Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Screechiness and Jewish Music

Jewish Music, like any other musical genre, has its own particularities.

One good example is the traditional horn-filled arrangement, a shtick that somehow made its way into Jewish Music decades ago and was perpetuated by Yisroel Lamm and Moshe Laufer's signature arrangements, which made up to 70% of all arrangements in JM until some 7 years ago. Horn lines are not popular anymore in the goyish (or to the more sensitive readers, gentile) music industry - guitars, acoustic guitars, synths and techno took over a long time ago. But for some reason, the JM public thinks that horn-filled arrangements have more "Yiddishe Ta'am" than the contemporary and "innapropriate" arrangements we hear in the goyish world.

That explains why some even try to ban singers - Lipa, Rap in Yiddish(I love their first song), Oif Simchas and so on - that make music that don't seem to fit the usual "pure" JM. These people think that the definition of Jewish Music is music that fits in their usual standards, and songs that have a "different" Ta'am must be stopped at all costs. The irony is that good music IS music that sounds different, original and fresh; the usual sound we got so used to hear until a few years ago was primitive. Music isn't perpetual, music evolves with time and whoever negates this will join the ban club eventually. Why? Because we are already witnessing an irreversible shift in Jewish Music towards better and more modern arrangements (and compositions), and today there are many great arrangers out there who know how to put together a decent arrangement. Personally, I like Ilya Lishinsky and Leib Yaakov Rigler, but there are many out there today.

Before you start wondering about the link between this and the post title, let me get to my point.

Another pillar of JM is the love for screechiness. Yes, the love for screechiness. For some reason, just like the crowds are (or were) into horn-lines they are into screechiness. I don't know how this started but that's the only explanation why people liked Shloime Dachs and Yisroel Williger in the 90's, two singers who are not really good but have enjoyed great success until very recently.

That's why people are so into Boys Choirs, from Tzil Vezemer and Miami Boys Choir until the "iconic" Yeshiva Boys Choir, the most screechy group I've ever heard. Please don't take this as a criticism, I'm just giving you factual info here - however way you slice it, the Jewish Boys choirs are screechy. And even if you don't agree with this last point, you will surely agree YBC is. That's black on white. But don't get me wrong, I own all MBC albums and YBC's two albums - I was also into it, like many of you are today. But I evolved. I probably heard YBC's albums 5 times before getting tired of the child vocals.

Let me clarify my point a bit - not all boys choirs must be screechy. In fact, I attended a secular wedding last week were I had the honor to hear a magnificent secular boys choir that was smooth and just very well balanced (they sang Karduner's Shir Hamaalot). I didn't have a camera with me but I managed to get a snap with my phone, although the quality of the sound and image is poor (I will try to post the video soon). All Jewish Boys Choirs I know are seemingly intentionally screechy - I guess the people in the industry unconsciously know that screechiness sells. But how can you expect a kid to sing like a seasoned singer like Lipa or Helfgot? Song interpretation requires brains, experience and common-sense and it's unfair to put so much attention in child soloists that can scream a note out of their lung. Benny Amar's great debut album was hardly hit by the exaggerated use of child soloists and I think in today's day and age that's just unacceptable.

I can bring more examples. Yaakov Shwekey is extremely screechy and people adore him. When Shomati came out, people couldn't stop saying "Did you see how high he goes in Rachem???" or "Wow, he goes even higher than Avraham Fried. Wooow!". Well, a distinction must be made between kvetching a note and reaching a note properly. As my voice coach used to say, it's more enjoyable to hear a good low note than a screechy high note. It's possible that your mind is so used to hearing screechiness that you think I just landed from Mars, but musically speaking screechiness is horrible. Not bad, horrible. (Disclaimer: there are many things I like about Shwekey, I'm just pointing out his Aquiles Heel).

I'm quite certain that just like the horns are definitely behind us, screechiness is following the same path. Yossi Green's The 8th Note is a roadmap (or in Chaim's words, a bible) for JM in the coming years and one thing that album doesn't have is screechiness - the pillar of the album is smooth vocals and no kids are to be found there. And of course, there are virtually no horn arrangements. Well done YG.

Yitzy Spinner is one of the most promising talents out there and he also didn't have kids singing nor screeching vocals. Just the opposite, pure smoothness. So is Lev Tahor - just smoothness.

AKAPella, which came out with a decent album with superb vocals, is another good example of how non-screechy vocals can bring an album to new heights. Ok, the songs were not original but AKAPella's vocals are spotless.

Dovid Gabay is a non-screechy Shwekey and he is great; it's a pleasure to hear him. He did use kids in Zaroh but it fitted well in the song's theme, that is, he used common-sense. The problem starts when grown-ups use child soloists without any commom-sense.

Lipa is also not screechy and I happen to like his voice just because of that.

Another sign that screechiness is on the way out is the rebirth of Chazzanut that we've seen in the past decade. Let me explain: all Chazzanus concerts are packed lately and so many youngsters, this blogger among them, are starting to get into the genre - think of Hasc, where Helfgot is today the major player with Avraham Fried (they were there in the past 3 years). Whoever likes Chazzanut hates screechiness, because Chazzanut is the anathema of it. The Chazzanim sing the notes the way they are supposed to come out of a singer's mouth - without ANY screechiness. Listen to Yaakov Motzen once and you will throw away your YBC's cds.

Finally JM is walking out of the woods, and the days of the horn arrangements and screechy boys choirs are counted.
My ears are cheering.


Chaim said...

bravo!! great post!

JoeFlix said...

Im preparing a long well-researched comment to this homerun post but one thing:

You forgot the two greatest smooth Jewish voices in all time: Shlomo Calrebach and MBD

And for a goy- think of Josh Groban.

Ill be back soon - have to run to work

Anonymous said...

great analysis, although I do enjoy listening boys choir (not all day long of course, but from time to time).

you think avraham fried is screechy?

JoeFlix said...

Here we go.

You brought some serious charges against two of JM's holiest institutions: Brass Sections and boys choirs

1) Now, Yossi Green and Lipa were not the first to skip the horns. On Eli Gerstner’s Chevra you have zero horns. It’s all modern music (Maybe a minute or two of Arkadi Kaufman and such)

I guess Jewish music was slow to embrace the guitar, and then only to the tune of Carmine Da'amico solos (you remember the guy?) But our guitarists become better and better with guys like Avi Singolda, OzNoy and Eli Lashinski

But Yossi Green isn’t done with horns yet: He has some solid brass in Layhudim and Lama (Mo Kiss's song) – both, BTW, arranged by Eli Lashinky

Also the above-mentioned EG uses a lot of great horns in YBC (If you want to go crazy check out KooMoo on YBC II - probably one of the top-10 arranged song in JM) and I don't suppose you say he doesn't do an excellent job!

Also on Lipas Shelo Asani Goy you have super horns together with some bad-boy singolda and it’s beautiful! I guess everything has its place.

Many times brass is much richer than distortion guitars - and if the only reason to stop using horns is because the goyim don't use horns that much then maybe the bashers of Lipas music have merit saying that were simply imitating the goyim! Maybe.

2) Now to the screechers

I guess the screechers are JM’s answer to Kelly Clarkson. Let me explain

I was on a boat recently with friends and we were singing many songs and going high and crazy. I was really in the groove and had some great high harmonies I mind but I just couldn't sing them. (I didn't have my guitar with me) I knew where I wanted to go but I couldn't go there! Shloime dachs could’ve! Shloime Toisig (YouTube him) could’ve! A woman could’ve! MBD could never.

So until we can have Christina Aguilera (Even Bocelli knew he needed here help in Somos Novios on ‘Amor’) we will have men with childish voices singing the high notes for us.

Maybe with the infiltration of goyish, kol be’isha music in our cars and homes we will have a decline in the shiny shoe screeching – but I don’t know if that’s good news.

joel said...

I don't really understand your post. You rail on the level of screech in JM when it is in fact the screech that has made many performers stars.
You can call a voice powerful or kvetchy it depends on your outlook. Shwekey would not be a star if he didn't have magnificent strength in his voice. Miami Boys Choir would not be around if the kids didn't hit any high notes. I think its a glass half full or half empty siuation.
Do you want every JM musician to play it safe vocally and have a bunch of songs consisting of low parts? Crowds don't come out to hear low parts.
I recall when Ari Goldwag put out "Aleinu" from his debut album. It was a song of MBC Ari and adult Ari which is a novel idea, but it had no chorus it was just five minutes of low parts. Thats why Goldwag is no Shwekey.
By the way Gabay had a child vocalist on track 2 of his debut and track 3 of his second album as well as Zaroh.
The 8th note might not have had any shrill, but it had vocals from your boy YG on every track making it a very mediocre album.
Spinner, Akapella and Gabay are talented, but they aren't Shwekey. They haven't had a hit like Rachem.

joel said...

Im listening to Helfgot right now and he's screeching a lot. So what are you talking about?

JoeFlix said...


Screaming and screaching are two sepeate things.

We are talking about Boyish higs, like Dachs, Williager and Shwekey.

Everyone screams - Including Bono, Josh Groban, Bocelli, and Lehavdil a million times, Helfgott

YK said...




AF is somewhat screechy but Shwekey is the most. AF is more talented also in my opinion.


YK said...


1) I agree with you that horn-lines can be nice. By all means, I wasn't saying we will never hear it anymore, I just said that the "overdose" of horns we have experienced until now in JM is over. The best proof is the fact that almost no one gets Lamm - THE horn lines arranger - for their albums. (Daarmico -> I last heard this name some 10 years ago!)

2) Very interesting theory, but I obviously disagree since I think boys choirs are already on their way out (and there's no Aguilera around in JM).

"if the only reason to stop using horns is because the goyim don't use horns that much then maybe the bashers of Lipas music have merit saying that were simply imitating the goyim! "
In terms of arrangements, the goyim are way ahead of us. As I said, overdose of horn-lines equals primitive arrangement. It eventually gets boring (specially when 100 singers do the same shtick). There's nothing wrong in imitating the goyish arrangements if they are better. JM is not perfect!


YK said...


I always value your radical opinions but this time you are off, in my opinion of course.

1)"8th note is mediocre". Try to overcome your aversion over YG's voice and you will see what this album really is: the best in the last 5 years, at least.

2) "Helfgot is screechy". It seems you got so used to screechiness that you can't differentiate between screechy and non-screechy. It's impossible to have a screechy Chazzan, since the chazzanus technique doesn't leaves any room for that. Helfgot has a powerful soprano-ish voice, which makes his voice stand out. But he is not screechy at all.

3) "Should every singer play it safe?". No. But that doesn't means they should be screechy. Spinner doesn't plays safe at all and he is not screechy. The two things are not connected.


JoeFlix said...


Boys Choirs on the way out??? Not so sure - unless you have sales figures. They can improve like the rest of Jewish music.

Im especially excited for Mo Kiss's Kol Noar Debut album - which is heavily in the works. (They appeared on AKApella 3 and Lipa's Hallel). We can trust Mo that this will be something worth a listen.

Downpressor said...

Why even bother with the "sensitive readers" bit?

YK said...

Mr Downpressor,

In light of the big controversy regarding the usage of the word goy, I ended up siding with Blog in Dm's approach. That's the reason why I linked the word goy to him.

But since I know this is still an open discussion, and I my stance is still not definitive, I decided to write the second option as well.

Please don't take as a irony. Take it as indecision.