Don’t let headlines fool you into thinking Jews are always attracted to claustrophobic locales with a high tendency for explosions – Bondi, one of Sydney’s best-known sun and surf spots, is known for its large Jewish population and, somewhat more notoriously, for fantastic waves and beach babes. Last Sunday in Sydney, Australia, dozens of artists and hundreds of guests gathered at Bondi beach for the second annual Shir Madness, the Sydney Jewish music festival.
The festival’s acts ranged from young local singers to world-renowned international performers in an immense range of musical styles. Kosher food stands, a caricaturist and a booth for the charity organization Challah for Hunger peppered the premises of the event. The kind volunteers and the added occasional bursts of Hebrew from the festival-goers were enough to send pangs of homesickness through one Israeli reporter’s stomach. If anything can cure an ache, however, it’s Jewish food and good music, and armed with a hot dog for comfort and the festival program, this reporter set off to combat the nostalgia waves.
Easily enough done. The biggest of the festival’s six performance spaces was a temporary tent named “Beautiful Noise”, and aptly so. The Barons of Tang, a Melbourne gypsy band, delivered an extremely weird but delicious sound. Vaudeville mixed with klezmer, with jazz and even metal influences thrown in, Tang’s tunes put one in the mind of dark dusky rooms and crushed velvet one moment, and action movie chase scenes the next, with some hassidic wedding elements for good measure. The band had the audience not only stamping their feet but howling to the music. It was quirky and fun and soulful and crazy.
Dereb the Ambassador slowed things to a smooth groove. Originally from Ethiopia, where he has achieved chart-topping status, Dereb Desalegn now resides in Sydney, Australia. The eight-member band jammed to the sounds of Africa and Jamaica, tribal-reggae mix that was half chill-out, half rock-out. In typical Ozzie style, audience members aged seven to seventy left their shoes under their seats to dance barefoot near the stage. Lanrae (Jacqueline Freeman), Bondi-born singer whose first single “Dancer” is due for official release this month, put on a strong show with her confident, energetic performance of catchy pop/soft rock tunes.
But what makes music Jewish? What makes anything Jewish? JewOrNotJew.com, for instance, has taken on the important task of educating the masses about celebrities and other notable figures who are Jewish. The website ranks the Jewishness of celebrities according to three criteria: “How Jewish they are internally, how Jewish they are externally and how much we want that person to be a Jew in the first place.” Many of the evening’s performers were not Jewish; most of them didn’t look particularly Jewish; but we really, really want them to be Jewish, and so they are.
Gimel is such a band. The unexpected gem of the evening, Gimel, an instrumental-only group from New Zealand, relies on the number three for inspiration. The band is headed by composer and pianist Jonathan Besser. Marie Tom was on bass, John Bell was on vibraphone and Yair Katz, originally from Israel, on drums. Entering into the cool dark auditorium, the music was heart-achingly pretty and delicate, demanding, against all codes of decorum, that the listener stretch back in her seat and shut her eyes for immersion in the exquisite experience. Exquisite, but not in any discernible way “Jewish”. The musicians had to perform with limited instruments: Besser was on keyboard instead of piano, and John Bell’s vibraphone had to be tailored to conform to plane baggage restrictions. These material constraints had no bearing on the enchanting effect of Gimel’s sounds: they brought to mind spells and magic, the perfect soundtrack to a fantasy full of, say, secret romances set in a mossy forest. I had to speak with the artists to find out more. I shouldn’t have been so surprised that such magical sounds were grounded in so much musical theory and hard work. With serious genius, after all, comes serious OCD.
Tell me about Gimel.
Jonathan: The music is all conceptual. Everything has to be in groups of three. All the chords are in triads. Gimel is the third letter of the alphabet. Every piece that you heard today was written in three days.
Jonathan: Yes, three days. I really got fed up with everyone playing in four bar phrases. I don’t mind it, but I wanted to create difference with my music and so I work with three bar phrases. We still use melody and chords, but it has a conceptual framework and we think everything through. We are a four-piece band, with three men. Twelve is a mystical number for our band, and I like the way four and three come together in the number twelve. It’s a little mathematical.
12 is not a mystical number in Judaism. Do you feel in any way affiliated with Judaism?
Jonathan: I was brought up Jewish and I was Bar-Mitzvah’d. I used to observe Shabbos every Saturday and Yom Kippur, and will be celebrating Passover this year. But I am doing less of the holidays and identifying more and more as Jewish through my music, I think.
How would you say your music is Jewish? There were lots of chime and organ sounds that are traditionally associated more with church music.
Jonathan: My music was inspired by Bach. Although he was a Lutheran, Bach’s music is very structured, and Judaism is very structured – it’s about studying the rules and the laws and God’s words, just as our music is. Our instruments are not very Jewish – violins, accordions and clarinets sound much more Jewish – so I would have to say that our Jewishness lies more in the structure than in the sound of the music.
Okay. I turned to the other group members to check how strongly they felt toward Judaism.
Marie and John, you aren’t Jewish.
How would you define your music?
John: It does have a bit of klezmer feel to it.
Marie: I’ve been giving it a lot of thought in the weeks before the festival, this being a Jewish music festival. I can’t say I play in a Jewish band. Our music is contemporary music, something between classical and jazz. It’s contemporary; it’s new, something completely different.
Yair, do you feel that your music is Jewish?
Yair: Not much; sometimes a little, in the chord progressions.
What does that mean, “Jewish music”?
Yair: That’s a good question. Minor chords, and some harmonies can be considered Jewish. In some of Jonathan Besser’s other bands there’s a more klezmer feel; this band is quite different.
When you think of Jewish music, do you think of the people playing or about the sound?
Yair: I think of the emotion being expressed through the music. Jewish music is highly expressive, a bit like gypsy music. There’s also a certain joy that you can feel in the more upbeat tunes. Klezmer is the official Jewish music. Apart from that, I don’t know what Jewish music is. Perhaps it’s music played by Jewish people; I’m Jewish, however, and I don’t feel that what I play is necessarily Jewish.
One thing the performers indeed all had in common was distinct soulfulness and a creative edge. Their music was exciting and moving, and if that is what Judaism is about, we’ll take it. And hey, if the JewOrNotJew staff can consign Scarlett Johansson to the ranks of Judaism without instigating a Netwide scandal, Midnight East officially declares Gimel a Jewish ensemble.
The night would not have been complete without an Israeli performer rocking the house. Mosh Ben Ari was the final act of the evening, delivering tried and true crowd favorites such as “Jah is One” and “Ve’ech Shelo” (No Matter How). A glance back at the audience revealed several handfuls of Israelis, recognizable by their perfect lipsynching of the artist’s words, and resulted in a minor return of the waves of nostalgia.
In true Israeli style, the artist began late. Unfortunately, he also ended on time. After three minutes of cheering at the end of the show and cries of “od hapa’am” (encore), Mosh Ben Ari glanced into the wings, shrugged and apologized. “I would like to sing more,” he said in English, and then, “ze lo Israel po” (it’s not Israel here).