Monday, June 30, 2008

Rabbi Slifkin becomes a blogger!

In Hirhurim I saw some great news - Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, who has been at the center of one of the greatest (and unfair) controversies of the past years, is back in the spotlight this time as a blogger.

Rabbi Slifkin is a very cool guy and I am a fan of his work. He is unique in what he does - exploring the marvels of the animal world and exposing to us readers how amazing and surprising the world we live in is. For a guy like him, the blogosphere is the perfect channel for his unusual passion and I am certain he will get attention very quickly, from the good and from the bad guys.

This blog is a strong supporter of Slifkin's work and I will do all I can to help him grow. You shouldn't miss this blog.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Thoughts on Music" Copying

Someone emailed me this article from Wolfish Musings on music copying. Although the post is based on a discussion from Yeshiva World News, which can never be of any use, Wolfish raised an important subject and I would like to add my two-cents.

Music copying is of course a problem not only in Jewish Music but in the music industry in general, and every since the internet emerged the record labels suddenly saw themselves in a very dangerous position (think Napster).

There were many attempts to curb music downloading, first with the Napster lawsuit and then with DRM. But the problem was still there and one new idea changed the game for the music industry - iTunes. Since Steve Jobs came up with the easy-to-use online music store, people proved that if given a good channel, they would pay the fair buck for their beloved songs. In Jobs' keynotes, he always stresses how consumer behavior has changed since iTunes came to being and I think is hard to disagree with this premise. Now, Jobs is pushing for the end of DRM, and he is slowly getting through with the major record labels.

We already had a lengthy discussion about the feasibility of selling JM in iTunes and although there is some JM for sale there, by large JM is still the same industry it was 10 years ago. And I fully understand the arguments that were made about the relatively small size of JM and why financially it doesn't makes sense to sell Jewish Music in iTunes. But with CD's costing 17 dollars in the US (in Israel even more) these days, I don't believe JM is at this moment an efficient industry.

I used to say that it's a matter of time until Jewish Music gets its way into iTunes. Somewhere along the road I stopped being a dreamer and I concede it's hard to see JM in iTunes anytime soon. But just like the goyish music industry was saved by iTunes and other efficient ideas, JM has to somehow address its current inefficiencies. I don't know how that can be done, but again, the best way to stop music copying is not through Mussar schmuessin in the back of the album jackets (or leasing agreements) but through creative and practical ideas. The more the industry is efficient the more consumers will be funneled to do things the easy way, that is, buying all their music.

Some good ideas that popped up lately include free songs (Spinner and AKAPella and now the 8th Day), creative marketing apparatus (Lipa's bumper-sticker) and podcasts (Sameach). I'm quite sure Spinner, AKAPella and Lipa were all rewarded in return and I think that's the way to go in JM at the present time. Of course, iTunes would be great, but that's still a dream. So singers, keep being creative!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Where the Hell is Matt Video

This video is amazing (the first version has been around the web for a while but this final version was released just this week). I share with Matt the love for knowing new places but what really puzzled me here is his ability to unite people with just one premise - dance (in his own weird way). The idea is so similar, actually, identical to the Breslav movement you see so often in Israel (the dancing vans etc..), and man that really unites people. It has been said that Breslov was never as popular as they're now - you see their influence everywhere. From Adi Ran (wait for my next post about him) to the Jewish Tolkien, the excitement the Breslovers bring to Jewish life as a whole is remarkable. So what are you waiting for? DANCE!

[Here you can see footage that didn't make it to the final cut]

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lipa and Yiddish Music

I got many inquiries about my Lipa review and I feel like exposing what's in my mind now and I warn you that this post is very personal and straightforward - you will not necessarily agree with it and that's just ok.

Here's the deal - I do not speak Yiddish (I did try) and I consequently have a major problem digesting Lipa's music, as I can't really listen to an album with an Yiddish dictionary in my desk. That's just not an option. True, not all Lipa's songs are in Yiddish and many of them just have a bit of Yiddish here and there but from what I heard it's mainly Yiddish (at least 6 songs are 100% Yiddish).

This leads me to another point that is not necessarily linked to Lipa. A simple question: if you take all JM listeners, what is the percentage of Yiddish speakers? I'm not Gallup so don't expect a precise answer, but my estimation is MAYBE 40% - again, that's my personal estimation and I might be a bit off. But my point is that Yiddish music has a quite limited appeal, if compared to regular Hebrew and English songs, and I wonder if this hurts Lipa's sales. Of course, Lipa is able to charge a fortune for weddings and all else, however I attribute this to his vibrant and charismatic personality and not necessarily because of his Yiddish songs. Yeah, Gelt was huge but still non-Yiddish speakers have trouble with this kind of songs.

This post could lead many of you to think that I'm opposed to Lipa and conspiracy-theorists might even think "that's why YK was not mentioned in Lipa's supporters list" or even "YK is just upset he didn't make it to the list" . Let me be clear: that's not true. Although I don't fully "get" Lipa's songs, his music sounds fresh and cool, with above average arrangements and production, added to his great skills as a lyricist. Not to mention Yossi Green, who is working with him for a while. I just don't speak Yiddish, period.

You might think that it doesn't matter if you don't understand all the words, as long as we understand here and there what the song is all about. I don't like that idea - I want to be able to hear music that I actually fully understand. And don't think I'm a single-minded when it comes to languages - I'm fluent in four. I just somehow never felt the urge or need to learn Yiddish.

In today's day and age, Hebrew and English have a much wider appeal and I think Yiddish-centered songs have shorter shelf life since the younger generation is less interested in knowing it (that's something you see very clearly in Israel - even many Chassidim got over their reluctance to speak "modern" Hebrew). For instance, if you take two modern day Hebrew and English hits from Yossi Green - Vezakeinu or Someday - they seem to be much more "eternal" than Lipa's Gelt.

I don't mind when you have a Yiddish word here and there in songs, like in Shloime Gertner's Hu Yisborach, but to buy a ganz album mit alles Yiddish nigunim is more complicated for a poshiter yid like me. So, in short, I'm not planning to buy Lipa's latest album. Nisht far mir.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Yossi Green's Real Inspiration

I was on my way to Europe last week and I snapped this pic in Ben Gurion Airport Food Court. I did write in my review of The 8th Note that Hatav Hashmini is Israel's leading record label, but an image is worth a million words. Anyone who was in Ben Gurion has seen this (it's close to the Chabad Tefillin outpost, that you for sure remember), and I guess the same can be said about Yossi Green. Hence, I believe we have uncovered YG's real inspiration for the best album we have seen in the past years or even decade.

Thank you Hatav Hashmini Music.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Benny Amar's Am Echad Review

"Walahi, Walaha!". After some ten years, I hear Benny Amar singing this once again, this time in his debut album rather than live in concert alongside with Miami Boys Choir. I've been following Benny Amar for sometime already - he has been performing since an early age, and was part of Miami Boys Choir, but his musical career took off when he started Kol Zimra, an upbeat acapella group with two good albums in their record and perhaps the only JM group to have performed for His Excellency Mr Bush, during the White House Hannukka ceremony three or something years ago.

I specially liked Kol Zimra's second album, which has much less "yeshivish" feel if you compare it to Lev Tahor or Chevra acapella, and until now Benny Amar was just that. But with Am Echad, he goes solo and tries to take off as a lead singer, which frankly came to me as a surprise - in Kol Zimra's albums his voice was still too "raw". But the Benny we hear in this album is a new singer, with improved vocals and singing technique, surely because of his great coach Chazzan Moshe Schulhof from Aventura FL. Chaim raised questions over Amar's voice, but as I see it he has an Yeedle-styled voice - slightly nasal and screatchy - but these could turn to be assets with good voice coaching and if you have landed in Schulhof's hands you don't need go anywhere else. Amar did the first step and is way better than before, but he can still improve and I'm sure Moshe will keep him moving.

Before I get to the review let me give you a little briefing on Amar's Bio. Originally from Brazil, Benny moved to the US in his teens and became part of Miami Boys Choir. His father, back in Brazil, is a violinist and his influence can be felt throughout this album with the numerous violin lines and breathtaking violin solos. Here we go:

With great technique, Benny carries Am Echod very well and keeps the energy flowing. The violin solo in 2:49 is one of the best I've heard in JM and it's also interesting that he changes a bit the tune using a minor note in 4:18 (when pronouncing "Shebashomaim") opposed to the natural note used in the beginning of the song (i.e. 1:23). Amar's pronunciation of "echod" in 4:08 is very weird, and I think JMusic Insider, a.k.a. JBlogmeister, also felt this, but that's a minor issue. On a side note, I don't see why there's was a need for a child soloist in this song - I'm very critical of overusing child singers and Benny used this shtick in four songs. Not that the boy is a bad singer, not at all, I just believe this shtick should be used in songs that have something to do with children i.e. in Gabay's Zaroh or in AKAPella's Children. But here, I think it's odd and unnecessary (I will posting about this topic soon). ****

Gadol Hashalom has creative lyrics and a good arrangement but the song itself is somewhat forgetable. And once again there's the kid singing, taking the spotlight away from Amar and forcing the kid to scream his lungs out to reach the final note. Once again, I'm not criticizing the boy, who has a good voice; I just don't think Amar played his cards well in this one, I think it would be better to just have him singing alone, highlighting his voice and his interpretation. The backup vocals didn't help much and in a slow song like this one, good backup are a must. Mike Boxer would've delivered; pity he's not part of this project. ***

Hevei starts off with the same feel of Yossi Green's reggae song Al Todin, but this song is not real reggae, it's a mesh - the arrangement uses the middle-eastern musical scale alongside with reggae-sounding guitars. Quite wacky but it just worked and this song by Boruch Levine (his second Middle-eastern hit - the first was Shwekey's Halo Yadata) is one of this album's best pieces. Amar did a great job in the vocals - his best vocals in the album - and the funky Kol Zimra-styled backup vocals fitted like a glove in this song. *****

Tzur is a contemporary-sounding song that has great potential - the first part is amazing, world-class, and the song is overall good. The background vocals are very weak and "empty", so this song falls short and doesn't gets momentum. There's no modulation, that is, the song always stays in the same key set and that was mistake. But it's not a bad song, it's just disappointing because it could've been perfect. ***

I love the way Amar sings the first part of Koli, great interpretation and technique. The arrangement is excellent, specially the piano and violin, and the song is beautifull. However, having in mind the lyrics of the second part - Hoitzio Mimasger Nafshi - it's inevitable to compare it to the second part of Hakshivo from Shalsheles, which has the same lyrics. There's something in common in the two songs, and Shalsheles' song is unbeatable, but this one also has a charm of its own. Once again the violin guy does a smashing job in 5:00, he is really good, and the song goes over 7 minutes, a record. Benny did a great job in the closing of the song, he has a good range, and the backup vocals were not bad this time. ****

Mikdash Melech is an old composition by Amar, with his signature "Walahi Walaha" shtick I mentioned in the opening of this review. It's another wacky song, with a salsa arrangement, and it's Amar's cup-of-tea music style, like Hevei. In these wacky songs his glaring personality shines out, with great energy and at the bottom of the song he again does a great job. ****

Eliahu's arrangement is interesting and the backup vocals are actually good - it's obviously mo kiss - but I personally don't like how the composer worked out the part "bimheuro iovo eleinu" as it didnt fit to well with the rest of the song, but as I said this is very personal, others might not mind.
I don't have much else to say about this one, it didnt click very much with me. ***

Sova is a great techno three-part, with creative lyrics and an AKAPella-styled intro (Axel F). This is not a typical song - its another wacky one - and once again benny is in his comfort zone, keeping the energy and pace of this cool song. I love his improvisation towards the end, the backup harmonies (specially in 2:25) and, wow, the guitar solo - excellent. On the negative side, using the very young child soloist in this edgy song is inexusable and impossible to understand. What were they thinking?

Vehoshivo is the best slow song of this album and I would swap it with gadol, as this song deserves to be in the spotlight. The tune, words and feel of this song resemble Shalsheles, which I love, but there's something more here - the guest chazzan Moshe Schulhof at the end is the best moment of this album. Chaim mentioned that Schulhof seems to be out of place, and he does have a point, but I would put it differently - Kaufman and the kid are out of place in this song. There are too many guest soloists and I believe Schulhof deserved a prime guest appearance i.e. just him and Amar in a duet. Moshe is one of the world's greatest Chazzanim alongside with Helfgot and Yaakov Motzen and this song highlights his spotless vocals and amazing music dynamics. Few people do this so well. With such great talent at hand, Amar should've let Moshe sing the first part as well or even have him sing in other songs. Or you think the kids do a better job? Come on. ****

Omdos was originally featured in kol zimra's second album as a mellow ballad and it was a rather forgetable song of a great composer, abie rotenberg. Amar tries once again to make this song fly, this time in a rock version. If there's one style abie doesn't gets along with that style is surely rock - in journeys, dveykus and aish there's no rock - and despite benny's efforts to make this song sound decent, at the end of the day one thing remains true: this is a very weak rotenberg song. Period. **

This album has a few constants: creative songs, good lyrics, topclass arrangements and overused kid singers (Amar's Miami boys choir background might explain). Except for a few songs, the backup vocals fell short and i keep thinking how cool it would be if Mike Boxer was part of this project. But no album is perfect and its important to keep in mind that this is Benny's debut, and as such its with no doubt a great success.

After Fried, gabay and yossi green's albums the bar has been raised and cheesy "more of the same" kind of albums don't fool people anymore. Amar's album is a great surprise and probably the best debut album of the past few years, alongside with Spinner. And before I forget, "Walahi Walaha!".

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Comments on Spinner's Mi Sheshiken Remix

Yitzy Spinner came out with a free single a week or two ago (you may download from his website) and I now got the time to sit down and write about it.

This remix of Mi Sheshiken came as a surprise to me, first because few JM artists venture to produce freebies, and second because Mi Sheshiken, a good song but not Spinner's greatest hit, was seemingly an odd song for a remix - I thought Spinner would rather choose another of his many unrecorded compositions.

But this song is very, very well put together. It's a million times better than the original Mi Sheshiken and Spinner turned this average song into a very cool and edgy piece. The arrangement is more groovy (there's even a latin digression in 3:47), with smooth beats and strings, and Mike Boxer's vocal arrangements are, again, spotless. The Spinner-Boxer partnership is one of the brightest examples of how two musicians can complement each other. Boxer has the a great "musical balance" - he is able to come up with the best vocals harmonies without taking the spotlight away from the lead singer, Spinner. That's the secret of a good vocal arranger and Boxer just has it (I specially like his work between 1:18 and 1:35). Spinner also excelled and proved again how great he is at improvising, keeping the song interesting throughout the 4 minutes (his shtick in 3:37 was excellent).

So at the end, choosing Mi Sheshiken for a free single just somehow worked, highlighting Spinner's biggest assets - creativity and a great team of musicians behind him. As I mentioned in my You and I review I think Spinner is the next Yehuda! and I really look forward to hear his next albums.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Ben Yehuda Drummers and Sefira Music

This is a picture I took yesterday night in Ben Yehuda. These drummers keep playing for over 4 hours every Motze Shabbes and they've become part of this street's peculiar array of musicians. At some point a woman stormed in and started doing belly dancing, and although not all the drummers were religious, they immediately stopped playing. One of the things you can only see in Israel - hippies playing music not for stam partying but for Hash-m. Nice.

Incidentally, these drummers reminded me of another post I was planning to write about music in the Sefira. I gave up on that, because I got dragged to another issue, namely, listening to music during the WHOLE year. According to the foremost poskim, only drumming (hence the connection) is allowed and that is by the way the source of the old Jerusalemite minhag of not using full bands for weddings in the city - people only hire drummers. I was told that the Jews in Yemen used to be makpid and wouldn't listen to music throughout the year.

Anyways, one thing is clear - the music from the Ben Yehuda drummers is Kosher Lemehadrin.

(I refer you to this antique discussion in Hirhurim, which deals with this topic and has great comments)