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.

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 e...