By: Netanel Paley  | 

In Zusha’s Kavana, a Meditation at a Crossroads of Jewish Music

Music reviewers are difficult to please. The most forgiving will not hesitate to dismiss an artist’s arduous, year long (or longer) efforts in scathing, career-destroying terms if he or she feels the music “doesn’t coalesce around a distinct sonic identity” or the lyrics “provoke less thought than One Direction’s syrupy platitudes.” The least forgiving - well, you can just check out the Pitchfork or NME websites and see how many of the reviews, day in day out, are decidedly negative.

It’s difficult to excuse such snobbery, but one defense I can offer is that writing music reviews is itself difficult. Regardless of their familiarity with music theory and aesthetics, music reviewers cannot use any of that in their writing because they have to write in terms comprehensible to the typical pop music consumer. So, in effect, the content of their reviews is inevitably limited to the “musical identity” of the band, the relative originality or profundity of the lyrics, and a slew of pop culture references and reminiscences of similar-sounding artists to help them express their visceral response to the music. They really have nothing else to say, which might explain why reviews are generally quite short.

That’s why I can’t imagine a professional music reviewer writing about Zusha’s new album Kavana. As in their EP, a fraction of their songs actually have words, and even those words are not original lyrics but quotes from traditional Jewish sources. Their sound has been invigorated since the EP’s release, but still is not comparable to anything in current or canonical pop music, and certainly not in Jewish popular music. I suppose a junior Consequence of Sound writer could showcase his ignorance of traditional Jewish music by trying to describe what a niggun is. But let’s be honest: no one would read it.

No, Kavana needs to be reviewed by someone who has actually listened to Jewish music before. I don’t claim an extensive knowledge of the past 40 years of Jewish, non-hazzanic popular music, from Miami Boys Choir to Moshav, but I have listened to enough to know that Zusha is not only breaking the mold, but breaking new ground. Today’s post-Carlebach Jewish music scene appears to be more about the money than the music, what with popular performers charging several thousands for a single wedding, and similar-sounding, 20-something male soloists popping up every other week. It probably isn’t so simple, but it seems like all a Jewish music producer needs to make it big these days is a young guy with a good voice, a bunch of simple melodies and dance-pop hooks, and a half-decent band. And yet people buy it. A lot of it.

So Zusha’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. Their nonchalant, individualistic ethos, as hipster as their unkempt beards and flannel shirts, serves as foil to the commercial climate of the mainstream. More to the point of this review, though, their organic, atmospheric sound is a refreshing contrast to the derivative, sometimes melodramatic sound of current Jewish music. Songs like “Pashut” and “Child” exude a spiritual sincerity that even the most talented Jewish music producer cannot contrive. And unlike the music of Eitan Katz and Simcha Leiner, neither Zusha’s musical horizons nor the emotional response they evoke are limited by a single voice and a simple band. Their layered harmonies and unconventional use of instruments native to Jewish music--the jazz-infused saxophone solo in “East Shtetl” is one--generate the ambience of klezmer and the intense niggunei deveykut (wordless melodies sung to increase attachment to God) of the Hasidic musical tradition. With such emotional saturation, Zusha has no use for the pulsating emptiness of electronic dance music that infiltrated Jewish music long ago, and that is probably why they avoid it entirely.

Kavana is also better by Zusha’s own standards. A common complaint I heard about their EP, mostly from people who did not have the patience to listen to it carefully or more than once, was that all of the songs sound the same. That’s understandable, because the six songs on the EP hover around the same trance-like tempo, which recalls that of certain time-honored niggunim of Chabad and Breslov. But if you listen closely, you’ll detect subtleties, like dissonant piano flourishes and lead singer Shlomo Gaisin’s scat-singing, that make each song musically exquisite. Those subtleties are more pronounced in Kavana. Gaisin gets more creative, and more confident, in his vocal improvisation - he is not afraid to get throaty towards the end of “Shuva” and downright weird in “Ikvisa” - and the album features a number of richly nuanced instrumental interludes, of horns in “Mashiach” and of strings in “Forever.” This all contributes to a bolder sound than the EP’s, a boldness I think is best captured by the uptempo, bouncy rhythm of “East Shtetl.” It was indeed a wise move for Zusha to give that track the first spot on the album, because it can convince the casual listener to keep listening.

What may be less convincing to Zusha’s primarily Modern Orthodox audience is the significance of their role in the modern continuum of Jewish music. Friends of mine who went to the recent concert in Manhattan spoke of a thick stench of marijuana that pervaded the Bowery Ballroom, leading some to question whether Zusha is Jewish music at all. Aside from the fact that such a sentiment betrays a naively restricted definition of Jewish music, it also ignores the fact that Zusha is not playing solely for Jews. Touring around the world and taking up the model of Soulfarm and Matisyahu, Zusha is just trying to let the world know that Jewish music is more than just variations of “Hava Nagila.” Jewish music can be hip, it can be avant-garde, it can sound beautiful.  It can also take in outside musical influences while maintaining its Jewish character. Sure, a bar filled with pot-smoke is not the most comfortable environment for a religious Jew; I and many other fans would avoid those kind of venues. But that doesn’t mean Zusha’s music is any less Jewish than Yaakov Shwekey’s or 8th Day’s. It only means that Zusha has the opportunity, the first of its kind in modern Jewish musical history, to show the world how soulful and musical religious Judaism can be.