Photo by Justin Bias

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

With Zion80, Jon Madof is not making a departure so much as a logical, if inspired, continuation of the ground he’s covered the past decade.

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.

And Kuti?

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.

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.