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The Band that Changed Jewish Music
By Ruby Harris,
an Original member
Jewish music history can be divided into two periods: BD and AD, which stands for Before and After the Diaspora Yeshiva Band. The music before us was so different than the music after us. So many innovations and musical arrangements used daily in the Jewish music world are direct products of the influence of this band at the turning point. Most of your favorite music today is somehow a derivative of the DYB, the band that started it all. Several of today’s hottest acts are actually either composed of members of the original DYB or their children, and of course countless students, followers, and fans.
Who were the Inventors of Jewish Rock?
Who were one of the first modern Klezmer bands?
Who were innovators at the turning point in the history of Jewish music?
The band that started it all?
The Diaspora Yeshiva Band
But it wasn’t always so...
If Rock n’ Roll was born in the 50s, and the 60s saw it be fruitful and multiply, then the 70s saw an interesting phenomenon when some of these musicians began to find that old time religion, and in the Holy Land of Israel in particular some of them gathered in a very musical and spiritual place on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, and formed a band that was called “The Diaspora Yeshiva Band”. From approximately 1976 to 1986 3 things occurred: 1) they became one of the most popular bands in Jewish music. 2) The Jewish music before this time was about to go through what can only be described as the same basic transformation that the world of popular music went through with the Beatles, and 3) The old Jewish/Yiddish music was re-discovered and became amalgamated with new worlds of music. Innovations, emulations, and revelations were suddenly overtaking the Jewish world, and the DYB can be viewed as either credited with or guilty of manifesting this transformation. Today of course, most Jewish music has some rock sounds incorporated within, but back then it was unheard of, and such a thing bordered on the taboo.
Almost parallel to the first Rock’n Roll stars and their society, the union of Rock with Jews didn’t come so smoothly, it was a rocky road at first, particularly in the years roughly from 1973-1982. Jewish music didn’t catch up with the rest of the world so fast. I remember one time we were doing a concert at the Jerusalem Theater and after the show someone comes up to us and emotionally expressed his disapproval of the Holy words being fused with rock sounds (Elvis and Ray Charles got the same reaction).
Also in that early gestation period, there was the sensation that the DYB caused at the Chassidic Song Festival. We won first place 2 years in a row, thus causing the voting committee to re-write the rules so that we don’t take over...
The great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was also a victim, in those years and even earlier, of the old problem of being an innovator: the public simply was not ready. But we’re in good company-Mozart, Benny Goodman, and Bob Dylan also met with resistance until the world came around. We played many concerts with Shlomo.
Klezmer? The old Hebrew-Yiddish word had not yet even begun to be re-discovered and re-used yet, and we were continuously toggling with what to call our new genre: Yiddish Jazz? Chassidic Rock? Country & Eastern Music, Rhythm & Jews, Jewgrass, who knows? We took an old Jewish wedding standard, added a rhythm section, a hot clarinet, a seething guitar solo, a devil-went-down-to-Georgia-type fiddle breakdown, and some extended Kabalistic jams and it wasn’t long before the listening public took notice that that old Jewish music wasn’t so out of date after all. I remember a phone call and a visit from David Grey, one of the members of the new-genre group “The Klezmorim”, who came to my home in Jerusalem for an interview, plus, an early wedding involved sitting-in for some tunes at the old legendary New York restaurant Lou G. Seigles with Hankus Netsky and Don Byron of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, both bands being the first of the new “klezmer” bands in those pre-natal years. At a concert in Philadelphia, our opening act was the newly formed Kapelye with Henry Sapoznik. An early meeting with Andy Statman also found him asking me all about Jewish music as well as Jewish philosophy, quite some time before he “returned” to the fold. I convinced him to check out some Breslov music, and a few years later we found ourselves on stage together at a sold-out concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. He had quite a beard by then...
While Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and Jefferson Airplane were taking old English & Irish nigguns (folk melodies) and suffusing them with the blues, we were doing the same thing in this post-Woodstock world with Jewish standards Dreydle dreydle, Dayenu, and Chasen Kala Mazal Tov. Plus, as with our favorite beloved Anglo/American rock heroes, we were writing and performing our own originals, one of which can almost be called the Official Anthem of the Baal Tshuva (returnee) Movement, “Malchutcha”. We had some fun, oy vey, doing a Hendrixian Hatikva, the Shma ala Doors (hey, the mezuza goes on the Doors!), a David Melech Squaredance, a liturgical Beatles medley, endless Grateful Dead-style jams on Ketzad Merakdim, or Gesher Tzar Meod per Santana, and so on. Another funny thing, at first, as antique ‘78’ records of Bill Monroe, Howlin’ Wolf and Jellyroll Morton started catching our interest among the Jolson, Cantor, and Sophie Tuckers in our grandfather’s attic, we started paying attention to the funny green-labeled Yiddish ones too, that revealed a virtually hidden and buried world of dusty stars like Naftulie Brandwine, V. Belf, Dave Tarras, Abe Schwartz and Aaron Lebedeff, now looked at as the patriarchs of Klezmer recordings.
The Torah predicted that in the days before the Moshiach, there would be a return of the exiles, a great influx of converts, and a movement of returnees to Judaism. I’m happy to say I was there at the beginning of that movement, and the DYB provided the soundtrack. We traveled around the world playing for a remarkable cross section of the people that range from the roots to the fruits of the movement: Holocaust survivors, Israeli soldiers, Yeshiva students, Hebrew school children, Chassidic dynasties, Kibbutz & Moshav celebrations, and a thirsty generation searching for the answer.
Every Saturday night we gave a now-legendary concert called “King David’s Melave Malka” post-Shabbat celebration at his actual tomb on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, a central Biblical historic site. Once, Broadway star Pearl Baily and her husband jazz legend Louie Belson were on a pilgrimage to this site and the nearby ‘Last Supper’ room, and she just happened to be at King David’s Tomb during my wedding, and she came in and sang “Hello Dolly” to the newlywed couple. People come up to me all the time recalling those concerts and how special they were, and so many of today’s musicians tell me things like “when we first saw you guys, we decided that, hey, we could do that too!” I even recently met a mother of ten who confessed that she was about to leave Judaism altogether when at a last ditch effort she came to one of our shows and she stayed in the fold, got married, and the rest is her-story.
Before the 6 Day War, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Goldstein started the Diaspora Yeshiva which was the first Baal Tshuva Yeshiva. The location was Mt. Zion where King David is buried (down below in ancient catacombs). When David was a young shepherd from his home town of Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem, he used to take his sheep and graze them, and where would he go? A prophet and spiritual master of the highest caliber, he naturally was attracted to the center of the universe, the Temple Mount where his son Solomon was later to build the Holy Temple. He took his Harp and composed the most famous music in history, the Psalms as he, in symbolic parallel to G-d watching over his people, shepherded his sheep daily between his home and Mt. Moriah, the Temple Mount, the place where his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had their prophetic revelations and grazed their flocks.
His music, which is soaked into the architecture and the very earth of this location, drew people like us to David’s Holy Mt. Zion, which is the neighboring mountain to the Temple Mount. We played and sang and expressed the hope of the returning of Jerusalem, and the simcha (joy) of Torah learning. The mystical possibilities were incalculably inspiring. The music wasn’t so bad at first either, and it kept getting better, and with a few savvy people and some smart moves, we got some sound equipment and started recording, and we actually managed to not only lay down some extremely original material, but also expressed the lofty spiritual feeling of the moment.
From 1973 to 1976 can be called the early period, with many changes in personnel ranging from a few guys jamming to a big band, at which point in June of 1977 the actual “DYB” was formed and solidified, with the original 6 members being: Avraham Rosenblum on guitar, Ben Zion Solomon on fiddle and banjo, Simcha Abramson on Saxaphone and Clarinet, Ruby Harris (this writer) on Violin, Mandolin, Guitar, and Harmonica, Adam Wexler on Bass, and Gedalia Goldstein on Drums. Before and after this, many great and illustrious people came and went, such as Rabbi Moshe Shur, Chaim David, Rabbi Shimon Green, Menachem Herman, Beryl and Ted Glazer, Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig, Yochanan Lederman, and Rabbi Tzvi Miller. We played in a 2000 year old building resembling the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Getting electricity into these Byzantine and Crusader edifices was no small endeavor. The acoustics were amazing, though.
Our history of performances is incomparable: Wartime shows for troops from Sinai to Lebanon, concerts and events for such public figures as Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres and many other VIPs and statesmen, parties and banquets with Isaac Stern, Shlomo Carlebach, Abba Eban, President Herzog, (and later President Clinton & Mayors Giulianni and Daley), an early MTV video performance and interview featured in the Bob Dylan tour with Tom Petty, and ultimately, concerts at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Opera House. Somehow, Lynard Skynard’s drummer Artemis Pyle even played with us and donated his awesome drum set to the yeshiva!
The band broke up in the mid 80s and the members have all gone off in different directions, most notably: BZ Solomon does extensive recording and performances worldwide, Rabbi Shur is an executive with the Hillel Organization and also records and performs, Rabbi Green is the head of a Seminary in Jerusalem, Avraham Rosenblum keeps the Diaspora flame burning with his new band, Chaim David has become a Jewish music superstar, and I perform and record extensively in an eclectic range of styles from Jewish Rock and Klezmer to Blues, Jazz and Country, including other notable relationships, such as a series of recordings with members of the original Sun Records rhythm section, who’ve made history as players in the bands of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. Adam Wexler is a member of Reva L’Sheva, one of today’s finest Jewish rock groups, and finally, Simcha, Gedalia, Beryl, Ted, and Menachem have all advanced to the higher original goals of scholarship, spiritual mastery, and various lofty musical projects and endeavors.
But most charmingly, is the fact that many of the children of the original members of the DYB are among today’s hottest stars, as members of Soulfarm, Moshav Band, and oodles of other contemporary projects ranging from some of New York’s top wedding bands to fine art music recordings. Occasionally several of the guys get together for projects, such as 2 recent DYB reunion shows on Long Island and at the Catskills Homowack Hotel, and there are some real tasty dishes simmering in the musical kitchen. If you’re looking for the original members to perform these days, they all do so, emphasizing their newer compositions and styles, but most of the guys are still happy to give you the old tunes if you really bug ‘em. Keep listening!
The Diaspora Yeshiva Band's impact on Jewish Music
Ruby Harris is an original member of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, and since the close of that primordial period in the history of Jewish Rock, Ruby has been seen opening for Ray Charles, Marshall Tucker Band, and Little Feat, and he’s performed with Peter Yarrow, Mordechai Ben David, Buddy Miles, Avraham Fried, Pinetop Perkins, and members Jefferson Airplane, Klezmatics and Grateful Dead. He lives in West Rogers Park, Chicago and presently performs in concert, on recordings, and at someone-you-know’s wedding. His website is www.rubyharrismusic.com where, along with www.jewishjukebox.com and www.cdbaby.com, his latest CD “For Heaven’s Sake” is available, as is his CD “Almost Home”, featuring Pine Top Perkins and Sugar Blue. For recordings of any of the artists mentioned, see your local Jewish music store or look them up on line.
This article is the exclusive (© 2007) property of Ruby Harris
from the June 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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