Out of the Extraordinary
Funky soul from the desert and other musical surprises
Dimona is a small village in the Negev, half an hour south of Beersheva. It’s an incredibly small town, less than three square miles, and since it’s in the middle of the Israeli desert, it doesn’t get much in the way of tourists. Mostly, Dimona is known for two things: its nuclear power plant, and its community of Black Hebrews, a group of African American émigrés who left Chicago, followed the revolutionary leader Marcus Garvey to Liberia, and ended up immigrating en-masse to Israel in the late 1960s.
The community is featured sporadically in Jewish newspapers, mostly as a wacky story about unconventional Israeli immigrants. The thing most reporters don’t usually write about, however, is the town of Dimona’s unlikely profusion of pop and soul singles in the 1970s.
Ye’allelulah! Soul Messages from Dimona, a sort of posthumous greatest-hits compilation for the colony released by Numero Group, chronicles this near-forgotten and altogether brilliant history. When the Dimonans imported their Chicago lifestyle to the New Old World, they brought their aesthetic along, too. The CD art features a number of wild shots of people in vivid ’70s clothes, all sequins and spangles and red jumpsuits”with tallit and ceremonial head-coverings as well. Just over half of the tracks feature a group called The Soul Messengers; the other songs spotlight later incarnations of the group, including a group of female vocalists known as The Spirit of Israel, who played with the same backing band, and The Sons of the Kingdom, a group of later immigrants from the same Garvey community.
Musically and thematically, the groups mesh together seamlessly on this album, so you’re essentially listening to one long record by the same band with a cast of revolving vocalists. But, hey, that’s exactly what early Motown singers did, too.
Much of the album is inspired by American soul music of that era. There are fat, tightly-arranged horns playing high fanfares and low, ass-beating funk; the guitars have a wah-wah wobble. The singing on “Go to Proclaim is straight out of the Curtis Mayfield songbook. “A Place to Be sounds like an outtake from a Martha and the Vandellas album”well, except for the chorus that declares “I just want to live in Israel—well, except for the chorus that declares “I just want to live in Israel . . . It’s a place of love and freedom / It’s a world of love and peace.” Meanwhile, “Holding On,” both musically and lyrically, could be a Jackson Five song, with its traded-off vocals and chorus that’s hopeful almost to the point of naïveté—“Sisters and brothers, walk hand in hand / Cause this whole world, right here / is standing on our jams”—but in the context of religious music, these pleas feel somehow purposeful. The lyrics—in fact, the very dynamic—of the album straddles the foggy border between Biblical hyperbole and Motown cheesiness: that is to say, it’s not how people talk today, and it’s probably not how anyone ever spoke. But, just as there’s poetry in Psalms and in songs like “My Girl” and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” there’s poetry on Soul Messages.
I first encountered Shem’s Disciples in the middle of a giant festival concert. Until their set, the stage had been a revolving door, one performer after another. Suddenly a band was packing themselves onto the tiny stage—a guitarist, bassist, and keyboardist, and . . . four vocalists.
Right away, I knew something was up. The men who front Shem’s Disciples paint an unusual picture: Two young, awkward white brothers—one a Hasidic Jew in a bushy beard and baggy hip-hop clothes—took the left-hand mics. Two older-looking black men, both bald and dressed to the nines, stood to the right. The band looked like they were going to start a high-voltage, pumped-up rock and roll chord—but, as soon as the guitarist’s fingers came down on his instrument, the band dropped into a laid-back reggae groove. All four voices came in at once, a kind of vocal wall of sound that assaulted every part of the listener’s ear at once: the white guys with their staccato lines of hip-hop, and the black guys belting out a powerful, soulful chorus.
In the short year since their formation, Shem’s Disciples have recorded and self-released an album, Sow Melodic (an allusion to the melodica that group leader Marlon Sobol, the kid with the big beard, sometimes plays). Its first half is a mix of solid background music and meandering reggae/hip-hop/jam-band hybrids that end just in time to leave listeners still in the groove and not yet bored.
The second track, “Far from Home,” samples the song “Where the Heart Is” from Fiddler on the Roof. Weirdly, this is the second time in three weeks that I’ve heard it sampled in a hip-hop song. If anyone was worried that Fiddler had been getting neglected since Two Live Jews’ 1991 hip-hop adaptation Fiddling with Tradition, they can rest easy now.
The second half of the album really finds Shem’s Disciples raising the stakes. The rustic jam “Banks to the River” is a soul song set to reggae backing music that vividly recalls old gospel spirituals. The brilliant piano jam “Sapphire” threatens to break out into a late-era Elton John number, but retains its sparse instrumentation and layers on the vocal harmonies instead. It’s an honest, schmaltzy, and unexpectedly touching ballad—“Not living in a fantasy,” the singer croons, “just here to extend my family tree”—that, once you listen to it a few dozen times, plays really well as a self-questioning devotional for the recently religious. The Disciples’ soul-and-hip-hop vocal team-up is most effectively used on “Not for Myself,” where the hairless half of the vocalists recite the words of the Talmud tractate Pirkei Avot (“If I’m not for myself / who’s going to be for me / if I’m only for myself / who am I?”) with devotion befitting a Baptist choir while the brothers drop rhymes over a solid reggae riff.
Matisyahu’s new four-song E.P., Shattered, is less a stand-alone project than a preview of his upcoming full-length album, Light. “This album came about by me looking at music for the first time again, but it’s also about me looking at the world anew,” he told me in an interview last week. “First, everything’s darkness. Then you see a lightning bolt—that’s the ‘Shattered’ part. Then, there’s light, and it lights up the world and you see the realness of all the shadows around you.”
“Smash Lies,” the first song on the mini-album, seems to be the single, but I’m more sold on “Two Child One Drop,” which clocks in at six minutes, flowing from pop song into full-blown odyssey in a torrent of different instruments, with wildly chanted Hebrew vocals (by Moshav’s Yehuda Solomon) and instrumentation that’s one part reggae and three parts Postal Service—echoey, otherworldy, and instantly nostalgic.
Matisyahu’s new tour features opening act K’naan, a survivor of the Somalian wars whose remarkable debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher switches from a chilled-out world music groove to a manic, breathless spoken-word stream of consciousness, launching a dazzling array of percussion out of his words alone.
I know, I know—Matisyahu may be a lot more familiar than black Jewish soul music unearthed after thirty years, but, in its own way, his new music is as surprising as the recordings from Dimona. Like K’naan and Shem’s Disciples, their songs do what great music is supposed to; I could put a name on it, but we’d all probably just roll our eyes and sigh.
Instead, just press play.