By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
Jews have the gift of the mouth. Whether it’s food, talking or music, Jewish performers have rocked Hollywood to Broadway and Vaudeville to hip hop since their earliest days. But Jewish beatboxers?
“Jewish people are people of the Book with all its oral tradition,” beatboxer Yuri Lane explained. “And let’s face it, Jewish people love to get on stage, love to perform – and they’ve got good rhythm.”
Beatboxing is a form of vocal percussion using one’s voice, mouth, lips and tongue. It’s hugely popular and is having a big impact on the hip-hop culture. In Israel, it started in the 1990s and is a big part of its music scene today. Many individuals and vocal groups are on social media, posting and sharing videos of themselves beatboxing. And a recent appearance on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” has helped elevate Jewish beatboxers’ profiles.
JNS.org set out to find the top five Jewish vocal artists of 2016, from the U.S. and England, and here’s what we found:
Ilan Swartz-Brownstein, known as “The Alepha Bass,” with his black pants and flailing tzitzit, does not look like your typical beatboxer, as the “America’s Got Talent” judges attested.
Yet, he and beatboxing partner Josh Leviton, who goes by the name “The Orthobox,” both of whom are from Manhattan, wowed the world with their rendition of “All about the Bass” in early July, a performance that pushed them into round two of the television competition. The duo, however, were cut by the judges in a subsequent round.
Brownstein started beatboxing in high school. On his nine-mile walks to shul on Shabbat from his then Oregon home, “I started to sing and beatbox to fill the time,” he said. His interesting repertoire now includes “mind-blowing” sounds he’s not heard other beatboxers perform and some pretty sophisticated a capella work; he’s a member of the a capella group Y-Studs.
His newfound “America’s Got Talent” notoriety has already led to requests for concerts, bar and bat mitzvah performances and more. Mostly, though, Brownstein is glad he and Leviton could sanctify God’s name.
“People look at us and don’t expect us to beatbox,” Brownstein said. “We’re really breaking boundaries and stereotypes.”
Los Angeles native Josh Silverstein is not your average beatboxer. An award-winning actor, comedic writer and educator, he’s toured the country with art icons ranging from Hollywood writer and producer Norman Lear to actress Anjelica Huston to the late singer Prince. He’s even collaborated with Slash of the 1980s hard rock band Guns and Roses.
Silverstein started beatboxing at 5, inspired by American jazz singer Bobby McFerrin, known for his unique vocal techniques. As an only child, Silverstein said his parents encouraged his “silly noises” or at least weren’t annoyed by them.
Once older, Silverstein realized he could combine his beats to “create, evoke and inspire.”
“I like to tell a story, paint a picture,” he said of his “heady” work, through which he uses sound to delve into deep and difficult topics.
Silverstein’s favorite activity is teaching each summer at Cazadero Music Camp in Northern California’s Sonoma County, where he inspires kids and adults ages 13 to 80, to write, explore and share their vulnerabilities through poetry and music. In workshops, he creates safe and open spaces where folks can indulge in the freedom of creative expression.
His message is, “Don’t try to be like other people. Find your own way.”
SIMON SHLOMO KAHN
London-born artist Simon Shlomo Kahn, who goes by Shlomo, said his mix of Israeli, Iraqi and German-Jewish lineage inspired him to become a beatboxer.
“There were huge parties when I was a child, the music, food and dancing were endless,” Shlomo said. “Expressing yourself by having a good time, that’s how I remember it.”
But since those early days, when his parents bought him his first drum set at age 8, and he was never allowed to practice because the noise bothered the neighbors, Shlomo has become a serious vocal performer. He has beatboxed and made music with Bjork, Basement Jaxx and The Specials and broke the Guinness World Record for conducting the world’s largest beatbox ensemble. Most recently, in 2011, he directed a group of 2,081 Google employees at the Dublin Convention Center. (His record was surpassed in 2013 by an ensemble in the Netherlands.)
Shlomo is best known for “using technology and creativity to expand my powers,” he said, describing how his latest undertaking is delving into the world of hackers and programmers, completely reconstructing his live-performance rig. By coding his own customized software instrument, Shlomo further pushes the boundary of the human voice.
Yuri Lane can combine beatboxing with any art form: opera, blues, hip hop, live visual art or DJ sound.
He got his start in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. As the minority Jewish white kid among African Americans, Mexicans and Asians, he used his beatboxing to fit in – and distract his math teacher from focusing on his inability to do fractions. Overtime, he started using beatboxing – lips, teeth, nose and throat – “as a way to communicate with people who don’t speak my language” and to bring others together, too, he said.
Lane’s best known for his “From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey,” which debuted in 2003, in the middle of the Second Intifada. The show tells the stories of Tel Aviv DJ Amir and Ramallah internet café owner Khalid. It was the first-ever narrative drama in beatbox. In it, Lane brings to life 15 unforgettable characters, each as a three-dimensional person with an individual soundtrack over the course of 60 minutes. The show combines Arabic, English and Hebrew. At the end of the performance, he sings “Shalom Salam.”
“The song is really about this wall that divides us,” he said. “In Israel it’s a physical wall. But in other countries and neighborhoods, there are not walls but borders that divide us. You have to step across the border.”
Today, Lane uses beatboxing for interfaith youth dialogues between Jews, Muslims and Christians, saying, “It’s a way to learn about each other before they’ve been taught to distrust or judge someone based on religion.”
Even if you’re not into beatboxing, you’ve probably heard of the Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu, the Hebrew name of Matthew Paul Miller, who was raised in White Plains, New York.
Those who remember his early career know the artist, who blends Orthodox themes with reggae, underwent a transformation from Chassidic to soulful. If he once used beatboxing to imitate instruments, show how fast or how many noises he could make, now, he said, “I express music through this form.”
Matisyahu explores space and time in his work, taking listeners and concert goers on a spiritual journey into his inner world.
“Some people are super receptive to it; they come to my shows instead of church or synagogue,” he said. “My music now feels alive.”
Still, Judaism remains an important part of his life and music. His latest song, “Love Born,” explores this journey and what it feels like when “you’ve got nothing left to believe in. … Love born from pain is the real thing.”