At this year's latke-and-tree-trimming party, we flipped through our collection of old LPs and wound up listening to the Young Israelians' Recorded Live at a Jewish Party. We didn't last long; the music was so schmaltzy that we gave up after a track or two. Sounded like a pretty weak party to me, honestly. Ours was much more fun.
But despair not: I'm pleased to report that Jewish music has advanced far past the Young Israelians in the last thirty years. The past month, in fact, brought me two marvelous new slices of Jewish music. The first came as a Chanukah gift: a copy of Abayudaya, a Smithsonian Folkways recording of music from the Jewish people of Uganda. I was initially a little bit skeptical (who knew there were native Jews in Uganda?) but as soon as I put the disc into my cd player, the skepticism transmuted to delight.
The Abayudaya are a community of about 600 people living in villages surrounding Mbale; their ancestors converted to Judaism in 1919, and their first contact with mainstream Judaism came in 1926. (The cd booklet chronicles the community's history, a surprisingly compelling read.) The disc features tracks in several native languages as well as in a beautifully-inflected, gently-Africanized Hebrew.(You can read an excellent review of it at All Music Guide, though I can't figure out how to link directly to the review, so you'll have to hit the site and type in the album name yourself.) My favorite track is the exquisite rendition of "Adon Olam." Too bad the rhythms and harmonies are too complicated to try to teach in shul next Shabbat.
Then, to make my life even sweeter, Ethan introduced me to the music of Judeo-Latin ensemble the Hip Hop Hoodios. Specifically, to the track Havana Nagilah (which I plugged here). The bravado of hip-hop and the ebullience of Latin instrumentation are a tried-and-true combination, but I'd never heard them infused with Jewish flavor in quite this way.
My repertoire of cool Jewish music has doubled; a month ago it was limited to a Hasidic New Wave cd and two copies of Steve Reich's Tehillim (great stuff, if you happen to like avant-garde music, but they're not everyone's cup of tea). In fairness, these artists may not be everyone's cuppa, either, but they make me smile. Now if only I could get my hands on a copy of Knitting on the Roof...