Monday, February 10, 2020

Benny Friedman’s Kulanu Nelech Album Review

Benny Friedman’s latest album, Kulanu, is out on Spotify, and as a paying subscriber I enjoyed listening to this album quite a bit, to the extent that I felt like writing a review for the first time in some years. JM is evolving and improving very much in the past years and this album is a leap forward so I wanted to write about it. Excuse me for not giving proper credits - there’s no way for me to see full credits in Spotify.

Tashiru - Benny’s superb vocals are immediately in display, having improved significantly over the years. This song is really well done - the beat, the lyrics, great arrangement, the choir (very smooth and not too punchy) all give room for Benny to shine, and he is able to keep the song interesting throughout. I specially like the ending of each block with “Ani shar” - a great connector and the interlude at 2:30 adds a lot of feel to this great opener, a song that keeps evolving *****

Kulanu - starts with strong drums, introducing a theme of march to this song. This song explores the parallels of Moses’ demand to Pharao and the days of redemption - Geula. Haven’t seen this type of interplay of story in a while, and it’s makes this song stand out. The marching feel is very appropriate, as the Jews will march to Israel for redemption similarly to the slaves leaving Egypt at the time of Moses. The choir here is very pronounced, fitting in the theme and giving a cool tribal sound. Acapella towards the end wasn’t absolutely necessary but I do love acapella so I will not complain. *****

Beyadaim - first slow song of the album, rather sleepy but with nice lyrics - a letter from father to son. I thought it was not a good choice as a third song of this album, as it comes after two really perfect songs. This is a song I will not remember. ***

Charasho - follows the standard set by the first two songs, this one is a home run. The song has a clear concept - a Russian folk song that Benny even sings in Russian in many parts. And considering that Benny is Chabad, which originated in Russia, the Russian somehow feels right and relevant. The lyrics are very good, and the Russian words also sounds great and fit in. I liked very much the effect at 2:23, and the choir throughout the song is just perfect - not too intrusive but always there to add something extra. The slowdown at 3:05 reinforced the folk feel, specially because the choir just kept repeating only the Russian part of the song to gain momentum. This is the best song in heard in JM in many years, I give a rare sixth star. ******

Yehudi- in Hebrew, a cute song with a strong and catchy high part but the lyrics are not bringing anything new and fall back in the overused theme of Achdut, which are sung in every JM album today with pretty much the same concept - we are all together, we need each other. Doesn’t stand out but the song has its moments. ***

Ten li - another Hebrew slow song, softer than the one before. I thought lyrics were again not up to the standard set by the fast songs up to here, and the choir was weak and even the interlude at 2:25 - singing the traditional Mitzva Gedola Lihiot Besimcha - didn’t match well. **

Ehov- Hebrew song, that talks about how we are all brothers and sisters, and how we need to love each other - falling back again in the Achdut motif, without bringing any meaningful dimension or personality to this song - it feels impersonal. Guest singer sings Moshiach Now repeatedly, adding to the feel of lack of originality.

Am Betzion - Hebrew song about Jerusalem, a very nice song but the lyrics are too simplistic for me. Like other songs, the interludes are all good efforts the one here at 2:30 does make the song more interesting but overall the song falls short and I thought Benny didn’t carry the song as well as in the earlier songs of the album.***

Hareini- a song about preparing oneself for the Miztva (I recently wrote about this in my sister Safrut blog) of Ahavat Israel, and reminiscent of the often-sung Chabad song of Hareini mekabel sung at fabrengens. Perhaps this was done deliberately, but coupled with the average lyrics, this song struggles to fly. ***

Yom echad - I thought Benny carries this song really well, a theme of redemption in Jerusalem and peace. His falsetto is great, and the greatest thing here is the choir - just wow. Not your average JM choir, this is a world-class choir - very impressive and I wish I would see more of this in Jewish Music. In chazzanut I see it often but to see it in a pop JM album is refreshing and it brought the song to another level. ****

Hakol Milemala - builds on the Israeli expression of Hakol Milemala, the strings are very nice and although the song is good, it feels also impersonal, something I felt in some other songs of this album. The next level for JM lyrics, which have improved greatly over the last five years, is to make the songs more personal - personal emotions, situations and experiences. This song stays average ***

Maasim Tovim - what a fantastic surprise towards the end of the album, the best slow song is here. A wedding song, with solid Hebrew lyrics and a song that requires Benny to give it all - and he does just that. High notes are everywhere, falsettos and all else. The arrangement is perfect, with a full orchestra and an amazing choir, giving the song a Disney or if you will a pop-Opera feel. Songs keep growing and Benny is up for the task, and keeps the song interesting throughout. *****

Bishvili- last fast song of the album, it reminds me of Benny’s early songs from his debut album - simple words repetitions and catchy tune. It has worked for him many times, and works here once again. Simple, and sometimes less is more. ****

Conclusion: I think this is Benny’s best album since his debut album. The production value is sky high, with notable effort to get the very best in terms of arrangements, choirs and compositions. Also, the songs lenghts are ideal - not overly long. Benny’s vocals have improved too and he is very comfortable singing a variety of styles featured in this album - an attest to his great talent and a singer and musician. I personally felt the lack of some dissonant moments, or some more sophisticated harmonies but that’s already nitpicking - Benny’s is probably the best pop JM singer out there today and he is breaking new ground. A work well done.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Chazan Benjamin Muller - High Holidays

I got some awesome new High Holydays videos of Benjamin Muller, one of the very best voices I´ve heard in my life. Check it out:

Shma Koleinu - great interpretation and high notes

Kol Nidrei - for nusach lovers

Friday, August 28, 2015

Lipa, the new Shlomo Carlebach

In the aftermath of Lipa's truly remarkable latest album a new picture of Lipa is clearly emerging. Lipa has evolved to be not only a singer but a transformative figure in the JM scene; not only a guy trying to fit in, but an artist conveying a new, fresh message. And this message, of the new Lipa, is present in pretty much all the songs of his album - non-conformism, innovation and positivism. He is often labeled the "Jewish Lady Gaga", but I prefer to compare him to a much more interesting and important person - to Reb Shlomo Carlebach.

Shlomo Carlebach was another transformative figure in Jewish Music. He was more than just music; Carlebach was about connecting to every Jew, irrespective of affiliation, through his simple and catchy niggunim and stories. His impact was truly remarkable and unparalleled, unlike any other Jewish Music artist. 

As popular as they are/were, MBD, Avraham Fried, Shwekey and the like didn't really aim to transform anything. They were great singers, who inspired many with their songs and fitted in what was politically correct in Jewish Music. Lipa is aiming higher, much higher - he wants to transform his community with his music, with a message of openness, education and non-conformism. In his popular Sheni Vechamishi videos, he tackles many hot topics and doesn't shy away from controversy. See two recent examples:

Let's face it - many of the Hareidi/Chassidic communities around the world are increasingly becoming less tolerant and more Ghetto-minded than ever before. As time passes by, these communities are frantically doing what they can to shield themselves from the perceived ills of modern technology and music, and they keep sanctioning more restrictions and chumres. Of course, there's a lot of positive aspects in these communities too but that doesn't mean all is perfect. In fact, it's far from perfect and some of the issues Lipa is raising, like the lack of secular education for example, are really pressing and should be looked into.

Lipa's new album is clearly offering an alternative path. Positivism, non-conformism and innovation, all while staying true to Torah and Halachos. Like Shlomo Carlebach, Lipa is walking his own path and even started his own Shul (Airmont), following Shlomo's footsteps in this aspect. And that does entail some degree of risks - bans, threats and some other unpleasant things that could follow. But like Carlebach, Lipa is now having a real impact, and thus far, a positive in impact in Jewish Music as a whole. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review of Lipa's Be Positive

This is it! The album I have been waiting to hear for years  is here, above and beyond everything else that has been out there - Lipa's Be Positive. 

This album has been advertised as the first trance-style JM album but that's an overstatement. Yishai Lapidot, who was one of JM's most talented and popular composers some 10 years ago, explored this genre with Oif Simches, a group that was quite successful precisely because of their use of trance music. Lipa at times reminds me of him, in his improvisations and also in the use of Yiddish slangs here and there. 

But Be Positive's production quality sets a higher standard for JM albums - the arrangements are bold and rythmic, there are some interesting rap and Chazzonus add-ons that enhance the songs and there is a general laid back, artistic athmosphere in the making of this album. 

My main frustration with Jewish music was the lack of innovative lyrics and conformism. Lipa fixes these two problems heads on - the lyrics are fresh and he has evolved to be the main non-conformist artist in JM. And non-conformism is the most powerful asset in music, so the results are far better than Lipa's previous works. Let's get to the songs:

Ma Nishana has a child intro and you all know how I dislike screaming children, but I understand this fits in the the subject of the song - the kids recital of Ma Nishtana in Passover. I still think the intro gives the wrong feel to the song, and the second child piece at 2:55 is better and suffices for the concept. Matt does an amazing job with the harmonies, specially in 2:10 which is star quality and with great chorus towards the very end of the song. It's a good opening act and its well done. ****

Bueh attracted significant controversy after Kol Chai radio from Israel decided to censor it from Tucker's radio show, against his will. Allegedly, the editors felt the song is not appropriate for the honor of three Torah sages mentioned in the song. Like other bans, now everyone wants to hear what's so bad about this song about Gedoilin. Bueh is a song-story, illuminating Lipa's journey to three sages asking for a blessing. Song-stories are rather rare in JM, but as the lyrics in the industry improve, I hope we get many more of songs like this. Shuli Rand, the actor-singer of the blockbuster Ushpizin film, is the master of this genre and Lipa does a great job walking us through the story. "Bueh" was Rabbi Kanieskis' coded blessing to him and the whole songs revolves around this strange word. Then Lipa switches to English, speaking about the Rebbe of Tosh, a very holy, elder Rabbi who has great difficulty speaking these days. So Lipa says he got a "Safek brocho", i.e. "Possibly a blessing" since it's difficult to hear what the Rebbe says. Then he goes to Yiddish. Great song - I don't get the ban. It's just an artist conveying his encounter with the sages - no harm done. Ok it's a modern arrangement, but the message is the same. *****

If you follow this blog you know about my love for Chazzanut, and adding it as Nakdishoch's intro worked flawlessly, and surprisingly since it was not an obvious choice. It really added a layer of authenticity to this song about one of the daily prayers' most important pieces, which can only be sung by with the Chazzan. The high part, Kudoish, is simplistic but the good percussion makes it fly. At 4:00 there's a very interesting bridge with the Chazzan singing the high part and Lipa doing a Yiddish "mantra", increasingly stronger, a là Lapidot in his Oif Simchas debut song but much better. Five star song *****

Vi Lang is the first slow song, Pop style, about the how long Exile has been. The mood and tempo really fit in the theme, a little sad and blue but nevertheless great to hear. Points for being eclectic and not sticking only to the trance style. Matt's vocals are even better in this setting than in Rap, in my opinion. *****

Hiskafia contrasts with the last song - I don't see a connection between the lyrics and the tune. It's a song about the paradox of standing up for your principles but also sometimes folding down. The song felt forced and without a clear direction - just random. Matt didn't really stand out this time. **

Eigel is another song centered in one word, eigel, the golden calf. At first it sounds strange - a song about the golden calf - but eventually Lipa's message comes across. Sometimes you have to stand alone for what's right, as Levi's tribe did then. Even the wisest sages went along with the Golden Calf then, illustrating how sometimes (or most times) the majority is wrong. In fact this song is how Lipa sees himself - as the Levi of the Chassidic community where he grew up. The song itself is not the best but it's more about the message. ****

Positive's intro is again the child, and this time it was surely unnecessary and too much of the shtick. It would be better to skip this part and also the later child solo altogether. This song is clearly inspired by Lady Gaga's Poker Face; perhaps Lipa is poking fun at those who call him the Jewish Lady Gaga? In any case, it's a really innovative and different song, whose strength is the interplay between "negativity" and "nega tzaraas". It's a very creative lyric play, since negativity is the core of Lashon Hara, which is punished by Nega Tzaraas. *****

Hunger talks about starving children, metaphorically. It's about not feeding the children with appropriate education and information, a prevalent problem in Lipa's community. A very intimate and honest plea, and the music reflects his message. Lipa's vocals were great and I loved the low computerized notes. ****

Hakol Tiruzim's style is very interesting, and I specially liked Lipa's opening solo - with an added middle eastern flavor, and after that every repeat with a different feel. Lipa manages to keep changing this song, and it remains interesting even tough it's not hard rock nor a proper slow song. It's a song that requires a subtle dreamy touch and Lipa delivered big time. Tough song ****

The Beat of my Heart is another honest and upfront song about being Jewish, and the lyrics perhaps trying to be Matisyahu-ish. I applaud the effort and the quality of this song, but it's less interesting the other songs. But the ending was superb - Lipa is using more and more his low notes and it works well. ***

Ben Faiga was the song chosen for the album's video clip and is the most catchy song of the album. This song was sung by Lipa by the wedding of the composer,
Meir, and Lipa got so connected to the song that he took it under his wing. The result is a simple, catchy Breslov-themed song that is easy to sing and dance with. It's a real wedding hit, full of energy and the message is really what Lipa is all about - happiness. And the ending was again superb - just Lipa screaming "Nachman" until he is out of breath, Lipa a typical Breslov chassid. Amazing *****

95% of all JM albums would be over and finished at the count of 12, but Lipa still has a few songs under his sleeve and Pshevorske is next. I dont think it brings anything new to the table, and it less innovative than the other songs. **

Haikar Hakavana is, in the other hand, an original song. It illustrates how a singer like Lipa is asked time and time to "sing something yeshivish because the Rosh Yeshiva is here" and how people keep giving bad comments until he complies, finally singing a tasteful niggun. But the niggun eventually becomes a dance song, prompting people to ask him to turn back to Chassidic style. It's a song about the fine line between what genre is accepted and what is not; what the Rabbi's would approve and what they would find insulting; and about how people try everything not to create a problem by singing the wrong song at the wrong occasion. The song is not ground breaking but the message and the delivery is superb. ****

Next two songs are Hebrew versions of earlier songs that were sung mainly in Lipa's preferred Yiddish language. It shows how Lipa is really trying to break out from the Yiddish-speaking public and veer more towards all listeners of Jewish Music. And indeed, he has fans across the spectrum today. 

This is probably my longest review but it's long for a reason; this is an album full of topics to talk about. There's the music, the lyrics, the trance, the chazzanus, the stories and of course, the controversies. What stands out is that every song has a concept, and a beggining/middle/end, bridges and also a little shtick here and there to keep things interesting. 

Lipa has clearly evolved to become a real artist, who is not trying to fit in; he is trying to make soemthing worth listening to. His transformation took quite some time, but it seems to me that he is at his best in this album. Which makes me wonder if he will be stable and strong enough not to end like Matisyahu - another great talent that from day to night changed direction and lifestyle. Lipa changed a lot, for the better, and I surely hope he keeps in his good direction. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Lipa's Ben Feige

Lipa's new video is out, and along with it all the usual excitement and also some controversy. Lipa is hardly the first Jewish singer exploring Trance music - even MBD used electronic music in many of his later songs but Lipa is openly championing the use of different sounds in JM. And he is right.

Ben Feige is a very catchy song but I didn't think the arrangement was so groundbreaking. In fact, I find it falls short and fails to bring the best out of this song. But it's surely a great song and probably an easy hit song.

If I can give constructive criticism for Lipa, I think it's time he takes dancing lessons. He loves to make music videos and he loves to dance, but if he really wants to bring these videos to an unexplored territory, he needs to take dancing seriously, because he is quite weak at it. And there's nothing unJewish about dancing. I'm sure choreographers can create an appropriate setup for a Jewish song and make these videos a real hit.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My Review of Yaakov Shwekey's Kolot

Here’s my late review of Shwekey’s Kolot album. I’ve covered Shwekey for a long time, and I thought it would make sense to follow up with his album. 

Am Israel is a hit song that Shwekey bet on for this album, and it worked. Very energetic song, faux-Israeli style song that keeps going strong until the end. The arrangement, chorus and all else fit it and allow Shwekey to carry this song very well. *****

Kolot is another clear risk taking song, a departure from Shwekey’s past tendency of sticking with Yeshivish songs. This song is actually a real Israeli-style song and adding Shlomi Shabbat, a legend from non Hassidic Israeli music industry, brings this song to whole different level. Somehow, the interplay between Shwekey and Shabat works - who would think so? The lyrics are very original and what strikes me is how comfortable Shwekey is in this unusual song, showing he can be eclectic too. The opening is gorgeous, with nice choir lines and string, and it’s way above what we are used to in JM. Shwekey’s interpretation and also his Hebrew accent are superb, and the only critique I have is that the song doesn’t get very much momentum; it’s more horizontal mellow, but that is personal. Some people like it. ****

Smeichim is a song I heard individually right after the album came out, and it instantly it became of my all time favourites in JM - that happens rarely today. I would have started the song with a choir, instead of Shwekey, but other than that the arrangement is superb, not too intrusive and with great percussion and strings. I love Shwekey’s diction and Sephardi-accented shticks — a real highlight in this particular song - and I don’t think anyone else would have done as well as Shwekey here. At 2:00 he does a duet with himself, and although Shwekey always does this trick, in this song it sounds specially good. I’m very impressed. The song does get long at 5:00, and the song should have stayed under 4:00 for sure. That’s my only critique. *****

Tefillat Kallah fell short and Shwekey’s interpretation was not as good as the other song we heard in this album. I think this song requires a much sweeter voice, and he was too strident, in my opinion. It’s a subtle song, that requires subtle interpretation, however Shwekey sang it like he sings his hit Meheira, and he misses it.

Ach Sameach’s lyrics are all over the place, a mix of different passages of Chazal and I believe some Rabbi Nachman Breslau (Spotify doesn’t give any credits, so excuse me about possible imprecisions). This a Jewish Music song, forced into Israeli style arrangement and it is much less original than the first three. It feels “tired”. **

Zeh Hakatan is a song about life, an unusual theme in Jewish Music and it’s nice to see that coming up. The tune is great and difficult, requiring a really good singer and unlike in Tefillat Kalla, Shwekey finds the right mood for this song. The song has a lot momentum and it allows the singer to really focus in the words - there’s a connection between the lyrics and tune. *****

Although I appreciate Shwekey’s risk taking - this song, Osim Teshuva, is really out of the box for JM standards - Shwekey seems a little out of place in this song. It’s a real Moshav Band style of song, a little hippie, and I don’t see the fit here for Shwekey . As it is done, the song doesn’t fly, but I must make a special mention to the great guitar solos and the great moment at 3:20, when the arrangement gets more accoustic and laid back. **

Kamu Baneha, by Shwekey’s longtime composer Waldner, is an exceptional song. I love the shtick in the word Vayehalela-lalala, and the composition requires falsettos and a lot of interpretation. Shwekey does a good job in the first part but I think he again hits to hard in the main part of the song; I think he had to be much more subtle, less punchy. ****

Et Rekod is hit song from beginning to start. The arrangement is top-class, also the vocal arrangement lines are perfect, I would not change a thing. The song itself is very interesting, and I would’ve featured it in the beginning of the album instead of Ach Sameach. It’s a great song to dance, with great lyrics and energy. It’s a song type that is also much more fitting for Shwekey, oppoesed to Osim Teshuva. Five star song and a good surprise at this point of the album. *****

Asara Bnei Adam is a typical Razel song, with original lyrics and interesting tune. I would’ve featured Razel from the beginning and only later have Shwekey join in, because Razel adds a lot of authenticity and extra taste to a song like this one. The partnership Shwekey-Razel is one of the most exciting and unusual ones in Jewish Music, since Razel brings to mainstream the Israeli Jewish Music style, something we needed desperately in the US based JM industry. He adds musicality, lyrics and authenticity that was so lacking. I personally don’t connect very much with this song but it’s a valid musical shot. ***

You guys know I’ve been extremely critical of Shwekey in the past for not trying something different and for not pushing the boundaries. In fact, one of my most popular blog posts is the one blasting Shwekey’s album Ad Bli Dai for this reason. I really felt Shwekey had stopped in time, and that he wasn’t doing anything creative. Kolot is a really great surprise and a much more interesting direction for him - the creative and production value of this album is unparalleled in JM today. Shwekey is now brining new sounds and new lyrics, and I give credit where credit is due. This is probably my favorite album in 2014, alongside Eli Shwebel’s Hearts Mind.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Eli Marcus Dovid Hamelech Review

Eli Marcus debut album has been well advertised everywhere and I’m glad to have had a chance to listen to it in Spotify. It’s interesting how virtually all new JM albums get to Spotify rather quickly; that’s amazing.

Sheyibone it’s difficult to define. Not very energetic, too many trumpets and throws us back some 20 years. We also have Yossi Green’s classic chorus, so I wonder if this is intentionally a retro song. I don’t get it. **

I love how direct Refoeinu starts - right into the song, and this is a special song. Groovy and modern, Benny Friedman-style, it’s a simple and successful song because it showcases Eli Marcus’ vocals and also his music style. ****

Dovid Hamelech should have been the opening song of the album. It’s full of energy, and has perfect chorus and arrangements (I specially like how the tempo changes) . I guess Eli wanted Yossi Green’s chorus featured in the first songs, but sometimes you have to do what you gotta do. This is a winner, Sheyibone is not. *****

Like Refoeinu, Kol Torah has no intro and all you have are the beautiful lyrics, speaking about the Giving of the Torah. Eli’s vocals are impeccable, and also his interpretation (I love how he pronounces “shotek”, well according to the meaning of the word). Than the song goes fast, losing a lot of power and becoming rather forgetful. 1st part is a five star song. The 2nd is average if not below average. So I give 4 stars. Special mention for the beautiful finish. ****.

Mazal Tov has interesting lyrics, and a potential to be the next wedding hit song. To me that doesn’t really mean the song is great; in fact it’s not. But it’s easy to dance on it, so I think this song will prove to be quite popular. ***

Chavivi is rather forgetable, far from being a disaster but not really a song I can relate to. Too much repetition in the lyrics and not a real connecting between them and the song. **

Av Harachamin starts with tasteful piano + accoustic guitar arrangement, and it sets the table for an interesting song. The 1st part of the song is great but the 2nd is pretty much the same thing, just with a little higher notes, so the song gets stuck, not developing into something more interesting. With better lyrics in the second part, this could have been a real winner. It isn’t. ***

Osios is a groovy song - I love the guitars in the 2nd part. It’s a simple song but it’s really well done, again reminding me of Benny Friedman. All in all, this is perhaps the most simple but best fast song so far. *****

Look inside is again a song with a perfect arrangement - I’m blown away by the production value of this entire album. It has the JM feel but it pushes the envelope further - I note the whistling in this song, which is truly amazing and unusual. This is clearly the comfort zone of Eli and I like the style. ****

Keili Machzik is for me the traditional filler song, I always hope not to encounter them. Ok the lyrics are original, but the song itself is more of the same, and I want less of the same.

Yishtabach starts with a vinyl sound, quite original, but it quickly turns to be a usual yeshivish slow song. It’s a rather nice Yeshivish song, just not my style. You can tell this is Yossi Green just by how the words fit the song, but as much as I love Yossi Green, this is not his finest.

Eli seems to be fitting into the Chabad, modern niche, like his cousin Benny Friedman. I see a lot of similarities, and that’s a great compliment because Benny is one of my favorite singers today, but the songs in this album are weaker than Benny’s. I do like the fact that none of the songs are too long - common mistake in JM and it shows Eli and his team has common sense that is lacking in most singers today. But Eli has definetly potential and I hope he can get even better songs in the future. If I have to choose between Eli Marcus and Bari Weber, which I reviewed just now as well, I choose Marcus for sure.

Bari Weber's Ben Melech Review

Yachad has a fabulous arrangement, that’s caries this song further. It masks the fact that the song is actually weak - just another Hebrew kumbaya JM song about Achdut, which is the latest must have song in every album. And like Shiru Lamelech-style, which was also being recycled in every album in the early 2000’s, this will pass too. ***

Vashen has Lipa’s blueprint all over, both in the vocal style and in the song theme. I’m guessing Lipa gave one his weaker songs to Weber - not really a home run, and to put it as a second song it makes me feel like Weber is too busy trying to emulate others rather than breaking his own new ground. **

Veshomri - passable and I don’t see a connection between the song and the words at all. In other words, a sound I’ve heard so often, with words that don’t add anything to the song. Towards the end (3:20) it does get more connected to Shabbos, but it’s just a bridge and it’s too little to late. **

Lemikdosheich is clearly intended to be a Zemiros style song, and although Weber’s vocals are great, this song doesn’t stand out in any way. I’m negatively surprised about this one, I wouldn’t imagine he would go for such a weak song. The previous songs had flaws too, but this one is a nadir. *

Shehakol is a great song! Weber, the composer, takes a risk, because the lyrics are so simple and everyday-ish - Shehakol Neye Bedvoroi, but the risk pays off. The song’s opening is amazing - a folksy accordion intro - and shortly the actual song. It’s simple, out of the box and fun. What else can I ask for? However this song should’t cross the 3:50/4:00 mark and it does, becoming too long. If not for that, it would be a perfect song. ****

Tuisse - a very powerful, Selichot-style, song. It didn’t click with me, probably because it’s too mellow but I loved the improv t 2:50, when Bari tells us a story right in the middle of the song, and also the falsetto at 4:30. Without a doubt, Bari has one of the best vocals out there today ****

As the album gets towards this points, it’s clearly gaining momentum as Bari shifts more towards his style - Both Tuisse and V’atu are composed by Bari. V’atu is a simple yet modern song, reminding me of Yoely Greenfield because of the Heimish feel. At 1:55 Bari’s vocals shine again, with interesting dissonant notes that are rare in JM. But the song gets too long, it should’ve been under 3mins. ****

Next is a kumzits song, Nigun Lev. Traditionally these kind of songs are forgettable and this is no exception (Benny Friedman’s niggun in his 1st album IS one of the exceptions). This nigun is tasteful though, just not original enough. And 5:29 minutes length is just insanely long for this song, it’s unjustifiable. **

Heiliger’s arrangement, like most in this album, is great and contemporary. In fact, what stands out in this album, more than the songs, are the arrangements. So I need to give credit where credit is due. But like many of the previous songs, the song is weak however this is Bari’s comfort zone and that’s what he likes to sing. ***

Ben Melech is the album’s title song, and it’s a trademark Bari song - heartfelt, heimish and lots of niggunim. Not really singable for most of us, but I thought it was ok as a niggun - better than Niggun Lev. There also words but they are just fillers for the niggun. This will never be a hit song, but it’s a nice experiment. But no experiment can be 7 minutes long - again too long. ****

V’afili - brings nothing new to the album - in the same level of the other heimish songs. ***

This is not really my style of album. I love Yoely Greenfeld and I was hoping this would be as good, but although Bari’s vocals are excellent and the production value here is way above average, overall I think the songs of this album are average at best. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I wish I was there? Helgot + Motzen was certainly a chazzanus extravaganza

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lipa's Purim Video from Last Year

In case you missed it last year.

I was not an early fan of Lipa, but it's impossible to deny how developed to be a true ground breaker and showman. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Eli Shwebel's Hearts Mind

I've stopped reviewing mainstream JM albums but I open an exception for Eli's latest solo album. I've bought every piece of music from Lev Tahor and their collaborations - I'm an early fan from the days of Camp Ma Na Vu, where Eli and Gadi Fuchs were always standing out.

Lev Tahor was perhaps the freshest music coming from mainstream Jewish Music and although they had noticeable success, they were certainly in the way down in the past 5 years. 

I guess that's what pushed Eli to go solo, aside from the clear new direction this album takes. Be it as it may, Hearts Mind is not a mainstream Jm album; it's alternative Jewish Music. And more than anything, it's a risk taking album, with many experiments. 

The lyrics resemble Journeys but the music is modern and fresh, and not folkish. It's the new age Journeys, and I really appreciate the innovative lyrics which interchange sayings from Chazal and Eli's own. Matisyahu has done this better than anyone in his early days and I think this is a growing niche, which focuses not only in repetitive lyrics and unoriginal tunes. 

I will not get into each and every song but I will delve into the album's best song - Ani Yosef. This song is perhaps the best Jewish song of the past year or two. Not a wedding hit, not a kumzits hit but a big hit that somewhat resembles Lev Tahor's Shabbos song (משה מתנה טובה), but more original. 

We all know the story of Yosef but few times we look at it from a psychological point of view - what he must has felt and what was in his mind. Ani Yosef does just that, in a way only music can, describing how lost Yosef was and how he managed to thrive. This is something we rarely see in JM, and this alone was worth paying 10 bucks for. 

Everything in this song is done perfectly, I wouldn't change anything. Vocals, dreamy arrangement and the three part tune plus bridge. And at 4 minutes it's not too long - it tells the story and it stops. This shows how powerful music can be and also it pioneers a rarely explored theme. I hope others follow. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Amar Amar - new version

Meir Goldberg just released this new version of Moishe Oysher's classic Amar Rabbi Elazar, with a modern twist. It was a cool idea, I give him credit for that, but inevitably he will be compared to Oysher and he will obviosuly dissapoint in terms of vocals. Oysher is one of best cantors of all time and even in the original's classical setting, he brings more energy and excitement than Goldberg in a fresh and modern arrangement.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Micha Gammerman - Excellent new video

My good friend Micha just released a new video, featuring a song he adapted from Andrea Bocelli.
For those who don't know, he released his debut album last year, Kesher Shel K'yomo, and with this video he goes a step further in solidifying his musical career. This is a very demanding, unusual and powerful song and Micha carries it superbly. Also the actual video is nice and authentic - it's a footage from a wedding he made in Safra's iconic synagogue in Sao Paulo. All is real, not staged, and this enhances the song in a way we rarely see in Jewish Music videos.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Is Chazzanut boring? Enter Moshe Oysher

Often times I hear this question. You might get the impression from my last post that all Chazzanut songs are slow and serious, and this is a popular misconception. There are many really exciting and fast Chazzanus pieces, and chief among them are the songs of Moishe Oysher.

Aside from singing, a chazzan also needs to have some showmanship, as he needs to inspire and unite the congregation at the same time. A chazzan that is distant is not a good chazzan. A good chazzan will engage and touch the hearts of the congregation, and that's probably one of the things that are most difficult to teach to an aspiring chazzan. 

Moishe Oysher was showmanship at its extreme. His extravagant personality and desire to become a movie actor were bothersome to some of his congregants but this was just an extension of his musical style and taste. He knew how to be dramatic, how to be serious but also how to be exciting and energetic. He is widely regarded as the most entertaining chazzan to ever live. 

His fast songs, Ki Lo Noe, Chad Gadio and Omar are classics and prime examples of how chazzanut is not boring. The difficulty level of these songs is very high, and only a very confident and technical chazzan can perform them with the same intensity of moshe oysher. Below his famous Chad Gadio and also a great compilation sung by Alberto Mizrahi, who is today the best at singing Oysher's songs.

This one starts slow but it's a fast song:

Oysher was also a master of drama and his Hineni, sung in Yom Kippur is moving and another classic. In this movie (this is not real life stuff, its only part of one of his acting roles in a movie) you can see and hear it. It is striking how he looks so young and has such a big voice, and also how easy he could sing even the most extended notes.

He was able to sing playfully, sometimes even carelessly (i.e. In his sheibone, which is sang in short in almost every Chabad shul) and he was able to give each of his songs a character and feel of its own. For him, being a chazzan was very much alike being an actor - interpreting every moment in the right way and impersonating his songs. He aspired to be as popular as Yossele Rosenblatt, who was known in non-Jewish music circles as well, however Moishe Oysher never took off in the music and video industry at the time. However his Chazzanut style was truly unique and a much more upbeat than what the world had seen until then, and until today his songs are studied and performed in many Chazzanut concerts.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Classics in Chazzanut - 4 Songs Everyone Must Know

The is a lot of history and tradition in the Chazzanut field, and for new comers it's crucial to look back at the classics to at least have an idea of the most important songs of the past century. Thanks to Youtube, today you can see hundreds of original recordings and videos of the great Chazzonim of the past.

1) Moshe Koussovitzky - this is a rare live recording of perhaps the biggest name in Chazzanus, singing one of his most famous songs, Velirushalaim. This is a very old, amateur video but in it you can see Moshe's flawless technique, great intensity and word pronunciation. It's interesting that this is a pure "concert song", since there are virtually no opportunities to sing this song in Shabbat or Yom Tov services (perhaps the only time a Chazzan can sing it is in Hoshana Raba).

2) Yossele Rosenblatt - Yossele was extremely popular not only within Jewish circles but also in the general world music industry. This is not a live video, but it's a song everyone knows and has heard numerous times. Many people don't even know that this Shir Hamaalot is a Chazzanus song, and this song was so popular at his time that it was proposed to be the Anthem of the newborn State of Israel.

3) Leibele Glantz - not at all as popular as the previous two, Leibele was renowed for his creativity and erudition in Chazzanut. His Shema Israel is a classic and a song very often heard in Synagogues around the world. Leibele had a distinct nasal voice, which many disliked but as he famously said "I don't sing for the crowds, I sing for myself".

4) Zavel Kwartin - his Tiheir Rabbi Yishmael is regarded as one of the most powerful songs of Chazzanut. He lived a long time ago, between 1874 - 1952 but this song lives on and is sung in my shul every Yom Kippur.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


So what is Chazzanut?

Perhaps it's better to start with the "what is not Chazzanus" question. This new video is a good example of pseudo-chazzanut, although it's actually sung by a Chazzan. Take a look:

Well, this is not Chazzanus. Helfgott's famous song Kanei is also not Chazzanus. Both these songs are an attempt to sing conventional Jewish Music in a Chazzanus way. Not by coincidence, they are both composed by Yossi Green, who loves to explore new styles and compose Pop Jewish Music with a hint of something else. Think Ki Hatov by Shwekey, a Sephardic song that is not Sephardic.

Chazzanus per se is ruled by Nusach, a set of moods, styles and singing techniques that are omnipresent in all great Chazonim and classical cantorial hits. The Nusach, combined with pieces found in Siddur prayers, is what sets Chazzanus aside from other musical styles, and is what gives this niche a life of its own. Nusach is the canvas that allows different Chazzonim to create new songs and improvise according to what they feel.

However Nusach is something difficult to master, and few Chazzonim today have this knowledge. Many know singing techniques and how to read notes, but few have the capability of innovating and composing new songs within the realm of Nusach.

The more you listen to the Golden Age chazzonim, the more you will understand what Nusach is. Look at what Wikipedia says:

The whole musical style or tradition of a community is sometimes referred to as its nusach, but this term is most often used in connection with the chants used for recitative passages, in particular the Amidah.
Many of the passages in the prayer book, such as the Amidah and the Psalms, are chanted in a recitative rather than either read in normal speech or sung to a rhythmical tune. The recitatives follow a system of musical modes, somewhat like the maqamat of Arabic music. For example, Ashkenazicantorial practice distinguishes a number of steiger (scales) named after the prayers in which they are most frequently used, such as the Adonoi moloch steiger and the Ahavoh rabboh steigerMizrahi communities such as the Syrian Jews use the full maqam system.
The scales used may vary both with the particular prayer and with the season. For examples, there are often special modes for the High Holy Days, and in Syrian practice the scale used depends on the Torah reading for the week (see The Weekly Maqam). In some cases the actual melodies are fixed, while in others the reader has freedom of improvisation.
Shlomo Carlebach used to say that the melody we sing in Yamin Noraim while starting Maariv and Hamelech in the Shacharit come from the songs of the Leviim in the Beis Hamikdash. These specific melodies are "Nusach", the standard way of reciting these prayers, and perhaps that is a colorful way of explaining where Nusach came from.

Or in the words of Cantor Malovani:
Nusach is sanctified,” says Cantor Joseph Malovany, “just as the reading of the Torah is sanctified.”Malovany said it is extremely important for those who pray to become aware of nusach, the musical motifs that determine how one is to chant a given prayer.
A classic song that highlights Nusach is Zevulun Kwartin's famous Tiher Rabbi Yishmoel, from Yom Kippur service. See below

A lot of this song is just reciting the words of this powerful piyut, but Kwartin manages to capture the essence of the words and create a song, which is sung in many shuls on Yom Kippur. If you want a more contemporary rendition of this song with full orchestra, see Chazzan Benjamin Muller's version, alongside Maestro Sobol:

Sometimes a Nusach song can be upbeat too, if that is the mood of the words being sung. But I will leave this for another post.

Monday, January 20, 2014

New Direction - Chazzanut

Somewhere in 2011 I wrote that I was losing interest in the Jewish Music field, and that I wasn't sure if I would continue blogging. Since then, a lot has happened - I started a Safrus blog, I moved to Belgium, I moved two times between flats until finally settling in my new house and most importantly, I was blessed with the arrival of a set of twins to my family.

Interestingly, if I look back I was not losing interest in music but shifting to another niche - Chazzanut. It turns out that in the last couple years I bought few mainstream Jewish Music albums but many chazzanut CDs. So in the next posts I will be spending some time sharing info about Chazzanut and going through the basics of it, since I believe the rebirth of Chazzanut in the past decade has everything to do with the decline of mainstream Jewish Music.

Not that I mean to trash all mainstream JM - there's good stuff out there. But what I see happening for quite some time already is an attempt to make Jewish Music sound just like another goyish pop album - the instrumentization, the vocals and songwriting mostly go this way today. In general, there's too much focus in the rythm and catchiness, and too little real creative output. I will be more specific; JM is still stuck in the high part-low part structure, repetitive chords and simple harmonies. That's the exact opposite of Chazzanut, where there is loads of dissonant notes, unusual scales and 7 minutes songs that have a beggining, a middle and an end. In mainstream JM, or what I will start calling "pop JM", a 7 minute song is 99% of the time a song that is too strecthed and too repetititve. In Chazzanut, that's the actual average song length and most of the times it's long simply because the piece being sung is too long; in other words, Chazzanut is not stuck to 5 or 10 words; it usually has double that amount of lyrics or more.

In the next posts I will go through some of the classics. And maybe I will do some reviews too.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Micha Gamerman - Music Video

Video of my good friend Micha, a very talented singer who just released his debut album. Recorded in Rio de janeiro, this is a spinoff of the Gummy Bear song but it's an easy wedding song hit. Also nice to see Ohad in a music video, he rarely goes for it.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Yossele Rosenblatt

Guest post by Milken Music Archives

Music researchers often point to the great voice and expansive style of Yossele Rosenblatt when explaining cantorial music's influence on American Jewish ritual and worship since the early 20th century. Rosenblatt was recognized as one of the foremost tenors of the early 1900s, both in Europe and in America. Through his compositions, style and dedication to authentic liturgy he inspired audiences and, in doing so, helped to define Jewish liturgy in America. 

Even today, the Lowell Milken Archive, a leading force in American Jewish Music features Rosenblatt as one of the early dominant elements of American Judaism. Many of his most famous pieces, including Ram Venisa and Yevorech, are to this day extremely popular and often times heard in many synagogues around the world.

Yossele Rosenblatt had already built up a reputation as a superb Hazzan in the Ukraine, Germany, Hungary and other Eastern European Jewish centers when he immigrated to the United States in 1912. His arrival occurred during the period that millions of other Eastern European Jews were crossing the Atlantic to make new lives in America. Rosenblatt's "hazzanut" -- cantorial music -- was embraced by these Ashkanazi immigrants who were reminded of the traditional styles of worship of their homelands when they heard Rosenblatt singing.

Rosenblatt himself was strictly Orthodox and his music, as well as his personal behavior, reflected this commitment to traditional Judaism. He was a sought-after performer in many synagogues and Jewish venues though he held to the principle of never performing in a secular setting. Simple people, both Jews and non-Jews, sat together with the rich and famous for a chance to hear Rosenblatt's incredible voice which included brilliant cantillations and an ability to hit high notes at high speeds. He projected a structured, metered style which continues to influence cantors of all Jewish traditions till today. One of his best-known and most-loved techniques involved allowing his voice to break in the middle of an arrangement to convey the emotion of the piece.    

On more than one occasion Rosenblatt expressed his belief that his voice was a gift from God which Rosenblatt would use in His service.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Simcha Leiner's Video

Leiner has already a hit song - Kol Berama - and he now released a second song with the same concept. I rarely comment on individual songs, since I like to review a complete work like a CD, but both Kol Berama and this song showcase Leiner's style and good composition skills. Both songs stand out, while in the other hand the next thing to do is to get a top producer and work on a proper album. Mimamakim is not very well produced but it shows the potential of this song - add some good choir arrangements, a better instrumentation and holding back from excessive screaming he will soon be in the right track to fame. He has a great voice, great composing skills and an unusual range.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Benny Friedman’s Yesh Tikva Review

Benny Friedman’s Yesh Tikva is out and it’s easily one of the most anticipated albums of the year. Alongside Yossi Green’s 8th Note, his first album was in my opinion the best in the last 5 years, so he did raise the bar very high from the very start. The big question is if this album is as good as the first, and although I usually leave the answer to the end, the answer is no - the first was better, more groovy.

But the more important question is not whether this album is better, worse or as good as the first - the question is if the music is good. So here we go.

Yesh Tikva - Benny released not long ago the single Mi Shemaamin Lo Mefached and this song follows the same concept. It’s in Hebrew, folksy and I specially like the subtleness of the bridge in 2:22. It’s a cute song; the ending was poor. ****

Haboicher - I would rather choose this song as the album’s opener. Energetic, original and in line with Benny’s style. It’s always nice to see Spinner doing the vocals - I’m a big fan of him - and Benny nailed it with the modulation note in 2:07 and with the subsequent improvisational skills. *****

Beshem - A powerful, subtle composition, this song is what I label “alternative JM” style. I’m happy to see Benny going for it and also letting the composer sing, which adds to the song’s authenticity. Rigler’s arrangement is perfect  - actually, all is perfect until the modulation, when Benny goes for the higher octaves. I think that was the wrong decision - I would keep the mellow, low key feel of this song until the end. That’s a common problem in Jewish Music - the lack of restraint (think Eli Gerstner) and the urge to rock every song to its limit. Lipa’s Achron Choviv (Meimka DeLipa) is a rare example of a song done with the proper restraint, when Lipa did let the song shine without too much screaming. Benny overdid it here but the song is excellent. ****

Maale has a unique first part and a lot of room for improvisation; its not a blockbuster but a very pleasant and well-rounded song. I thought Benny’s vocals were fantastic here, specially in the composition’s first part. Kunstler’s acoustic guitar-centric arrangement really helped set the mood of this song. ****

Shalom Aleichem - interesting intro, with two traditional Friday-night tunes. I like this song a lot, the only throwback is the fact that MBD came out with a solid Shalom Aleichem not long ago so it’s a little difficult to give these lyrics another chance. But if you do, you will enjoy the song’s great vocals, energy and arrangement. ****

Mamleches is a very simple catchy slow song -  but I do feel like the composition reaches no real momentum; it seems to go in circles, if you know what I mean. I think that it would’ve been smart to a add a bridge niggun to create a more solid structure. As it is, the song is missing something. Musically speaking the song is well arranged, and the choir is sublime.. ****

Ivdu - a good mid tempo song, the first part is not really original however it blends well with the second part, which I’m almost 100% sure it was the part of the song composed by Benny (whoever knows the facts please speak up!), as it really sounds like his groove (the song was co-composed with Y. Eliav, who probably did the 1st part). I felt Benny could have done a better job in the vocals and I would specially point out that would be smart to switch to Mizrachi pronunciation somewhere in the middle of the song in order to change the No No play to Na Na. As it is, the No No shtick gets overused. ***

Dor Acharon is a song I don't get. I did understand what Benny was going for in the other songs, and although they are not really blockbusters it’s clear he was trying to recreate the unique sound he successfully created in his debut album. However this is a Hillel Palai-ish midtempo song like the ones that  were sung in each and every album for a few years after Yeedle’s hit song Ato Bonim- it was “in” then but now is not. So it’s like going back on time, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the composition is very weak - I see no connection between the words and tune, and the “dor acharon” repetition doesn’t makes sense to me. Add that to very simplistic vocal arrangement and harmonies, plus the long 5 minute count and you have the full picture: this is a pointless song and should’ve never been here. *

Vahaviosim is the album’s grooviest song, a beautiful piece by Waldner, who in my opinion is today JM’s best composer after YG. This type of song showcases Benny’s strengths and is to me on par with what we heard in his first album. Freitor’s arrangement is superb, one of the best I’ve heard lately, and the vocal arrangement concept is interesting but could have been a little more subtle, and this lack of subtleness is costly in the song’s end, which is terrible. Except for the ending, this is a 5 star song. Very well done! *****

Dawn of Mashiach is a risk taking song. Very demanding for Benny, he really does his very best to bring this song to life. Although it’s not my style, the song is good and well-rounded, with special mention to Spinner’s genius vocal arrangement in 3:46 and Benny’s Matisyahu-ish freestyling - great idea. But the song drags and is too long, 5:40. *****

Berachamim is a song that was released as a free single some year and a half ago. I’m a big fan of Ari Goldwag’s slow compositions, going back to Ethan Leifer’s album which featured two of Ari’s masterpieces and Ari’s own albums - I pretty much bought all of his musical works just for his slow songs. Berchamin is a blockbuster song, from beginning to end, and Ari was smart to do it together with Benny, who brought star power vocals and transformed this song into a classic. Ari’s vocals are not bad, but with Benny this song went to the sky. I can't give enough compliments to the song's overall production, arrangements and vocals. *****

Bottom Line: Although not a home run like his debut album, Benny’s second CD is very good and with great production value. Until very recently I always had Benny and Lipa as the two strongest innovators in JM, two singers who push the envelope and try to deliver new material and originallity. Lipa is clearly ahead, at the top of his game and not afraid of doing every single idea that comes to his mind (see my review of his latest album). But Benny is also up there too and this album was worth my money.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tablet Magazine's Article on Yossi Green

Hat tip to my good friend M.Jacobs.

One evening last month, under a ceiling visibly weighed down by a library of over 10,000 books, Yossi Green, one of the most prolific and talented composers in the world of traditional Jewish music, performed a kumzitz. Part VH1 Storytellers episode and part campfire singalong, the performance was for a 40-strong gang of jittery, somewhat inattentive 18- to 21-year-old yeshiva bochurim. Green, who speaks in the style of Don Corleone and dresses in designer shoes and glasses, played with genuine spirituality and, ever the entertainer, molded his reactions and songs to the audience’s desire for a more jaunty experience. They wanted to sing and shout, and Green obliged them.
Though you might not know it, even a cursory look at the contemporary Jewish music scene reveals Green’s comprehensive influence. He is the composer behind the stars of contemporary Orthodox music, with its ecology of popular songs, including those of Mordechai Ben David (“Anavim, Anavim [1],” “Rashi’s Niggun,” “Da’agah Minayin”), Avraham Fried (“Aderaba [2],” “Tanya,” “Yerushalayim Oro Shel Olam,” V’Zakeini”), Yaakov Shwekey (“Ata Shomer,” Yedid,” Ki Hatov”), Dudu Fisher (“Akeidat Yitzchak,” “Kaddish [3]”), and Lipa Schmeltzer [4] (“Wake up Leap of Faith, Kaveh”). Green also works closely with many of the rising talents of the current generation, including Shloime Daskal, Shimon Craimer, Shloime Gertner, Shloime Taussig, Shragee Gestetner, and Cantor Yitzchok Meir Helfgot. His eighth album was released this summer. Green’s acolytes treat him like a visionary genius, underappreciated in the wider Jewish community.
At a time when right-wing rabbis ban large concerts—given the prominence of singers, Green’s genius is both essential to his community and imperiled. In many religious communities, music plays a central role in spiritual life. But in the Hasidic communities, music plays a more pronounced and foundational role, given the mystical and spiritualized bent of Hasidic thought. A song gives shape and voice to the innermost feelings on the whole of life. It is one of the greatest paths toward divine intimacy. In the Hasidic world, composers serve as singular creators of conduits to the divine through their music, no more so than in the niggun, a wordless, ambling, often unstructured melody that travels across souls. A niggun, in all its emotional strength, offers an unparalleled meditative opportunity to connect not only to the divine, but to the rabbi and others in the room. At times, important Hasidic rabbis will personally request a melody from Green. “The challenge to the composer at such times,” Green told me, “is to attempt to understand and access the depth and the reason beyond the request, using this as the ultimate inspiration and direction for the new composition.”
Green is also known beyond the confines of the Jewish scene. His audiences have included dignitaries, royalty, and leaders, in performance venues such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Any attempt to place him on any larger musical map runs into numerous problems, which stem from the different roles that music is perceived to fill in a religious and a secular society. Stylistically, Green ranges freely across musical genres. He feels comfortable in styles as varied as jazz, classical, gypsy, and samba. What distinguishes Green’s vision of Jewish music from secular music is his sense of religious meaning. He finds little room for the cynicism or even the playfulness of today’s music. For Green, anything other than an outpouring of the most intimate details of his soul would stray from his vision of a higher purpose, which he finds anywhere and everywhere in the contemporary musical landscape. A proud Satmar, his ability to cherish the Beatles, or to refer to Pavarotti as “divine,” or to fawn over the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, speaks to the overwhelming power of art on his sensitive soul. Before Green, Jewish music either entailed a rambling niggun sung by Hasidic masters, or the more classic verse and chorus of Shlomo Carlebach’s folk-infused style. Moreover, previous composers tended to rely heavily on the well-known poetry of the Psalms, rarely straying for personal lyrics or arcane sources. In this sense, Green views his music writing as both an act of Jewish learning and prayer.
In fact, the only person who belongs in the same conversation as Green is the complex figure of Shlomo Carlebach [5], whom Green loved and learned from in the twilight of Carlebach’s life. Green can tell Carlebach stories for hours, but perhaps the one that fully captures their relationship is one Green told only at my behest: At some point in the 1990s, Green walked into a kumzitz at a hotel in the Catskills, Carlebach honored the young composer by prophesying that in the time of the Messiah Green’s music would be used as the soundtrack to usher in the redemption.
The Orthodox world bears a necessarily ambivalent relationship to art and artists; the imperative that all life serve as worship of God must limit the mind and vision of an artist like Green. His work can be imagined as a potential threat to the fabric of any sort of ordered society. Singers have the ability to stoke a range of complex emotions, but they are limited in writing songs, which tend to focus on religious inspiration. Performances stay away from the garish without any hints of sensuality. Lipa Schmeltzer, who is forward-looking for a Hasidic singer, courted intense controversy for his 2008 concert at the WaMu Theater in Madison Square Garden. His charity show, which was billed as “The Big Event,” garnered reproof from the right-wing newspaper HaModia, in an editorial signed by numerous rabbis, which included “a serious prohibition to attend or perform,” adding that it is “forbidden to hire these singers to sing at any party, celebration or charity event.” Schmeltzer canceled [6] the concert because of the pressure, and the Israeli charity, which finances weddings for orphans, lost $700,000.
Green is no stranger to this Orthodox love-hate relationship with music. He grew up in a strict Satmar family that barred instruments in their home and fostered a sense of fear and guilt over fire and brimstone consequences of any deviance or sin. Yet he also easily acknowledges the importance of his mother on his musical development. He described her to me as a beautiful, stately woman full of grace. “We were not wealthy at all,” he said. But somehow she “made sure that we were beautifully attired, tables were impeccably set, meals were creatively prepared and presented with flair, and our home was appointed with the nicest furnishings.” Significantly, Green recalls how his mother bought any and every record she could find. Consequently, Yossi listened to Beethoven’s Fifth and the soundtrack of Camelot, a play he knew before he could define the word musical. He felt that God implanted a homing beacon in his soul that spoke only in the language of melody.
At the age of 12, on his free Thursday nights in Borough Park, where he grew up, Green sat at a local YMHA with his long payos dancing down his head, watching neighborhood laypeople from the range of religious and nonreligious backgrounds learn Shostakovich’s famously challenging Fifth Symphony. He would steal snatches of time on a friend’s melodica, his first instrument, to play and teach himself music, creating his own idiosyncratic system of notation along the way. At the age of 17, as a yeshiva student in Manchester, United Kingdom, Green recalled hearing the first secular song to make an impact on him: Roberta Flack’s version of “Killing Me Softly,” out of the stereo of a red convertible. This moment, he said, launched Green on his composing career. His first composition, the enchanting Kol B’Ramah (“A voice is raised”) was built off Flack’s version of a soul tune.
To truly understand Green, though, you must listen to his music. Take his masterpiece, “Tanya [8],” for example. Written in July 1985 and popularized by Avraham Fried in 1988, this hit signifies a rare sort of experimental endeavor that represented a new direction in Jewish music. The lyrics were taken from an esoteric aggadah, a legend in Tractate Berachot that relates a somewhat unprecedented anthropomorphic—and borderline heretical—story. On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur [9], at the most sacred time of the day—when the high priest enters into the holy of holies—Rabbi Yishmael, who according to rabbinic tradition was later martyred [10] in a horrific manner by the Romans, tells us in that innermost sanctum he spoke to God through a mysterious angel named Akatriel, literally “the crown of God.” God, in a shockingly tender personified manner, requests a blessing from Rabbi Yishmael. Without hesitation at the absurd idea of a finite human blessing the Infinite, Rabbi Yishmael blesses God that his mercy may overcome his strict sense of judgment; God nods his head in assent.
This rare Talmudic gem confounded generations of commentators, leading them to sterilize the more controversial yet humane aspects of the tale. Mystics moved the anecdote into the hazy realm of divine emanations allowing true understanding only to the initiated, while rationalists sapped the story of any of its tenderness in churning out a simplistic lesson about the virtue of a righteous life. Green resuscitated the more human component of the legend through his melody of many parts, shifting rhythms, alternating styles, and abundant use of symphonic instruments. The song begins with a trembling minor tone mimicking the fear engendered by the proximity of God’s immanence, a holy fear brought upon by the immensity of his task. From there, once Rabbi Yishmael begins his blessing, the song turns into a jaunty tune in the major key meant to convey the joy of God’s intimacy with Man. Yet, ever attuned to the fluctuations of the religious experience, Green cuts back and forth between the mood of mercy and the mood of judgment, between trembling and rejoicing, to create an experience of the tortuous path of religious life.
A lover of lyrics, Green scours the endless world of biblical and rabbinical literature to find phrases and stories that require both experiential and intellectual engagement. After he finds his lyric, Green sits at his piano crafting a melody that fits the tenor of the words. Once he creates the basic skeleton of his song, he thinks of a specific singer to deliver his melody and together they work on arrangement and execution. Though he creates a song in mere minutes, it can take up to two years to perfect his compositions.
In a sense—though the ever-optimistic Green would disagree—he finds himself in the wrong era of Jewish life. In the pre-Holocaust generation, composers held a sacred place in the hierarchy of Jewish society. Composers represented a singular connection to the deepest spiritual realm of music, one venerated by the great Hasidic rabbis, and mythologized in legends. Today, Green must often curb his prowess as a thinker, historian of music, and storyteller to fit into the mold of his culture. When asked about his inability to fully display his boundless spirit, Green explains that he no longer feels slighted by the gap between his potential and its reception. Seeking intimacy more than fame he takes pride and consolation in the few that do understand him.
Nowadays, Green cares less about the flashiness of his performances at the Metropolitan or Paris opera houses and more about a chance for connection and personal expression, from hosting a roomful of billionaire oligarchs together with Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar [11] to child survivors of cancer and their families. On his latest album, released [12] in August, titled Shades of Green III: Hartzik, Green now sees himself as a chosen and blessed conduit to the beauty of the divine song that permeates the world.
When I visited with Green recently, he stayed up past 1 in the morning, showing no signs of flagging, alternating back and forth between the piano and a stool against the wall, talking about music and Judaism. “One need only remove ego out of the equation,” he said, sagely, right before we parted, “to tune in to the divine muse.”