negative/cynical version of Uncle Sy's recent post.
There is trendy rock/pop music in JM that will always be there. There is the mellow bluesy John Mayer, Dave Matthews material. But there also is the hartzig inspirational material. Journeys 4 and Shema Yisrael from Abie, Kodesh from Gertner and Ani Yehudi from my boy Lenny Solomon. This material is original, soulful and inspirational everything that you said is lacking in todays JM. My cup is half-full, whats yours?

Anonymous said...

I think the future of JM is in composers who are also able to come up with good lyrics in hebrew or english.
otherwise, soon there will be no psukim left in tehilim for new songs.


Music Man said...

Sometimes a non-Jewish tune is a good fit for a Jewish song. Case in point: "The Cholent Song" by Country Yossi & The Shteeble Hoppers, to the tune of "Donna the Prima Donna" by Dion & the Belmonts.

Some of Country Yossi's other knock-offs, such as those of "The Gambler" and "Blind Man in the Bleachers", are pretty bad. But give him credit for getting at least one right.

C Yehuda said...

I agree with you, for the most part, YK. I can enjoy goyish-style songs that have nothing to do with the words, like the Chevra's first hit, "Yehei Shlomo Rabba", but the song that's playing in a loop on my computer as I type this is not "Yehei" but "Haven Yakir Li", by D'veykus. A good tune can take you far, and good harmony can take you further, but a song is not great until it is in harmony with its words as well. (Actually, "Haven Yakir Li" is not really a perfect example: it has an ugly flaw, which I choose to overlook.)

So you wanted us to list examples of Jewish songs where the tune doesn't fit the words? There are plenty of examples, but for a particularly egregious one, how about MBD's Timcheh? Or Gabay's Timcheh, for that matter. I have no idea what gives these singers the idea that this possuk is a good choice to make a song out of (it often seems to work that way, though: once one singer uses a particular possuk, others follow), but if I was making a song out of it, I wouldn't use an upbeat, happy tune.

This one might be more off-topic, but we can't omit Avraham Fried's joyous song glorifying idol worship (Chazak).

YK said...

C Yehuda,

Timche is definetly in the list, I agree. But what do you mean when you say chazak is glorifying idol worship?

I always thought Zochreini Na is also unfit for the tune. The words are Shimshon's plea to Hashem for a last moment of revenge over the Plishtim, after he suffered greatly. And in most weddings, the band plays Zochreini Na to cheer up and make everyone jump.

In my review of Dachs' album, you can see another song without proper words - Ranenu.

I will post your phrase: "A good tune can take you far, and good harmony can take you further, but a song is not great until it is in harmony with its words as well". Great!


C Yehuda said...

Yes, "zochreini na" is another good example.

What I meant about Chazak? Oh, it's well-known. The phrase "ish es raiaihu yaazoru ul'achiv yomar chazak" is from Yishaia 41:6 (it appears in the haftara of Lech Lecha). According to most m'forshim, it refers to ovdei avoda zara helping each other out and saying each to his fellow, "Chazak!" There are other p'shotim given, but even so...not the best choice of words to make a song out of.

Anonymous said...

The pasuk of Chazak is and was used many times by Gedolim in a borrowed "yeshivishe shprach" manner, to bring out the idea of helping others. It was also often used by Avraham Fried's mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe tz"l.

Curious said...

As a non Jew I am curious about the exact meaning of the word hartzig which happens to be my sirname.

YK said...

Welcome to the blog Mr Curious!

Hartzig is usually referred to something emotional, moving, "full of heart". But that might not be an exact definition, it's just how people usually use this word.

And this word is in Yiddish (european jewish dialect), not in Hebrew.

I hope I helped,