Friday, June 24, 2016

Photo Credit to: Karen Sayre, Eikon Photography | Courtesy of AJC Washington.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Save the Date!

What: Makela's biggest concert of the year!

When: Saturday, May 7 at 7 PM (doors open 6:30)

Where: Sitar Arts Center - 1700 Kalorama Rd., NW - Washington D.C.

Reception and after-party to follow.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Language Diversity in Jewish Music


Today, when most people think of "Jewish language" they immediately think of Hebrew.  This certainly makes sense.  Hebrew is the primary language of Israel as well as the language in which Jews formally pray, and the Hebrew alphabet is used to write Yiddish, even though Yiddish is a Germanic language.  It is presently the most commonly spoken Jewish language by far.

And Hebrew is a pretty cool language to sing in.  Not only is it beautiful, it also, even when used for secular purposes, retains its spiritual underpinnings.  Hebrew words rely on a unique system of roots and connections that signal certain important religious concepts.  For instance, the word "adam" (ah-dahm) is the Hebrew word for "red," but it's also the word for "man" and "human" and the proper name Adam, while also closely related to the word "adamah," which means Earth.  This is intended to demonstrate the fact that man comes from the the Earth, that Gd made Adam from the red clay of the Earth, and that when (hu)man dies s/he returns to the dust. Some Jews believe that the Hebrew language was designed by Gd.  So even when we sing secular Hebrew music, we're still singing distinctively Jewish music.

Consider this beautiful secular love song by Idan Raichel, "From the Deep" or "Mimiamakim."  "Mimiamakim" has very distinct meaning for Jews.  A prayer that we say during the holiest holiday of the year begins with the words"from the deep" or "from the depths," and it's meant to describe how, on Yom Kippur, we cry out for Gd from the very depths of our souls and from the very depths of our sorrows.  Idan Raichel, in this piece, uses these words to demonstrate the intense longing with which he is calling out to his partner. 

You'll also note that Idan Raichel has regularly collaborated with Jews of varying ethnic and language backgrounds, including Ethiopian Jews who have immigrated to Israel.  Several of Raichel's collaborations feature Ethiopian Jews singing in the Ethiopian language Amharic, such as in "From the Deep" above and in the song "Bo'i," which Makela covers.



After Hebrew, Yiddish is probably the most recognized Jewish language, especially among Americans.  Yiddish is a Germanic language with some Slavic and Hebrew influences, written in the Hebrew alphabet, and, as a spoken language, is very similar to the Middle German that was spoken during the Medieval period, when Yiddish originally developed among Central and Eastern European Jewish communities, known as Ashkenazic Jews.  Since the majority of Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are of Ashkenazic ancestry, this is the Jewish language that was brought to the United States.

Ashkenazic immigrants played a major role in shaping Jewish popular music during the first half of the 20th century, and Yiddish itself has had a profound influence on American English.  Many recognizably Yiddish words are frequently interjected by Jewish and non-Jewish English speakers alike, such as "schlep," "nosh," "kvetch," "klutz," etc.  Other Yiddish words are often taken for granted as English, such as "maven," "spritz," and "glitch."

Yiddish language goes hand in hand with klezmer, a Jewish musical tradition developed by Ashkenazic Jews in Europe, who were heavily influenced by Romani (sometimes known by the pejorative term "Gypsy") music in Europe, given that both groups were frequently marginalized.  Klezmer, in turn, has had strong influences on a variety of other musical forms, including jazz and cabaret.  It also shares some similarities with jazz manouche, a distinctively French form of jazz, popularized and possibly invented by the Romani artist Django Reinhardt.

While not particularly beautiful to most, Yiddish is known for being a highly expressive language, often providing the perfect word for expressing a particular sentiment when no English word will do.  This expressiveness has had an important influence in instrumental klezmer music, in which it is common for musicians to attempt to emulate human voices and expressiveness with particular riffs.  In this way, certain klezmer instrumental sounds are said to be "kvelling" (to speak about with great pride) or "kfetching" (to complain), etc.

You can hear the klezmer influences in this current Yiddish piece by artist Yoni Eilat:

(for a fun instrumental example of music combining klezmer and jazz manouche elements with funk, check out this piece by French band Les Yeux Noirs)

Makela is currently working on bringing our first Yiddish piece into our repertoire, "Bei Mir Bistu Shein," a Yiddish pop song from the 1930s, a time when there was a thriving Yiddish cinema and there were still enough Yiddish speakers for secular popular music to frequently be produced in Yiddish.  The song was sung in Yiddish at the Apollo in 1937 by African-American performers Johnnie and George, prompting American composers to translate it into English while retaining some of the original Yiddish language.  The English variation of Bei Mir Bistu Shein went on to be covered by several popular American artists, and became the Andrews Sisters' first ever big hit.  The song also became internationally popular, including in Germany, until the NAZI government discovered that the song was rooted in Yiddish, not German, and promptly banned it from German radio.  Click here to hear the Andrews Sisters version on Youtube.


Yiddish is to the Ashkenazic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe as Ladino is to the Sephardic Jews of Spain and North Africa, who maintained large populations in Iberia until the Spanish Inquisition led to mass conversion and exile.  Ladino essentially enjoys an Old Spanish core with richly varied influences from other old Iberian romance languages and a variety of MidEastern languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic.  It is a painfully beautiful and unfortunately highly endangered language today, with very few speakers left.  Many Sephardic Jews with roots in Spain ended up migrating throughout other parts of North Africa and the MidEast, taking Ladino with them.

Enjoy this hauntingly beautiful Ladino song by Israeli-born Morrocan/Persian artist Mor Karbasi:

Yemenite Jewish Languages

The term Yemenite refers to the Jews of Yemen, most of whom today live in Israel.  Yemenites traditionally speak Yemeni Arabic and/or Yemenite Hebrew.  Yemenite Jews are sometimes characterized as part of the greater group of Mizrahi Jews, which generally refers to Jews whose roots have consistently remained in the Middle East, rather than by way of Europe like the Ashkenazim and Sephardim.  It's a somewhat difficult distinction to make, however, since all Jews are said to be able to trace themselves back to ancient Israel, including the Ashkenazim and Sephardim who eventually spread into Europe.  Furthermore, many of the Sephardim fled Iberia to live in the Middle East centuries ago where they intermingled with Arab Jews, making Sephardic and Mizrahi populations sometimes hard to distinguish from one another.  Yemenite Jews, however, are a clear and distinct subgroup among the Mizrahim, as their religious practice and language have distinct qualities.

The following piece is a pop variation on a traditional Yemenite folk song performed by the rising Yemenite pop group A-WA, and sung in Yemeni Arabic.  What looks like hip hop dancing is actually a traditional Yemenite folk dance:

Click here for a fascinating article on the Yemenite influences in the song and for the story behind A-WA.  Interestingly, A-WA found great inspiration in the Andrews Sisters, the American group that helped to popularize Bei Mir Bistu Shein.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Thursday, June 26, 2014

2014 Friends & Family Concert a Great Success

Above: Makela performing our grand finale, Tal Bachman's "She's So High" feat. Deb and Joel, with special guest beatboxer Dani.  See all the songs from our concert on our Youtube channel.

On June 14 Makela held its 2014 Friends & Family Concert, "Makela Not War," at the wonderful Sitar Arts Center in Northwest Washington, D.C.  We performed some of our favorite pieces from our repertoire, including the group's signature song, "Samachti."  We revisited pieces from our archive, like the Beatles' "Because."  And we added some things that were brand new: the Israeli classic "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" (Jerusalem of Gold) and a completely original arrangement of Toto's "Africa."  The Africa arrangement was put together by our then newest member, Sarah F., dance teacher, alto and Makela jack-of-all-trades (you can find her conducting on your far left in the above video).  We also brought back "Down by the River," an American folk tune of unknown origin popularized by Alison Krauss, and which was new at last year's concert.

A special highlight of the evening was seeing our former member Dani supporting us from the audience.  Dani is a beatboxer extraordinaire and he was an amazing sport when we asked him to come on stage during our finale to provide percussive awesomeness.

Special thanks go to Joel and Deb for making sure the group was musically well-prepared for our biggest concert of the year; to Jenni for coordinating with Sitar and arranging a truly perfect venue for this performance; to Sarah for jumping in full steam as our newest member and taking on arranging, conducting and beatboxing duties in addition to having to learn 15 new songs in a very short period of time; and to Andrew for basically being our one-man AV team and transporter of delicious snacks.

See all our song clips from the concert using our 2014 Friends & Family Concert playlist on Youtube.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Makela Says Goodbye - and Hello

Makela at Dan's last performance with the group, after welcoming its then newest member, Rachel.

If you ask any of our current or former members what the second-best thing about Makela is you'll hear a variety of answers: Making great music, feeling connected to Jewish culture, getting a 2 hour fun break at each week's rehearsal, invitations to hob-nob at awesome embassy events and other DC area goings on...

But the number one answer will always be the same: The people.

For all the wonderful things about being located in D.C., like the opportunities we get to perform at events that wouldn't be possible elsewhere and to interact with people from all over the world, being in D.C. can also be tough. People in D.C. are constantly coming and going because of work or other short-term opportunities that are unique to D.C. This means that our members often come and go. New people come, make a unique mark on the group, impact its sound and its culture and then have to say goodbye.

In the past few months we have said goodbye to several members who made a huge impact on the group and on each of our lives. Dan left to attend rabbinical school in Israel. Dan is an extremely cheerful, upbeat guy with an epic bass voice that can make the whole room resonate.  Not only does Dan have the ability to instantly ground a song and add an intensity of rhythm that can set the tone for the whole group, he can also be counted on to create an impact whenever a particular moment requires added emphasis.  There's a point in Emtsa that will forever be known as "Dan's thing." (Watch Emtsa and look for Dan's moment at 3:28)

We also said goodbye to Aviv, who came to D.C. through her work at the Israeli embassy and recently returned to Israel (where we sincerely hope she's hanging out and singing with Dan!) Aviv's Israeli ties brought a new dimension and internationalism to Makela's Jewish identity, and her cool, laid-back personality made an impression on everybody in the group.  Aviv has a gift for picking music up quickly and she has a low, resonant, bluesy voice that could blend beautifully in several different voice parts to mellow and round out the group's overall sound.

Most recently we said goodbye to Dani, who served for much of his Makela tenure as Makela's president (an honor that now belongs to Emerald).  Dani is the kind of leader who did a lot of work behind the scenes without bringing much attention to all he was doing.  He made it so that the rest of us could just have fun and focus on the music, which was a gift.  Dani is also an incredibly talented beat boxer in addition to having a distinct, crisp, clear singing voice that brought amazing character to his solos and the group's blend (see him sing solo in the first part of the above mentioned Emtsa video and beatbox in the second!)

The group at Dani's last rehearsal - Our newest member, Ilya, is also pictured
We miss all of them very much.  Every member that comes and goes is unique and irreplaceable.

We've also had the pleasure of adding three new singers to Makela's ranks.  While none of them takes the place of a prior member they each bring their own unique personality, style and sound to the group.  The overall dynamic and group tone have changed remarkably with these new additions.  This is one of the most fascinating aspects of being part of a music group, particularly in a cappella - that a music group is a product of a complex formula in which each individual member plays a role.  Change one of the variables and you change the outcome.

Earlier this year we acquired Rachel.  Rachel's fun, quirky personality makes her a perfect fit for Makela's culture.  Rachel also boasts a soulful, true female tenor voice that gives the group mid-range resonance and also makes her a extremely versatile in her ability to fill out different voice parts.  She quickly picked up the solo in Bright Lights as her voice is an excellent match for this emotional, bluesy rock ballad.

We are also pleased to have been joined by Sarah M.  Sarah's versatile alto-mezzo voice has a distinct, warm honey tone that rounds out the low end of the upper voice parts.  She also stepped up big time by volunteering to become the group's first ever Booking Coordinator, which has made us more organized and ensured that the group handles our increasing gig opportunities with professionalism.

The group dined together after performing at Ilya's dad's birthday party - here's Rachel, Deb and Sarah from left to right

Finally, our newest addition to the group is Ilya.  Ilya is not only a talented bass but a musical jack-of-all-trades with significant instrumental experience, arranging ability and knowledge of music theory.  We are excited to see what he comes up with.  Also of utmost importance, Ilya regularly feeds us.

It's clear that when the composition of the group changes we don't lose a part of the group so much as transform into something new and different.  The only component we are really "missing" at this point is an experienced beat boxer (not that many of us haven't tried with varying comedic results).  A good beat boxer has the power to add additional rhythms, complexity and intensity.  Dani's shoes will be tough to fill because he truly understood how beat boxing is not only a fun talent in its own right but a way of artistically enhancing an entire song through nuance and emphasis - plus he had the physical skill and precision to actually execute his vision.  You can see in the Emtsa video how his beat boxing changes the song.

If you are an experienced beat boxer and are interested in joining Makela (or if you know someone who you think would be a good fit) please check out our audition page and get in touch with us about trying out.  Both male and female beat boxers are welcome and while much of our focus is on Jewish music you do NOT have to be Jewish or speak Hebrew to come sing with us.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Makela honored to perform at Israeli Embassy Celebration

Makela members Becky and Jenni
chatting before the event.
Recently Makela had the privilege of performing the U.S. and Israeli national anthems (see the video here) at the Israeli Embassy's Annual Independence Day Celebration.  The event took place at the beautiful Mellon Auditorium near the Capitol Mall. About 1,000 people were in attendance.  Speakers included Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and the Honorable Nancy Pelosi.

"I have to say, it was really cool to be doing our national anthem three feet from Minority Leader Pelosi.  I was so happy we got to be part of such an unforgettable ceremony." -- Noah (tenor)

Yom Ha'atzmaut commemorates the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Israel's Chief Rabbinate has declared Yom Ha'atzmaut an official Jewish holiday and it is celebrated around the world.  A large yearly celebration in Jerusalem includes the ceremonial lighting of twelve torches representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  There was a strong international presence among the attendees at the embassy event, including political and military leaders from many different countries, Israel and the U.S. 

Members Emily, Emerald, Noah, and Becky
enjoying food and libations before our performance.
The venue was fantastic.  It was a gorgeous, Baroque style space with lots of natural lighting.  Guests enjoyed Mediterranean fare including dolmas, hummus, chocolate covered halva and pastas and salads made with flavorful olive oil. The event also featured a selection of Israeli wines.  Overall the atmosphere was friendly, festive and proud.  We were thrilled to be a part of it.

From a music and performance perspective we were also thrilled.  The stage setup was beautiful, and so were the backstage accommodations.  We enjoyed having the opportunity to work with a sound technician before the event to make sure that our music would be balanced and heard correctly throughout the large space.  During the performance itself our audience was appreciative and attentive.  We even heard some audience members singing along to our rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.  Audience engagement is always very encouraging, especially at an event that isn't really a concert but an interactive ceremony where individuals come together in shared appreciation for something they love.

The stage was beautifully lit and adorned.

All in all, this event was a highly memorable experience and we feel both honored and lucky that we were invited to perform.  It reminds us of how great it is to be in D.C. where events like these take place and how meaningful it is to be part of a global Jewish community that is full of vibrant international diversity.
The green room in this case was actually green. 
Makela's members gathered backstage behind a projector
screen to watch Ambassador Oren address the audience.

Jenni, Emerald and Dan.

Everyone gathered back stage before going on.