Saturday, March 17, 2012

Orthodox musicians connect with mainstream message 

With his yarmulke, ritual fringes and lyrics occasionally borrowed from ancient Jewish texts, Grammy-nominated reggae star Matisyahu may be the most publicly observant Jewish performer in the mainstream music scene. But he’s not the only one.

Growing ranks of Jewishly committed performers are finding success on the national stage. Located on both coasts, these independent artists share more with Matisyahu than keeping the Sabbath. They, too, are attracting audiences with compositions informed by their spiritual lives: building connection, meaning and hope.

“The fuel that keeps us going is the feedback we get all the time that says, ‘Your music inspires me,’” says Yehuda Solomon, who with his band Moshav has opened frequently for Matisyahu. “People tell us all the time, ‘I don’t listen to Jewish music, but you guys break all the stereotypes.’ ”

Solomon is the chazzan, or cantor, for the Orthodox Happy Minyan in Los Angeles, dedicated to the lively, liturgical compositions of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. As Moshav’s lead vocalist, Solomon performs original world music, folk and rock in Hebrew and English, as well as “Shlomo tunes.”

For mainstream musicians hoping to make it big, Friday-night gigs help build successful careers. That option is not open to Orthodox Jews, cutting into their ability to make a living. They depend on licensing material and composing; some moonlight behind the scenes, including N.Y. guitarist C Lanzbom, who won a Grammy last year for mixing Pete Seeger and the Rivertown Kids’ best children’s musical album, “Tomorrow’s Children.”

Lanzbom, the son of Holocaust survivors, began his foray into music at age 7. Like Solomon, he was heavily influenced by Carlebach.

Although Carlebach was never as mainstream as Matisyahu, his iconic singing career spanned more than 40 years. Constantly touring, Carlebach performed at Carnegie Hall, the Berkeley Folk Festival and a range of international venues, from coffeehouses to synagogue basements. It was Carlebach who paid for Lanzbom’s first flight to Israel and introduced him to meaningful religious practice.

When Carlebach died in 1994, Lanzbom dedicated his first solo album to him; “Beyond This World” propelled Lanzbom into the Jewish market.

“It might look like I chose to limit myself,” he says, “but it also gave me an identity.”

Lanzbom works with some household names, recently mixing a Seeger track featuring Bruce Springsteen. But he is best known to Jewish audiences as part of the rock-folk band Soulfarm, which he co-founded with Solomon’s brother, Noah, a gifted vocalist and mandolin player. Together they record original compositions, Carlebach songs and Breslov Hassidic tunes.

The Solomons grew up in Israel next door to Carlebach on the moshav Mevo Modi’im. The religious, musical village Carlebach founded in 1976 has spawned numerous bands, including Moshav, which performs worldwide on Jewish and mainstream stages. Its next album, “Light the Way,” will be released in the spring.

Even when the music of these indie artists boasts universal appeal, the spiritual underpinnings resonate as uniquely Jewish. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Matisyahu hit “One Day,” from his earlier Hassidic days, which speaks of yearning for the messianic era. NBC aired the song in promos for its Winter Olympics coverage. Highlights from his forthcoming album, performed in San Francisco on Jan. 28 at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Émigré Community Gala, suggest more inspirational material ahead.

The same applies to singer and guitarist Dov Rosenblatt, who with Talia Osteen, his non-Orthodox bandmate in the folk-pop duo Wellspring, has opened for headline rockers Pete Yorn and Ben Kweller. Yorn and Kweller do not keep Shabbat, but they delayed Saturday night shows to accommodate Rosenblatt, who grew up Modern Orthodox, attended Yeshiva University and recorded three albums with his previous rock band, Blue Fringe — an allusion to ritual fringes.

The big money is in licensing, which generates anywhere from a thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars in fees per song. Rosenblatt’s compositions, co-written with Lanzbom or Osteen, have appeared on MTV’s “The Real World,” “The Kardashians” and “Cougar Town.”

Rosenblatt’s L.A. colleagues, musicians Yael Meyer and Cathy Heller, each have a long list of licensing credits, including “Beautiful People,” which they co-wrote. ABC aired it in network promos.

When Heller learned that Arab terrorists had murdered five members of the Fogel family in the Itamar settlement on the West Bank in March 2011, she wrote her ukulele-driven pop song “Gonna Be Happy.” The song will air on the CW’s March 28 series finale of “One Tree Hill.”

For Meyer and Heller, who attend Orthodox synagogues, performing for mixed audiences of men and women once may have raised concerns over kol isha, the religious restriction on hearing a woman’s voice.

That’s what happened to Carlebach’s daughter. As a teenager, Neshama Carlebach performed widely on her father’s last tour. When she was headed to the stage, she says her father would caution religious men in the audience “if anyone has a problem with that, go out for five minutes and then come back.”

After her father’s death, Neshama continued his tour, despite suffering condemnation from the same audiences that attended her concerts and bought her eight albums.

These days, Neshama anticipates performing in “Soul Doctor,” the Broadway-bound, full-length musical she co-created that celebrates her father’s life. She also is touring solo and performing her father’s compositions together with a charismatic Baptist gospel choir on global stages. Their album, “Higher and Higher,” was a sixth-time entrant in the 2011 Grammy Awards.

She says the ongoing criticism won’t stop her.

“I put [opposition to] interfaith and kol isha in the same category: ‘defined by fear,’ ” says Neshama, who identifies as Modern Orthodox. “I will walk where I walk and people will say what they say. I pray that they find their own healing.”


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