Tomer Yosef: Laughing Underground

[21 October 2008]

By Steve Horowitz

World Music from Israel

Israeli musician Tomer Yosef uses snippets from the classic science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still on two different songs on his latest disc. But Yosef’s not trying to capitalize on the new version with Keanu Reaves scheduled for a December release—this album was recorded between January and May 2004, when the remake was still a gleam in its director’s eye. The more likely reason is that it has to do with the complex prospects for peace in the Middle East. As a hopeful Israeli, he can only imagine a giant robot police force from outer space enforcing world harmony. The other options seem even less plausible.

That’s my guess anyway. While the songs on Yosef’s album have hopeful yet inscrutable English titles like “No Poverty”, “What’s Wrong”, “A Singing Mute”, and “When the Wind Pushes Me”, he sings them in Hebrew. My six years of Hebrew school prove useless in deciphering the lyrics, although I know enough to realize that when he is singing about “Fuck Lila”, he is singing something about the evening rather than having sex with a woman by that name.

One doesn’t have to speak Hebrew to appreciate the music anymore than one has to understand the Yoruba language to enjoy the Nigerian jùjú music of King Sunny Adé or any other world music. Yosef incorporates a variety of genres, including reggae, hip hop, rock, electronica, and various Middle Eastern styles to create an infectious album that always keeps the listener engaged. Sure, we might enjoy the record more if we understood what the songs are about, but no lyric sheet or other clues are included. We are to experience the music fresh.

This lends an exotic air of mystery to what is going on. Yosef sings with expressive conviction. Whether he’s chanting a rap litany, crooning the words with a serious intensity, or laughingly offering up sentiments, his vocals communicate emotive sincerity. His voice is always in the forefront of what’s happening. Yosef began his entertainment career in Israel as a comedian and an actor, so he knows how to play with the vocals for full effect.

The polyrhythmic instrumentation keeps things moving. The various percussive elements keep the music bouncing. It continually invites the listener to dance and sway. On some songs, like “A Story”, the words and rhythms are tightly synchronized for full effect. Each beat is doubly-accentuated when the vocalist is present, and when no voices are present the music goes into funky bass lines and squiggles.

The implicit promise of such songs lies in the acknowledgement of our shared humanity.  We are, as George Clinton famously said, “One Nation Under Groove”. As an Israeli musician, Yosef knows that some people will hate or love him just for what he represents. The music here suggests that he embraces the world. He chops and mixes styles from around the globe to create a sound that says, forget your problems, let’s dance and sing. The album’s title, Laughing Underground, suggests there’s even moments of joy in fallout shelters and bunkers. The music reminds us that we must not forget our shared bonds or we will remain in bondage.

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