Jun 25, 2013

Jewish Afrobeat: Zion 80

Jewish Folk Songs, Set to Fela’s Afrobeat

As Jon Madof worked at his computer one Friday in 2011, doing the graphic-design job that supported his life as a guitarist, he listened to the Afrobeat music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Then, with the Sabbath sundown nearing, he shut down his home office and began humming one of the Jewish religious songs made famous by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. 

The mental mash-up of Fela and Carlebach continued through the next day, as Mr. Madof found himself weirdly hearing the rabbi’s version of “Ein Keloheinu” with the Nigerian musician’s polyrhythmic beats. When the Sabbath ended and Mr. Madof, an Orthodox Jew, could use electricity again, he went online with one question about the unlikely hybrid: “Did anyone ever do this before?”
Satisfied that nobody had, Mr. Madof set about filling a musical vacuum only he seemed to recognize. Now, two years later, his 13-piece band, Zion80, named in homage to Fela’s ensembles Afrika 70 and Egypt 80, has released its first, eponymous CD and will be performing on Thursday at Joe’s Pub before doing summer shows in Poland and Austria. 

These events come after a year of gigs at the Stone, City Winery and Le Poisson Rouge, with the band drawing curious though admiring coverage on public radio and in the Jewish media.

“On the surface, this hardly seems like a recipe for great success,” Alexander Gelfand, a critic and musicologist, wrote last year in The Jewish Daily Forward. “But as it turns out, anything sounds good recast as Afrobeat, especially when played by a band assembled from the Downtown and Jewish elite.” 

The combination may not be quite as peculiar as it seems. Musically, Fela and Carlebach arose from entirely different streams. Fela, who died in 1997 at 58, cross-pollinated jazz horns, Yoruba drumming and James Brown funk. Carlebach (1925-94) reinterpreted Jewish liturgical music and Hasidic melodies through the prism of Dylan-style folk singing. 

Temperamentally, though, the men shared a visionary desire for social change. Fela was the leading dissident against Nigeria’s military governments of the 1970s and ’80s, and for periods of time lived in a commune he called the Kalakuta Republic. Carlebach’s composition “Am Yisroel Chai” (“The People of Israel Live”) served as the anthem of the cold war movement to liberate Soviet Jewry. For more than a decade beginning in the hippie era, Carlebach presided over a synagogue-cum-commune in Haight-Ashbury called the House of Love and Prayer. 

“Shlomo and Fela were coming from a similar approach,” Mr. Madof said. “They each saw particularism as a path to utopian idealism. Not opposed to each other, but on a path to each other. And that attitude spoke to me.” 

Mr. Madof had grown up in Philadelphia as a secular Jew listening to his parents’ folk music, then rock, then punk. He majored in Japanese studies at Oberlin and hung around the college’s jazz classes. So he was as startled to discover Carlebach’s music as he was Fela’s. 

As Mr. Madof turned to Orthodox Judaism in the early 2000s, he also became part of the community of young Jewish musicians, many of them religiously observant, who gathered around the saxophonist John Zorn and recorded on his Tzadik label. 

Mr. Madof’s process of developing Zion80 — both the band and the CD — started with assiduous listening to Fela’s music, particularly a series of 1970s albums rereleased by the Knitting Factory. With the help of a drummer from Antibalas, an Afrobeat group based in Brooklyn, Mr. Madof started to script out rhythm patterns. 

He arranged several Carlebach songs for his trio and immediately realized he needed horns. Among the players he attracted were two mainstays from the Tzadik scene, the trumpeter Frank London and the saxophonist Greg Wall, who is also a rabbi. 

With Mr. Zorn’s patronage, the nascent Zion80 received a residency at the Stone, allowing it to rehearse and perform every Monday night for three months last summer. Out of those sessions came most of the charts for the nine cuts on the album. So did a truly soulful experience. 

“My Jewish tradition teaches me that I must constantly reinvent myself as a spiritual being,” Mr. Wall wrote in an e-mail, “and that the powerful words of our liturgy must be experienced as a ‘Shir Chadash,’ a new song. How does one fulfill this mandate while seemingly repeating the same words day in, day out?” 

“Well,” he went on, using the Judaic words for prayer and worship quorum, “davening in a minyan like Zion80 sure helps.” 

In some respects, the commingling of black, white, Jewish, Yoruba, jazz, folk, funk and sundry other identities is in the tradition of Fela and Carlebach. Since his death, Fela’s music has inspired a hit Broadway musical. Carlebach’s daughter, Neshama, has recorded and performed his music with a black gospel choir from Green Pastures Baptist Church in the Bronx.

But as Mr. Madof recognized, questions of cultural appropriation are almost bound to arise, much as they did in the mid-2000s when the Hasidic singer Matisyahu took up reggae. (Matisyahu, whose given name is Matthew Miller, has since left the Hasidic movement.)

“There’s appropriation and there’s being honest to the music,” Mr. Madof said. “On some level, as the band has gotten started, my question was: ‘Do we have the skills to play that? I’ve got to have that music in my fingers and in my ears.’ 

“The thing about appropriation for a musician is that it’s from a love of the music. Appropriation is out of reverence.” 



1 Ein K'elokeinu
2 Tov L'hodot
3 Asher Bara
4 Holy Brother
5 Yehi Shalom
6 Pischu Li  
7 Nygun  
8 Dovid Melech
9 Nygun (Reprise)

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