Wednesday, May 28, 2008

JoeFlix Daily

I have been following closely Mr Joeflix's blog for the last weeks and I was left asking myself why wasn't I able to come up with the same idea. Of course, there are millions of photo blogs but this one is more or less directed to the same public I target in my blog and considering that, like music, photography is a very wide field, JoeFlix Daily is right on.

But aside from that, the concept behind it is cool. There are two types of blogs. Some are "dictatorial", where only one person controls all the content - the posts and sometimes comments (moderation) - and is solely responsible for the direction of the blog. But there are also the "collaborative" blogs, which have gotten a lot of attention lately, where the readers have more interaction and are often times even more in the spotlight than the blog owners. That's the kind of blog Mr JoeFlix runs; even I became one of the members of the crew.

Besides JM I'm a photography enthusiast and I wish long life to JoeFlix Daily. If you are not aware of my works as a photographer check these shots. More will be coming in the next weeks ii"H.

Although my blog is not a collaborative blog, I would like to reiterate how much I like the collaborative concept and welcome again guest posts and differing opinions, even if they clash with mine. I don't moderate and I will try to keep it that way so everyone can have a space here.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Exclusive #2: Meron in Lag Baomer


After the Israel Independence day celebrations, Meron was next in line in my Israel Experience year. I was in Meron last thursday for the Lag Baomer festivities and although I had heard a lot about it, I frankly didn't know exactly what to expect.

It turns out to be that Meron is one of those things in life no one can pass - it should be in the top of everyone's destination list.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, Americans, Europeans and even some gentile tourists head there with only backpacks and a lot of patience, only to fulfill Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's request that his Yartzeit day should be a day of celebrations and not sadness. Meron is exactly that - it's a happiness fair. The Na Nachman guys are one of the most prevalent groups there and they have kiosks everywhere in the mountain, powered with blasting techno songs. The Chabadnikim are also there, with their iconic Mitzva Tank and there's food for everyone - Rashbi's Pizza, Rashbi's Shnitzel and some free meals served by Chessed organizations from here.

But the Toldos Aharon bonfire is what surprised me the most. Thousands of "Zebra" Chassidim, alongside with random visitors dancing around the fire singing Bar Yochai, made this day truly memorable to me - amazing energy, human warmth and inspiration.

As I said, I didn't know what to expect from Meron and I'm sure many of you haven't been there, so I tried to capture a little bit of that happened in that night, in a sequential order, so you can know what to expect before you get there. Enjoy!

Friday, May 16, 2008

A.K.A.Pella 3 Adaptation Review

I got to be honest, this review has been really challenging for me. I not only had to listen to the songs in this album, I had to go to the original tunes to find out what's novel and what is just copied. Since I didn’t know all the originals my wife joined in and this review quickly became a family song quiz. Anyways, it took me double the time to write this review and I admit it’s still a bit clumsy. But I decided to post it anyways, as I originally wanted to be done with it before Lag Baomer.

A.K.APella’s album cover is the nicest I’ve seen in many years, even cooler than Yossi Green’s in my opinion. The blue-colored Chameleon with the three-shaped tail is brilliant and I’m happy they dubbed this album Adaptations – it’s an accurate one-word description of what this album is all about. And the font – a detail usually ignored by most artists - used by the graphical team is also unusual and very cool.

The vocals in this album are exceptional. Each vocalist has a different style and they all mesh together very well, not to mention the harmonies, which are almost always smooth and cool. CD Eichler uses his falsetto very often, tastefully, and he is great at song interpretation – he doesn’t just say the words, he ads intensity to every note. The other soloists are also good at it and that alone made this album fun to listen.

I hoped to see one or two Jewish songs, like in their first two CD’s (Hashem Elokei and Hiney were great), but this time AKAPella focused in non-Jewish sources.

Etz Chaim, composed by Bon Jovi, is a very energetic rock song with lots of computerized effects and it is a great choice for the opening song. The arrangement and harmonies are identical to Bon Jovi’s original version but doing all that in an acapella setting really is a great accomplishment. I personally don’t enjoy the “guitar voice” in 2:25 as I think it takes away the acapella feel. Btw, the choice of words - Etz Chaim (i.e. Tree of Life) is a play with the original title of this song, It's My Life. ****

Although musically Halelu is very interesting I didn’t find any connection between the tune and the lyrics, so the song is somewhat “empty” as it has no message behind it. George Harrison had a message and he sang it with more heart than the soloists in this song. Despite this, I absolutely love the vocal improvisation in 4:18 – the vocals towards the end of the song are amazing, it saved this song from falling short. **

The Mi Bon Siach lyrics are probably the least original lyrics for a song these days and considering that song #7 is Mi Adir, which has the same lyrics in the second part, I think the lyrics choice here was bad. Their Mi Adir is great and I wouldn’t change that one, but this one deserved better lyrics. Despite this grudge, the song gets momentum after 3:15 when Avi Stewart storms in with a very good modulation, in addition to the fantastic light choir harmonies in the background (if you don’t know what I’m saying check 3:37, where the choir sound is more perceptible). Well done. ***

Adon Olam is comes from a goyish song I love, Hey There Delilah, and this is a perfect song for acapella - the arrangement is simple and the focus is in the vocals and harmonies. The vocals are smooth, which is what this song needed, and if you see the original tune you will see that AKAPella did a great job in this one. ****

After the success of Dror Yikra, a great adaptation from Simon & Garfunkel featured in their first album (I sing it in my Shabbos table), AKAPella revisits this group with Gam Ki Elech. The legendary Simon & Garfunkel were able to do a much better job than AKAPella - they sing it with more “heart” and they are (obviously) more authentic. The lyrics were not bad, but they did have to run them a bit in order to fit in the tune. ***

I don’t have much to say about Ma Tovu. The guitar in the very end (3:05) sounds way too much like a real guitar, unlike in Etz Chaim. That’s something I don’t like at all in an acapella setting, it’s a “Setirah”. Either you do acapella or you just throw in a real guitar. ***

Mi Adir is one of my favorites in this album – Celine Dion’s songs are just unbeatable. And this is a great slow song adaptation that does have a Chuppa feel, so the lyrics do make sense. Itsi did a great job and interpreted the song just like Dion does, employing the same shticks. Avi Stewart, who has a more Yeshivish voice, sings half-way in the song and keeps this song Chuppa-like. The falsetto in 3:10 worked well (I’m not sure if Dion also does this) and overall this song was very well put together. ****

I am again critical of the lyrics choice for Hiney since AKAPella already has a song with the same lyrics in their debut album. In addition to this, there’s not much coolness in this one.**

Ani Maamin is a very risky choice for lyrics, but for some reason it really fits well in this Moody Blue’s tune. It’s a great adaptation and it almost sounds like this song was composed for these lyrics. And the trumpet-like vocals (you can hear it in 1:15) worked perfectly, sounding very much like the original’s arrangement. ****

Chaveirim starts exactly like Lev Tahor’s Baruch Hagever and it is a home-run. The message – Friends – was untouched because of the lyrics choice and as a result this is one of the few songs that have a meaning. That alone pushes this song further that any other one featured in this album. CD Eichler went beyond and introduced the Always Coca-Cola theme in 1:30 as a bridge - pretty cool. *****

Oseh, like Chaveirm, has Hebrew lyrics with the same message of the original tune. Even the children cheering in the background was taken from the original, but this song it much too long and is not as cool as Chaveirim. ***

When the Children’s intro resembles Lev Tahor’s intro in Rachem (1st album). The vocals are not as good as the other songs, but the Kol Noar Boys choir was used smartly, first singing softly, just the “niggun” and then singing the words. I love that, especially in this song where the Boys Choir idea fit in the tune’s lyrics. ****

Ki Malochov has more original lyrics and I was happy to see that. Like Gam Ki Elech and Halelu the song loses a lot of its meaning with the lyrics switch and this adaptation didn’t work seamlessly. But the closing of the song is pretty cool – CD Eichler throws in the tune from The Sound of Music (“So Long Farewell”) and it has a double meaning: first, it fits in the original song, which is a song about a man leaving on a jet plane saying goodbye to his girlfriend. Secondly, it’s the last song of this album and AKAPella is saying goodbye to its listeners. **

So at this point you are wondering if this review is “positive or otherwise” (quoted from C.D. Eichler’s thank you note), and I want to stress a very important point about this album.

I came to the conclusion that AKApella is the sefirah version of Shlock Rock or Gershon Veroba’s Variations – their idea is to take famous non-Jewish hits and transform them in Jewish Music songs. I love many Shlock Rock songs – Abarbanel and Into the Sea are classics – and Veroba’s, but they cannot be placed in the same bag with Gabay and Yossi Green’s albums, which focus in new music.

AKApella is a different concept, completely. It’s a CD for the light-hearted, who don’t care much about who composed the songs, if the songs are authentic Jewish songs, or if the computerized shticks are improper for Sefirah – it’s an album for those who can simply sit back, relax and listen to interesting music. In that sense, I’m light-hearted and I was able to enjoy this album. At the same time, I believe Six13, another acapella group, is ahead of A.K.A.Pella specifically because they are more focused in originality. That’s the reason why I didn’t give five stars to any of the songs in this album - any way you slice it originality is missing here.

AKAPella was outstanding at what they set themselves to do – adaptations - but I still think they can dare to shoot higher and try to brake new ground in Jewish Music. In terms of vocals, they have an edge over other JM groups and if they take some risks I think they will be rewarded.

Positive or otherwise then? Positive/otherwise review I guess.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Announcements

I bought AKAPella's album and the review should be coming soon. I'm having a tough time reviewing this one.

Here's a very accurate article of what happened with Chazzan Hershtik, who was victim of vicious extortion by a fellow Chazzan in Israel. Unbelievable.

The Washington Jewish Musical Festival will be taking place between May 31 and June 8. Check out The Afro-Semitic Experience, seemed the coolest one.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: Yishai Lapidot's Concert on Ben Yehuda celebrating Israel's 60th Independence Day


Last night I was on Ben Yehuda to check out the Independence Day celebrations as I was told a big concert would take place there.

Well, Ben Yehuda was absolutely packed and there was barely any room to move, but I managed to get a good view of the stage. Not more than half of the public was religious, so I was thinking who would be singing to such diverse crowd - Avraham Fried, MBD, Shwekey or Lipa would surely be booed. I was thinking Eyal Golan or Gad Elbaz. Wrong, wrong. My man Yishai Lapidot stormed in the stage and the crowd was instantly carried by his energy and charisma – you can see what I’m talking about in the video above. Everyone went wild and the result was the best concert I’ve ever been to.

Separate entrance? Separate seating? Nochum Segal as the MC? No, no and no. What the Gedolim have to say about this concert, which by the way took place on Yom Hatzmaut? I have no clue. All I know is that this concert was Jewish Music at its best, with songs that inspired people from the most diverse backgrounds to come together and sing songs like Ma’aminim, Moshiach and Am Israel Chai. Who else is able to do that? No one. Yishai Lapidot is the only artist in JM today who’s able to cross the partisan lines and sing for everyone. He is the John Mccain of Jewish Music (not an official endorsement).

A few Yishai Lapidot facts:
1) Reb Shlomo once said that Lapidot is a very talented composer and arranger.
2) He is a star – “There is no 'ctrl' button on Lapidot's computer. He is always in control.”
3) He doesn’t care about what you think – Yishai does what he thinks is right. Period.

Exagerations aside, Lapidot is a great composer, a star and he really doesn't care about what people think. And specifically #3 is what I admire most in him. I just hate the idea of all singers having to be same, being afraid to Chas Veshalom stick out from what’s "accepted".

Lapidot is an exception to the rule and that’s why he has the guts to sing on Israel’s 60th birthday, even if he is the only Chassidic JM singer to do that. Well done.

Click here to read a guest post on Lapidot’s latest album.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Israel's 60th Anniversary



For the first time I'm in Israel for Yom Hatzmaut and it has been a very unique experience.

Yesterday the country commemorated Yom Hazikaron, in memory of the fallen soldiers of the IDF. It's a really sad day since everyone here had friends in the army who are no longer with them. The TV and cable stations suspended all channels for the day and only documentaries of soldiers are allowed to be aired throughout the day.

Right after this sad day Israel celebrates its independence and I've linked this amazing video from the Jewish Agency because it really shows what this day is all about.

I will also post an exclusive video of Lapidot's concert of BenYehuda today.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Jerusalem Great Synagogue

I was asked to write a bit about my experience here in Israel and the Jerusalem Great Synagogue topic immediatly came to my mind. As a young kollel guy who's in Israel just for a year, I faced a common dilemma – living in a city that has a shul in every corner, what's the best place to daven in Jerusalem? Very good question. When I thought about the Jerusalem Great Synagogue I was repeatedly told that it's impossible to go there every week, "no one can stand a three hour davening every week" or "it's a concert, not a place to daven".

I grew up attending a middle-sized shul, davening alongside with 20 or so people and I therefore had very little contact with the Chazzanus world. As I wrote before, I started to like Helfgot but I still had no patience for Chazzanut per say. So going to the Great Synagogue in a regular basis was quite a change for me - it's a huge place, with a very diverse crowd and the davening is long indeed. But there's something unique there and I now get to my point.

There is a culture clash between the big shuls like the Great Synagogue and the overall shtiblachs. The big shuls were the community centers in old Europe and Chazzanus became a central part in the communal life of that generation. However as the Jewish World became more "frum", people started branch out of the big shuls, and the shtiblachs mushroomed. Big temples and Chazzanus were linked to the secular world and deemed too liberal.

Today, we want shuls that suit our personal davening style and davening speed. Two months ago I was in the Ramada to hear Rabbi Frand's speech on Tefillah and one Rosh Yeshiva introduced the topic by saying that the Shtiblachs represent how we view Tefillah – we don't want to be pressured to be on time, we want a shul that fits in our daily schedule. If I need an extra hour of sleep I just wait for the 10:30 minyan in the Shtiblach.

But coming back to the Chazzanus topic, I must say that many of the great Chazzanim were and are indeed liberal. One of the greatest Chazzanim of all time, Moshe Koussovitzky, reportedly used to drink before Neila of Yom Kippur to keep his voice sharp. The religious crowd saw a contradiction in attending services led by a non-pious Chazzan, regardless of how good he was.

I do agree with this premise. I would feel very unconfortable to know that the person leading my prayers to Hashm is not even religious. But the big shuls and Chazzanus are not limited to liberal Chazzanim - there are many great religious Chazzanim who really add a special taste to a Tefillah.

In the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, no one talks when the Chazzan sings. The Chazzan is the main player and is in charge of inspiring the Kahal to pray to Hashm. There's also a large choir led by Eli Jaffe, who's extremely talented. A few months ago I heard Yaakov Motzen's Av Harachamim in the Great Synagogue, a piece he composed for his brother who perished in the first Lebanon War. Motzen simply brings the Kahal to a different world and really teaches us what this Tefillah is all about. Motzen is fantastic and probably better than Helfgot at the present day. Chazzan Chaim Adler, a Ger Chassid from Tel Aviv, was a guest Chazzan a few times and he is also very good.

So I can now say to you that yes, it is possible to hear Chazzanus every Shabbos but more than that, it's so much better than going to your late Shtiblach minyan. You just can't compare and more and more people are realizing this in the past few years. The Great Synagogue is full every Shabbos, with Baalei Batim, Chassidim, American Bochrim who walk all the way from the Mir, Mizrachim and even large groups of curious tourists wearing paper kippas. This is what a Shul is really meant to be - a place for everyone.