The World in My Voice: Jewish Music Goes Multiethnic

Yitz Jordan, aka Y-Love, may be many things: skilled with the microphone, passionate and articulate; typical, however, isn't one of them. African-American and Puerto Rican in descent, but undeniably a member of the tribe with his full beard, tzitzit, and yarmulke, Y-Love redefines the notion of what a Jew looks like. With his latest album, This is Babylon, featuring innovative raps mixing English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic and even Aramaic into one flow, Y-Love also redefines what a Jewish musician sounds like. Spitting out kabbalistic gems and Talmudic wisdom, Y-Love never drops the beat. If boring verses and poor delivery were bacon and lobster respectively, then Y-Love is 100% glatt kosher, sticking with an unrushed, smart and utterly composed rhyme style.

Likewise, if tired reinterpretations of klezmer music were a bagel from Dunkin Donuts, then Sarah Aroeste would be fresh cheese bourekas served at your favorite kosher Greek restaurant (assuming you have one). Aroeste is of Spanish-Greek Jewish descent, and through her music she reinvigorates a Sephardic sound as well as lyrically conveys a life cycle from the Sephardic Experience. “Ladino lyrics make me blush,” Aroeste admits. “The female singers were traditionally singing for other women, and they came from hot places (in multiple senses) in the Diaspora. They did not shy away from embracing bodies and spirit and sensuality,” says Aroeste. Her newest album, Puertas, incorporates these provocative Ladino lyrics and features instruments like the oud and dumbek alongside the electric guitar, bass and drums.

Aroeste has been on the music scene for over seven years, but it is only recently that her voice and perspective have really gained public awareness, and for multiple reasons. Firstly, there are more Jewish Music record labels now than ever in the past. Secondly, there are more Sephardic bands and singers, as well as mainstream famous Jewish musicians like Matisyahu, shining a spotlight on the entire genre. Perhaps more importantly than all of this is the increased general disillusionment that young people feel towards established religious Judaism, US politics, American culture, and reality TV. Aroeste's music is honest and authentic, in a time where singing other people's music makes you famous. She could be viewed as the anti-American Idol, although ironically enough, she could be a contestant with her looks and singing voice.

Jordan and Aroeste are representative of a larger trend in Jewish music that includes such popular artists as Idan Raichel, Balkan Beat Box and Pharaoh's Daughter. These groups have expanded and redefined what Jewish music sounds like by recognizing and embracing the hybrid aspects of Jewish identities. The decidedly un-African Raichel laces Hebrew and Amharic lyrics with Ethiopian instrumentals and pop sensibilities; Balkan Beat Box is a mostly Israeli group of musicians who have a geographically indecipherable sound—just when the listener thinks they understand the music to be Gypsy, or East African, or maybe ska or even punk rock, the group switches to an entirely different beat for the next track in their set; Pharaoh's Daughter appreciates the varied flavors that world music has to offer (think Michael Franti or Manu Chao) but basks in the unending source of lyrical inspiration that Judaism provides—and all this delivered through the divine pipes of lead singer Basya Schechter. By incorporating their religious, ethnic and geopolitical realities into their work, artists are bringing fresh life to Jewish music, and fans are taking notice.

It's among this mix that we get Y-Love throwing down clever rhymes (“lyrical paragon, run this rhythmic marathon, faces similar to candlesticks in shapes like hexagons”), alluding to Hassidic thought and Jewish lessons to beats set for a club, and Aroeste, whose band rocks hard and makes her CD a good musical selection for a downtown lounge/bar or a sophista-funk dinner party.

In the seventh song on Aroeste's Puertas, called “Shabat,” Sarah Aroeste sings, “The food is ready and the table is set, the candles are burning, Shabbat has arrived.” The image of Shabbat dinner is familiar if not ingrained, but the musical aspect of the track is exotic, exciting and different. Likewise, track three on This is Babylon, “Bring it Down,” incorporates a very common technique in hip hop songs: dance instructions (e.g. “I put my hand upon your hip/when I dip you dip we dip”—”Da Dip” by Freak Nasty, a one-hit wonder from the late 90s, if you're having trouble placing those genius lyrics). Similarly, Y-Love leads us to dance to the last line of “L'Cha Dodi” when we greet the Shabbat Queen in the Kabbalat Shabbat service: “Bow down, left right/ talk to me about who rides/Bow down, left right/united stand on all sides/Bow down, left right… Remind me what the angel said, I forgot/all my people stay rabbinical, we up in the spot.”

The contrast of the predictable with the unexpected in both Jordan's and Aroeste's music exemplifies why new multicultural voices are gaining such wide acclaim in Jewish circles. Different voices in Jewish music provide an outlet to explore other cultures, but all within a Jewish context. This music provides a less foreign and more accessible way to venture into the cultural unknown, all the while strengthening and enriching the integrity of the tribe.

The trend towards multiethnic music is reflective of what is happening in the larger realm of Jewish youth culture—with great study abroad programs, multicultural majors in universities and ethnic cuisine on every corner, young Jews are exposed to much greater cultural diversity than previous generations. We like what we see, and I imagine as the world shrinks to even smaller proportions, we will incorporate more and more of it into our Jewish lives, our art, our literature and our music. In fact, I'm creating a playlist right now for my iPod called “Multiethnic Jewish Music of the Future Which Actually Represents the Present”—and klezmer (unless played by the punk-fusion band Golem)—isn't on it. 

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