So, now that times have changed (and they really have), I see that people have become more receptive to musical styles and influences I was criticized for years ago. What happened?
The real question may be “what didn’t happen.” Jewish music has frequently been caught standing still and, in many ways it still is. Either they can’t “up their game” or, in some case, may not be interested in change. I’ve watched many take the easy way out, pay arrangers, composers and producers to create the illusion of more talent than there is and hope for a hit. I’ve watched many great songs and productions crash and burn and I’ve watched great talent go to waste with second rate productions.
For good or bad, many productions have gone from elaborate large orchestras to hip programming and digital synthesis, sometimes a mix of both. My last album included both and, while I’m proud I applied the right choices for each individual song, whether 12-piece string section, 3 French Horns (“2-hoo turtle doves…”) and flutes with acoustic bass, piano, guitar and drums, or 100% computerized with voice sampling and R&B Marvin Gaye-inspired rhythms, the album felt like a journey with different textures and colors.
I’ll be forever glad I did it. I question whether the majority of the buying audience truly cares, but they may simply not have the ability. I do, though.
Lyrics! Where do I begin? Hebrew lyrics in a song for a religious audience? Unheard of! Today, original Hebrew lyrics have become as accepted as Yiddish. Hebrew is considered the holy language, so it was avoided in common lyric. Yiddish? Not so holy, so go ahead.
Original lyrics make it possible to form melody and words more freely in order to fit, pronounce comfortably, express more colorfully and make a higher quality song that’s more attractive, intuitive and enjoyable. Unheard of years ago.
Moshe Yess and Shalom Levine formed Megama, touring as bearded curiosities with amazing talent from a past life. Moshe’s folk, rock & country talent from his non-religious days as a studio guitarist allowed him to combine his ingenious Chet Atkins level playing with his bluegrass lyric cleverness. Shalom, a student of viola legend Pablo Casals, kept the music arrangement simple but on point, along with their comic ability… The act had such impact that Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, encouraged Megama to perform concerts even during the omer & 3 weeks periods.
He felt they were inspiring others around the world to journey as far as they had to Orthodoxy. They were also pretty inexpensive, certainly cheaper than Diaspora Yeshiva Band. They were just 2 guys, 2 instruments, they came with their own PA system and they were rehearsed to perfection.
I became friends with Shalom & Moshe and they stayed at my place when in town. We identified with each other’s music, but I was considered simply a rebel, going in the wrong direction, since I was already born orthodox. I didn’t have the beard (not that large, anyway), I wasn’t considered a baal tshuvah, so what business did I have peddling with this kind of stuff? I became the “goy of Jewish Music.” It was cool for the goyish guy to sing frum songs, but not for the frum kid to sing goyish songs. What the audience was grabbing and what I was doing was fun, skilled and natural, but I was shunned for it.
What was “goyish?” An interesting discussion we had a while ago. Check it out.
More times than I could count, I was told that my reputation of composing and performing English words, secular melodies and allowing mainstream influences to drive my music kept me from being booked on the frum stage and selling in the sforim stores.
Mean and nasty? Sure. But unfortunately, they spoke the truth. The biggest composers, producers and performers quoted the Jewish music rule book: “You put more than one English song on an album, it won’t sell.”
English has increased now on religious albums, even in multiple tracks. I still see a problem in the use of decent poetic imagery and language flow, an inherent struggle for religious writers whose upbringing avoided mainstream song writing…Perhaps we’ll talk about that another day.
I can now take my own experience and judge from there. I’m walking the walk.
I look back on how Yitzy Berry & Eli Klein did such an amazing job on the album version of Simcha Kranczer’s “Bayom Hahu,” working the orchestra exactly as I wanted it immortalized on the album. Interestingly, when I made the á capella version of that song to please the people who wanted that kind of production during sefiras ha’omer and the 3 weeks approaching Tish’a B’Av, it was received better than I had ever imagined. It was fun to make and I did it all on my own in a couple of days (thanks also to Ari Goldwag’s appearance by phone video). Basing the arrangement on the original, I just sang track-on-track until it worked.
The question is, what does it say, that the cheap version did so well? I think the answer isn’t technical, it’s statistical. Great song at the right time in the right form, not artistically as much as halachically…at least according to those who consider á capella to be an acceptable musical form for those “no instrumental music” periods. Me? I just love making chords and building vocals.
I am constantly asked (no, really…I am…) if I’m happy with what I’ve done.
The past 15 years brought about a great shift in my quality and I had been patiently waiting for the audience to come out of their shells. Today, what I was criticized for years before has now become the norm and I’ve become “old school.” I’ll take that, I guess. It’s better than pretending I’m something I’m not. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work.
That being said, as far as today’s audiences…Could I have put less effort and money into the “Ani Yisrael” album and few, if any would have seen or heard the difference?
Maybe, but it would not have been the same album, it’s a difference I would have seen and I wouldn’t feel the same about it as I do.