Setting Yiddishkeit To Mambo, Metal And Surf
November 5, 2004
Meshugga Beach Party: Sixteen Songs of the Chosen Surfers
The Makkabees: Volume Aleph
Yiddishe Cup: Meshugeneh Mambo
There are some who believe that authentic Jewish genius lies in the moral and legal codes of our ancestors; others, in the monotheistic impulse, or in the faith that sustained us throughout generations of persecution.
Still others: borscht.
If you're in that last category, have I got some records for you. In my capacity as editor of a monthly Jewish magazine, I receive a lot of books and records over the transom. A disheartening proportion deal with the Holocaust. Many are heartwarming memoirs. And then there are those oddities that make you want to ask, "Who would have thought?" Or even, "Why on Earth was this made?" Somewhere in that last category is Yiddishe Cup's new album, "Meshugeneh Mambo," containing updates of Borscht Belt classics like "My Yiddishe Mama" and "Essen"; Meshugga Beach Party, subtitled "Sixteen Songs of the Chosen Surfers," and the Makkabees' debut album of Jewish heavy metal, titled "Volume Aleph."
Now, as any fan of Jewish humor knows, novelty records are hardly a new genre. Jewish, German, Irish and Italian novelty songs were staples of vaudeville, gently mocking the dominant culture and the gulfs that separated "us" from "them." Later, the Borscht Belt comedians in the 1950s and 1960s, like Allan Sherman ("Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!") and Mickey Katz ("Duvid Crockett, King of Delancey Street"), all made the oddball parody their stock and trade. Today, Jewish comedy songs seem to be making a comeback, from Adam Sandler's multiple Hanukkah songs to the hilarious "South Park" tune, "It's Hard To Be a Jew on Christmas." But Jewish heavy metal? Surf music? Oy.
By far the most professional of this recent crop of shtickmeisters is also the funniest: Yiddishe Cup ("Jewish head"), a band that has been on the concert, wedding and bar mitzvah circuit since 1988. These guys know their Borscht Belt history, and Meshugeneh Mambo should be a treat for anyone who longs for the over-the-top, ridiculous humor of that bygone era. When, deep into the record, lead singer Alan Douglass intoned "Space: the final mishegoss" over a Theremin-fueled riff on the original "Star Trek" theme, I laughed out loud. (And I laughed again when he said with Shatnerian pomposity that his mission is "to seek out new buffet lines and dessert tables; to boldly go where no Jew has gone before.")
From reciting the motzi blessing to the tune of "I am a Man of Constant Sorrows" (renamed "I am a Man of Constant Blessings") to the title track, written in 1952 but expanded with new lyrics (e.g., "Step, step, side, señora/you won't find this in the Torah"), "Meshugeneh Mambo" is just plain funny. If you're looking for subtlety, sophistication, irony — keep looking. Luckily, there's more to life than irony. So, nu, schmear yourself some chopped liver and give a listen.
"In the post-Seder haze induced by an excess of wine, matzo, potato kugel and gefilte fish, it all came together," said Meshugga Beach Party "big macher" Mel Waldorf on the band's Web site. "The parting of the Red Sea and the curling of The Bonzai Pipeline. The sands of the Sinai and the waves at Waikiki."
Fans of the movie "Pulp Fiction" have long noted the similarities between that film's theme song, the surf classic "Miserlou," and our own "Hava Nagilah." The bar mitzvah party classic is the first track on Meshugga Beach Party's self-titled album, and probably the best. But maybe it's the best because it's the first; the joke has worn pretty thin by the time track 16 ("Hatikvah") rolls around. Waldorf plays most of the instruments, and, nu, not everyone can be a genius at every instrument, if you take my meaning. Still, every time I've put this record on for my friends, they've laughed, groaned and wondered what the Jews will come up with next.
Meshugga Beach Party is definitely going for laughs — but I'm not so sure about the Makkabees, whose heavy-metal cover of the Chabad anthem, "Mashiach," seemed to be something other than parody. Their debut album (the cover is of a Chabad-attired Hasid sporting a heavy-metal guitar engraved with the word 'Zohar') contains some pretty hard-core covers of songs, like "Shabbat Shalom" and "Hinei Ma Tov," and grinds along like System of a Down with payess. Listeners expecting Bon Jovi-style pop metal will be disappointed, or horrified; the Makkabees are pretty serious rockers and, I suspect, they really mean it. Like Meshugga Beach Party, they don't necessarily have the best chops, but they're definitely loud enough to scare your bubbe.
Jay Michaelson is chief editor of "Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture" (http://www.zeek.net/). His next musical album will be released in mid-2005 on Enoch Records.
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