At a concert in New York City a few months ago I saw two things I’d never witnessed before. The first was a group of Jewish jazz musicians playing Afrobeat. The second was a yarmulke soaring through the air in the midst of a guitar solo.
So, if Jewish Afrobeat played at a pace where no yarmulke is safe sounds like your thing, boy have I got a band for you. And even if you don’t especially care for, or have never even heard Jewish Jazz or Afrobeat, Zion80 comes highly recommended.
This outfit, the latest project from guitar mastermind Jon Madof, is described as “Shlomo Carlebach meets Fela Kuti.” Let’s break it down: Carlebach and Kuti are titans of 20th Century music, that is culturally as well as artistic icons. Carlebach was a beloved American rabbi, composer and singer. Kuti was a Nigerian visionary, social activist and the architect of Afrobeat.
Zion80 serves as a tribute to these musicians and a forward-looking project seamlessly merging two disparate sensibilities for a new millennium. Indeed, the band’s moniker is a playful nod to the name of Kuti’s epic band Egypt80. The formula is at once straightforward and audacious: taking traditional melodies and tossing them into a cauldron of multi-horned and percussion-laden Afrobeat: the result is rollicking fun, with intelligence and soul to spare.
It’s instructive to see this in a live setting to appreciate and provide proper context. The arrangements are clever and inspired, but there’s sufficient room for the players to interact and improvise. Taking cues both from sheet music and Madof’s prompts, the tunes, which are tighter and shorter on the CD, get to stretch out and catch fire. This is not to suggest the recorded material is sterile or unexciting; in fact, it’s stunning: a near-perfect blend of precision and blissful abandon.
Anyone familiar with Kuti, or early ‘70s James Brown, or even newer collectives like Budos Band or Antibalas, will have an immediate point of reference. Zion80 features two drummers, loads of percussion, a triple-sax assault (two baritone, one tenor), trumpet, keyboards and three (!) guitars. Considering the assembled players are all proficient jazz musicians, what might be daunting or overwhelming is expertly presented, for maximum enjoyment.
Madof, continuing his fruitful association with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, is not making a departure so much as a logical if inspired continuation of the ground he’s covered the past decade. All of his projects thus far (with his band Rashanim) have explored traditional Jewish sounds with a skillful blend of surf music, thrash, jazz and calmer acoustic. Each successive effort has seen Madof stretching and pushing himself farther, in as well as out, utilizing exotic instruments with feeling always at the forefront.
The disc is a triple-threat: an ideal introduction to Zion80 as swell as Kuti and Carlebach (both of whom will reward interested listeners). Where Kuti’s legendary jams are sprawling, sometimes exhausting affairs, Madof’s arrangements are tight and accessible. Every player gets a chance to shine, and the full range of instruments is ably represented throughout.
My conversation with Madof after his gig was insightful but too short. He was kind enough to elaborate on his process and discuss what inspired Zion80 (in particular) and his musical vision, in general.
Zion80 is an ambitious project with many moving parts. While obviously an ideal gateway for discovery and improvisation, an undertaking like this must be a labor of love?
Yes, definitely! I hope that any music I do would be a labor of love. Obviously, there are organizational and financial aspects to it. But for me, if it doesn’t come from a place of love and excitement for the music, it’s not really worth it.
Zion80 is a lot of work logistically because there are so many people. Sometimes it’s dozens of emails and phone calls just to get everything together for one performance. But the reward is that we all get to be on stage, making music together.
To even contemplate a project like this, one assumes the listener is familiar with either Shlomo Carlebach and/or Fela Kuti (preferably both). The reality is, many listeners may have heard of neither. More, they may not have heard of Rashanim, or have any familiarity with jazz.
Do you feel (as I do) that the backgrounds of both sources are useful and add considerable context and flavor, but ultimately are not imperative? (Put plainly: this is music one can “get” and enjoy without knowing the back catalogs of Carlebach and Kuti!)
I agree completely. All music exists in a context, has specific references and is made by people who all have their own pasts and stories. But on the most fundamental level, music is simply a form of communication from one human being to another. And I don’t think there’s any ‘need’ for a listener to do anything other than to listen. Of course, if someone understands Zion80’s references, that’s great. But there are no prerequisites.
The best example of this is the way small children respond to music. I have three young kids, and they all responded to music way before they could walk or talk. I could put on the Beatles, John Zorn, Led Zeppelin or Fela, and they’d love it. And they didn’t care in the least what country the musician was from, when the CD was recorded, or what language was being spoken.
When did you first encounter Carlebach?
I first heard Carlebach’s music before I even knew it was his music. After my wife and I got married in 2001, we began getting more involved with Jewish observance. That included going to Shabbat services, meals, holiday celebrations and other events. Invariably, there would be singing and dancing at these events. And more often than not, the tunes we were singing and dancing to were Carlebach’s. His music spread very rapidly throughout the Jewish world and has become the standard in many communities.
It wasn’t until a year or two later when a friend asked me if I played any of Carlebach’s tunes with my band. But I didn’t even know his name! When I responded that I didn’t know who Carlebach was, my friend simply said, ‘sure you do.’ He sang me a few of the familiar melodies, and I was surprised not only to learn that they were all written by one person, but that this person had lived so recently (he passed away in 1994). So I never had the privilege of meeting him in person, but his music has had a tremendous impact on me.
Fela is one of those musicians who was hugely important and influential but is not a household name in as wide a way as he really should be. My wife and I went to visit friends in upstate New York, and when my friend mentioned ‘Fela’ in passing, I asked who he was referring to. Once he regained his composure after finding out that I did not, indeed, know who Fela Kuti was, he made me promise to go out to the record store with him the next day (back when they had record stores!). We did, I got ‘The Best Best of Fela Kuti’ and the rest, as they say, is history. I was hooked!
How and when did it occur to you that two such prolific, beloved (and not uncontroversial) artists could, indeed should, be combined?
It actually happened spontaneously. One day (which happened to be a Friday), I was working at home and listening to Fela a lot. The kind of listening where you can’t get enough and you’re just swimming in the music!
The next day was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath (aka Shabbat). I was getting ready to take my kids to synagogue and started humming a tune that we sing on Shabbat, which happened to be a tune written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The rhythm of Fela’s music was stuck in my head, and the melody I was humming got mixed in with it. I literally jumped up and started imagining what other Carlebach songs would sound like with an Afrobeat treatment.
Since observant Jews don’t use electronic devices on Shabbat, I waited until Saturday night to go on my iPad to see if anyone had made this mixture before. When a Google search didn’t turn anything up, I knew that I had to do it!
Was it challenging to assemble this band?
It’s funny, but as soon as I started thinking about the music, I knew the people I wanted to get in the band. I had tried some large ensemble ideas with a short-lived group called CircuitBreaker several years ago, and many of those musicians were the ones I called for Zion80. Some of the members of Zion80 are musicians I’ve been playing with for over ten years since I moved to New York.
Others are ones I’ve wanted to play with but didn’t have the opportunity. And others are players I’ve met more recently. But in the case of each player, I selected them based on their personalities, what I thought they would bring to the music.