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cd cover Jorge Drexler
Eco
Warner Latina

Yasmin Levy
La Juderia
Connecting Cultures (www.choicemusic.nl)

Brave Old World
Song of the Lodz Ghetto
Winter and Winter (www.winterandwinter.com/)

Hip Hop Hoodios
Agua Por La Gente
Jazzheads (www.hoodios.com)

While the music of most ethnic groups can be defined by its similarities, several recent releases show that what is striking about Jewish musicians are their dissimilarities. While klezmer is what comes to mind as "Jewish music," this year has seen everything from Ladino music from medieval Spain to Jewish-Latino rap.

Uruguay-born Jorge Drexler (who won an Oscar for "Al Otro Lado del Rio" from the movie "The Motorcycle Diaries") is the son of a German Jewish father whose family fled the Nazis, eventually settling in Latin America. Though Drexler's mother was not Jewish, he said that as a child "I felt Jewish. And I still do in a strange way - which is a very Jewish way to feel."

Drexler became a doctor, then "let it go" to become a full-time musician. He gained notice in Latin America as an intelligent, melodic songwriter, releasing seven albums, none of which were marketed in the U.S. Because of his Hollywood moment, Warner Latina released 2004's Eco, adding the song "Otro Lado."

Though that sounds mercenary, the album is an overlooked, welcome gem, easily my favorite of the year. With a gentle sound not unlike Brazil's Caetano Veloso, Drexler's Eco is seasoned with the lightest touches of electronics.

The narrator in Drexler's defiantly pacifist song "Milonga de Moro Judeo" lives in Jerusalem and describes himself as a "Jewish Moor who lives among Christians" and feels "there is not one death that does not cause me pain."

"Everybody's from everywhere," Drexler said, "a lesson the world needs to learn quickly."

Klezmer comes from the Eastern European Ashkenazi wing of Judaism, which predominates here in the New York area. But the culture of the Mediterranean Sephardic wing is now coming to the fore. The Israeli singer Yasmin Levy debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York City on December 3rd, 2005, singing songs from the Judeo-Spanish Ladino tradition.

Levy, the daughter of a ethnomusicologist, has become a popular ambassador of this forgotten culture, which disintegrated in part due to Spain's expulsion of Jews in 1492. In what she has called a "holy mission," Levy has used her gorgeous, powerful voice to bring the Ladino songs to a wider audience, mixing some flamenco elements on her latest recording, La Juderia.

The music on Song of the Lodz Ghetto from Brave Old World could be a cousin to klezmer in its tones and its characteristic cry of the clarinet. The album is from a performance piece the band did based on the lost music of the Nazi-created Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland. The beautifully sad songs were collected by an Israeli ethnomusicologist from survivors of that walled-off ghetto.

The Hip Hop Hoodios denies it is a novelty act, but it can traffic in schlemiel humor: look at us bookish Jewish guys rapping like gangstas - in Spanish yet. On Agua Por La Gente (Jazzheads), the group runs through a mishmash of jokey rhymes, which makes it hard to take seriously, which may be the point. On a few tunes, however, the group deftly melds such disparate elements that it flirts with greatness ('though any playa knows that there is a big difference between flirting with greatness and making greatness your crack ho').

These artists show that though there is no single Jewish music, the sounds reflect a group in diaspora that has in various degrees both assimilated and persevered. - Marty Lipp

CDs available from cdroots:
Brave Old World
Jorge Drexler
Hip Hop Hoodios


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