Sunday, 16 October 2016

Synagogues of sound.

The Jewish Museum in Camden is one of London's hidden treasures. A small doorway on a road off Parkway opens up into an Aladdin's cave of religious artefacts, historical displays, and child friendly activities. Concentrating on both secular and religious aspects of Judaism.

I was there to see Jukebox, Jewkbox:A Century on Shellac and Vinyl. The exhibition took as its starting point German-Jewish US immigrant Emil Berliner's invention of the gramophone and, therefore, records as we know them. Before opening up into a tale of the record age (viewed, of course, through a Jewish prism) culminating in the rise of CDs and, finally, the Internet which many thought, incorrectly, spelt the death of vinyl.

Berliner had been born in Hanover and had moved to the US in 1870. Edison had already recorded sound but Berliner's technology was vastly superior and the shellac started to spin. In 1889 Francois Barraud's 'His Master's Voice' became the logo of Berliner's burgeoning business. It'd been offered to Edison but he'd shown no interest.

Four year later, in Washington DC, Berliner formed the United States Gramophone Company and in 1898 they moved to Montreal where they provided a home for jazz music. This wasn't so easy to do in the US when you had the likes of Henry Ford traducing it as "the vile work of Jews".

As the record boom continued companies like Decca and RCA sprang up. In 1904 Columbia set the regulation speed of revolutions per minute at 78 and, later, another Jewish immigrant, Alex Steinweiss, persuaded Columbia to market shellac records in individually designed covers. The first, below, was by two very famous Jewish songwriters.

American labels, marginally improving from Henry Ford's overt racism, introduced 'ethnic lists' and these included many Jewish records. In 1935 Moses Asch founded a New York studio for Yiddish theatre songs and folk music whilst Simcha released medleys recorded in Jewish hotels up in the Catskills.

Asch went on to produce Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger and started the label Folkways. Alongside their core of folk music they found room for Sephardic and Arabic-Jewish music.

At the same time the big German label Odeon was making recordings as far afield as Baghdad, Turkey, and Uganda. In 1934 Odeon was Aryanized by the Nazis. As I'm sure you can imagine there were further crackdowns. The secular and liturgical company Semer was destroyed on Kristallnacht, November 1938 and the popular Jewish dance band Sid Kay's Fellows were banned from playing in Berlin.

In 1948 another Jewish man, Peter Goldmark, came out with vinyl. Spinning at 33rpm increased the listening time exponentially and LPs were born. RCA countered, one year later, with the advent of the 7" single. Atlantic Records appeared on the seen c/o Jerry Wexler, son of a Jewish window cleaner from the Bronx, and Ahmet Ertegun, the son of a Turkish diplomat.

Many of these records would have been played on the Rock-Ola jukebox (1956 example below). In Camden you can hear scratched and warped 7s of Simon & Garfunkel singing Rag Doll and El Condor Pasa and Blondie's Heart of Glass amongst others.

For home listening you could use your Dansette. Designed by Russian-Jewish UK immigrant Morris Margolin. It coincided with, and cashed in on, the boom in the lucrative teenage market.

The second, and considerably larger, part of the exhibition is given over to what looks like a rather fantastic record shop. Complete with headphones to listen to some of the music on. Many of which weren't working. Surprising in such a spruce and orderly establishment. You do, however, have the option of reclining on a beanbag and watching JewTube.

There are various sections in the record 'shop'. The first is given over to cantors. Most of these are chanted prayers recorded in Warsaw, Smolensk, or Vienna for home listening. Next up are popular songs of Tin Pan Alley featuring the works and performances of Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, and Harold Arlen rubbing up against Gershwin, Korngold, and Hart. Writers who bridged the gap between popular and serious.

The Yiddish theatre section features recordings of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen and an area devoted to comedians is thick with household names. Try Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Tom Lehrer, and Lenny Bruce for size.

They've some real curate's eggs in the educational area. Religious readings are perhaps not particularly surprising but was there really much of a market for field recordings of the Six Day War?

Folk music and Israeli folk music are given separate sections as is klezmer. I must admit I'm not qualified enough to make distinctions though the klezmer artists like Dave Tarras, The Klezmatics, and She'Koyokh were familiar to me. I was unable to find anything by an old favourite of mine, Naftule Brandwein, however.

The Arabic-Jewish music looked intriguing with recordings from Spain, Persia, Yemen, and Morocco. The 'Black & White' section begins with Al Jolson but moves on to Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, and Paul Desmond. The label Blue Note was founded by Jewish refugee Alfred Lion.

Jewish pop producers included Jac Holzman, Phil Spector, David Geffen, Seymour Stein, and Rick Rubin. Jewish pop performers make for a very lengthy list:- Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka, Bob Dylan (who yodelled a version of Hava Nagila back in '61), Simon and Garfunkel, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, and Kiss are just the tip of the iceberg. Israeli pop has been given its own zone. Ofra Haza features as do Esther and Abi Ofarim.

There's a surprisingly large punk contingent stretching from forebears like Lou Reed (who's listed, perhaps incorrectly, as having been born Lewis Allan Rabinowitz) to punks turned hip-hoppers The Beastie Boys. Somewhere in the middle there's a fair bit of flirting with Nazi imagery. If your parents are Jewish what better way to shock them?

The newest recordings are lumped under the slightly unwieldy term 'Jewish Radical'. That'd be John Zorn, Peaches etc; Alan Vega said CBGBs was 'one big synagogue' which seems somewhat unlikely but makes for a good quote.

There's loads of interesting stuff in this exhibition. It's laid out a bit willy-nilly but you could spend hours poring over the record sleeves and listening to them. I spent a couple but then I went for a cappuccino in the cafe downstairs which was served up with a chocolate heart on top. I was told 'enjoy your art'. I had done already.

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