Beware Soaring Yarmulkes! Jon Madof and Zion8 Are Making World Music for a New World

by Sean Murphy

20 January 2014

Photo by
Justin Bias 

Liberation from Sheet Music

What is it like leading a larger band? (Compared, say, to Rashanim?)

It’s nuts! My guitarist Aram Bajakian recently remarked that it must be a ‘logistical nightmare’ to get anything together with this band. In a way he’s right, but it’s also so great when everything comes together and we have everybody in one studio or on one stage, ready to give everything we have to the music. A lot of the musicians have very busy touring schedules, so that makes it even more exciting when we can all be together.

Tell us about your CD-release residency at The Stone.

The Stone is hands down one of the best places to make music. It was created by John Zorn to be a space dedicated to musicians presenting their work without distraction from anything else (drinking, noise, etc.). It’s a place where music is deeply respected and concerts there are attended by people who truly understand this.

So it made it all the more special to kick Zion80 off at The Stone, because we were working up to doing a record on Tzadik (Zorn’s label). We played every Monday night in June, July and August of 2012. Each night, we did a rehearsal open to the public, and then a set of music. This workshop environment put the material and my band-leading on the treadmill in a huge way! It was a tremendous workout going through everything week after week. I think it brought the music to a level that could have otherwise taken a few years to develop.

We then played several other gigs during the fall and winter of 2012, and went into the studio in late December. In April 2013, we did our CD release there in a week of concerts. So we were able to go back to the place where the music was created and focus on bringing it to the next, post-recording level.

Simply put, The Stone was an invaluable, essential part of the development of Zion80.

How has it been performing this material live? (Or, the difference between laying down the tracks in the studio vs. playing live?)

That’s a great question. Each band has its own life cycle, and the more I make music, the more I know that you have to let that life cycle evolve in the way it needs to evolve.

I originally thought of Zion80 as a band that would perform the songs in radically different ways from performance to performance. But over time it became obvious that the songs had specific arrangements that worked well. So we solidified those arrangements for the recording.

Now, when we go back on stage to perform the music, we have a set structure to work within. Paradoxically, that opens up a lot of possibilities for the music to go in many different directions, because we’ve internalized the structure of the songs and have those structures as solid reference points.

The night I saw you, which was, I believe, the last set of the week for Zion80, you took away the sheet music. Tell us about that, and what that does to liberate the players and the performance.

Liberate is absolutely the right word. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with reading music on stage. In my trio (Rashanim), I’ve always had the music in front of me, even though I know almost all of it without having to look at the scores. Over time, that’s felt very limiting, kind of like a security blanket you can’t let go of.

When I took the music away from the players that night, I initially felt a bit afraid that we would have a massive musical train wreck right there on stage! But once we started, we all felt a heightened sense of freedom, and that was a great set of music. So I think if the music is really needed, then I’ll keep it on stage. Once it’s internalized, it needs to go!

I know your heritage and faith are extremely important to you. Can you expand on the intersection of your culture and your art?

For me, the underlying narrative of Zion80 is very much about the interplay between universal humanity and cultural particularism. Both Fela and Carlebach understood deeply that the truest connection to all of humanity can often be found through the individual’s roots in their own culture, religion, etc. This is counter to the popular conception that universality and particularism are mutually exclusive; I completely disagree with that idea.

Of course, there are a lot of potential pitfalls if the interplay between these two forces gets out of balance. But from my perspective, a rejection of either particularism or universality is a tragic mistake.

This idea plays heavily into the intersection of my culture and art. Simply put, I’m an observant Jew trying to extend both my roots and my branches. My roots go back to the traditions, beliefs and culture of my ancestors, and my own branches as a musician go in many directions, including to Fela. 

Are there any inherent (or imposed) limitations, navigating your life as a musician and man of deep faith?

There are certainly some logistical limitations to this navigation. The major ones are the prohibitions on working, traveling, etc. on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays. Since the Sabbath goes from Friday night at sundown to Saturday night an hour after sundown, that rules out playing Friday night gigs and many Saturday night gigs!

There are also the limitations of keeping kosher and making sure that there’s food I can eat wherever I am. In New York this is very easy, but traveling to other countries often involves making arrangements to get food.

But for all of the limitations, there’s the other side of being rooted in tradition, and the opportunities that this provides. For example, this past summer, Zion80 was in Austria at the Saalfelden Festival. We were there over Shabbat before our concert late Saturday night. Since we don’t drive or use public transportation on Shabbat, we took a long walk through the town and had an amazing time. Once Shabbat was over, we got all of our equipment together and did the show.

Without my interest in and connection to Jewish culture, identity and spirituality, Zion80 would never have happened. It’s completely rooted in those ideas, while simultaneously reaching out in other directions, including to Fela’s music. So there may of course, be limitations that I work within as an observant Jew, but it’s all part of the bigger picture of trying to be grounded as a human being and making my music from that place.

What are some of your most profound influences (musically and otherwise)?

One of my biggest influences, both personally and musically, is John Zorn. I started listening to his band, Naked City, in high school. The Masada project started when I was in college, and from the first time hearing that, I was hooked. I got my hands on every recording of his I could, and for the next several years totally immersed myself in his work.

So it’s really been an amazing experience to get to know him, work with him, perform his music, etc. Everything about the way he works, from composing to choosing musicians to recording to releasing records, it’s all been a tremendous lesson and inspiration for me.

Other important musical influences over the years include Led Zeppelin, Fugazi, Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Marc Ribot, Jimi Hendrix, Thomas Chapin, Radiohead, Mario Pavone, Marty Ehrlich, Miles Davis and Tortoise.

Tzadik has been so successful in cultivating a roster of diverse, challenging players. Where does Zion80 fit into this spectrum?

There really is a diverse group of musicians on Tzadik. People may think of it as mainly being connected to the Radical Jewish Culture movement, but there’s a lot more to the label, including the series of Japanese music, film scores, female artists, re-releases, etc. I feel like Zion80 is part of a second generation of musicians exploring the ideas of Radical Jewish Culture. That generation also includes my trio Rashanim along with lots of other bands like Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom, Eyal Maoz’ Edom, the French bands AutorYno and Zakarya, Pharaoh’s Daughter and others.

To me, Radical Jewish Culture is really about taking influences from the past and creating something new. Of course, we’re dealing on some level with Jewish ideas, music, iconography, etc. but that melding of old and new, traditional and avant-garde, ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ that’s really what it’s all about. And I hope that Zion80 fits right in with that.

We happen to be taking the music of Fela and Carlebach and mixing it with the flavor of the ‘Downtown’ scene, but it could be klezmer, cantorial music, Ladino songs, or Burt Bacharach taken in a new and exciting direction. To me, that’s all Radical Jewish Culture.

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