Thursday, April 10, 2014

'70s Israeli Progressive Rock: Sheshet

I grew up on the progressive rock of the '70s. Mostly we heard US and UK bands in the States, but some European bands, particularly Italian bands like PFM, Le Orme and New Trolls recorded songs in English and had a following in the U.S. Israeli prog? Not so much. First, it never was a terribly popular sound in Israel from what I can gather, and without a big commercial success in their home country these bands just didn't get exported. I only discovered them in recent years and a few were truly exceptional.

Sheshet is my personal favorite, a band that was as good as anything that came out of the US or UK. They had Yehudit Ravitz for a vocalist and acoustic guitarist and Shem-Tov Levi on flute and vocals. He also wrote most of the music, which is an amazing mix of the softer side of progressive rock and Canterbury scene style jazz, plus unique touches of their own. Prog bands always needed exceptional keyboardists and Sheshet had one in Adi Renert.

The 30th anniversary deluxe edition, released in 2007, is a two CD set currently available from Amazon. The first disc is their self-titled debut album, which was exceptional from beginning to end. Some tracks have Yehudit Ravitz singing lead; others have group vocals. Some of the album has Hebrew lyrics but there is also a lot of wordless vocalise. I always loved when Annie Haslam did that with Renaissance. It takes a talented singer to pull that off well and Yehudit Ravitz is up for the task. The one track that was a single in Israel is All Thumbs Samba, a track which really is a samba with Hebrew lyrics. Despite the very different sound from the other tracks it has enough depth added to make it fit seamlessly into the album.

Their second and final album is the soundtrack to the film "The Stretcher March" (1977). It's filled with lovely prog instrumentals and more vocalise. The 30th anniversary deluxe CD reissue of Sheshet's self-titled debut includes all the original, previously unreleased music from the film on a second bonus CD. (The three tracks that appeared on both albums are only on the first disc.) It includes two versions of the theme song from the film. The disc opens with an instrumental version and finishes with a vocal version, with Gidi Gov singing lead. The one set basically gives you everything the band ever recorded. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

Notes: Photos from the CD booklet. This review was originally written for Amazon with some minor differences. Also published on my pro-Israel/Zionist blog.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Occupy Wall Street: The Final Implosion and the Impact on My Politics

It seems Occupy Wall Street has finally imploded and died. I say good riddance to bad rubbish. Yes, I supported Occupy for a period of weeks, much to my shame. Once Occupy got away from a populist economic message and went off into far left nonsense it was doomed. Huge clue: Marxist teach ins don't fly in America. Neither does the over the top anti-Semitism that came to pervade the so-called movement.

The fact is that Occupy has been dead for a couple of years now. Those in the hard core left-wing social media bubble don't realize it because they've supported one another and somehow think lots of other people agree with them. These, of course, are the folks who think President Obama is a corporate sell out and who either stayed home during the 2012 elections or supported Jill Stein for President. How many votes did she get? Getting 0.36 percent of the vote is not making an impact. You see my point. Occupy had become another piece of the extreme left wing, and hard left politics are terribly unpopular in the U.S.

Occupy did have an impact. It made income inequality an issue Democrats and even some Republicans are still talking about. It deserves some credit for that. However, a "leaderless" organization (or rather disorganization) which tried to make decisions by "consensus" was doomed to failure from the start. An organization like this needs leadership, real leadership, that can keep it on message and keep that message narrowly defined. That's how things can get accomplished and how progress towards the worthwhile goals that Occupy started out with can be made. Right now the name Occupy is poison to anyone not on the far left. If you really want a populist, non-partisan movement with broad based support you need focus, first and foremost.

I had been drifting from right to left politically for a very long time when I joined Occupy, willing to devote time and resources to what I saw as a worthwhile movement against corruption, undue corporate influence and for needed economic reform. Since that brief period, since I became more tuned into left wing media and what the left stands for, I've been moving in the opposite direction. I fully expect to vote Republican for the first time in a quarter of a century in the 2014 elections. That's the one positive change Occupy did make in my life. Congratulations! I don't think that was the intent of the movement but it sure convinced me that was the correct and moral direction for me to move in.

[Drawn from a debate on Facebook,]

Friday, February 7, 2014

Why I'm Not Boycotting the Olympics

A lot of my friends are boycotting watching the Olympics. Some are opposed to the anti-gay law passed in Putin's Russia and the oppression of the LGBT community. Some are opposed to the desecration of the site where Circassian people (who are native to the Sochi area) were massacred in order to build ski slopes. Some are opposed to the senseless killing of dogs, mostly strays, so that they don't bother those attending the Olympics. Some are opposed to Russia's hideous human rights record in general. I am opposed to all of those things. They are all horrible and the Olympics should never have been held in Russia. I blame the IOC for choosing sites in countries that have no respect for human rights and that is where protests should be focused.

I am not boycotting. I watched last night. It was on broadcast TV (I have neither cable nor satellite) so there is nobody anyone can count or any way bean counters can tell that I watched for ratings purposes. Nobody in Russia benefits from my watching. Advertisers can only make a negative impression on me by cashing in on the Olympics so they won't benefit either. I love figure skating and I support Team Israel and Team USA.

I enjoyed watching the first part of the first ever figure skating team competition. The Canadian couple of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford is awesome and had an amazing performance, as did Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Scott Hamilton called his performance "sick".

I also think NBC and Bob Costas deserve huge kudos for their coverage of the anti-gay law. First, they spent a lot of time on the subject and called a lot of attention to it. Their two Russian analysts were amazingly good. One, Vladimir Posner, the former Soviet spokesperson, said it best: "Russia is a homophobic country." The law has the support of 85% of the population. He also made clear that Putin doesn't give a damn what anyone in the West thinks. Posner also pointed out that Putin is "an autocrat, not a democrat" and that the protests against the law are by "urban, liberal intelligentsia" and not the masses, who are, as he said, homophobic.

That kind of coverage does Putin and Russia no favors, and it was smack in the middle of prime time between figure skating and skiing segments. I'm glad I watched it. The anti-gay law was presented in an entirely unfavorable way. I'm sure the bigots in the audience hated that coverage.

What I am doing is using a rainbow flag with the Olympic rings as my Facebook profile picture to show solidarity with the LGBT community in Russia, and I urge everyone who cares about human rights to do the same.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Note About Dinner and Kosher Foods in America

I made a big pot of bean and leek soup (with carrots, garlic, a little bit of onion, a finely minced habanero pepper to add a little kick, plus spices) in a Crock Pot. I had some as part of dinner tonight topped with some shaved Parmesan cheese, with a piece of baked Alaskan cod and a piece of very fresh rye bread. It's wonderful, but since it's just me that eats it I'll be having it for a week or more. That's why I do things like this (big pots of soup, chili or cholent) so infrequently.

I used half of a bag of a 15 bean mix intended for soup. It had the appropriate kosher certification on it. On the back cover it had a soup recipe which started by telling me I'd need 1 lb. of ham hocks. Really? Tell me this: why would a company go through the expense of kosher certification and then only put a blatantly treyfe recipe on the back of the package? Wouldn't it be better to have two recipes, one of which appeals to the people who looked for that symbol of kashrut and perhaps vegetarians as well? Wouldn't that make more sense? Trust me on this: you can make a delicious soup from those beans without any pork.

[Note: This started out as a Facebook post. I've also published it in my Zionist/Jewish blog since it does touch on Jewish dietary laws.]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

On Phil Robertson, Hate and Hypocrisy

On the whole Duck Dynasty thing... I'm perhaps a bit sensitive about this issue but I live in North Carolina. We have one pastor here who wanted to round up all the "queers" and lesbians, fence them in (a concentration camp) and kill them off. We have another who urged parents to beat the gay out of their sons. Here in the South lots of people cheer those attitudes and really do want the LGBT community dead or gone. To quote one of the leaders of the Amendment One campaign, "We don't want them here." (Amendment One took the law against same sex marriage here and added it to the state constitution. It is currently being challenged in court.)

Phil Robertson has influence due to his celebrity. His words are likely to be used to justify more violence against the LGBT community here in the South and we have too much of that already. Words have power. Sure, he has the right to hold whatever beliefs he has, no matter how despicable I find them. However, he has been given a public platform and has used it in a way that can do real harm. For that reason I really cannot accept any of the defending of him I see online, and I really, really am outraged by those who turn him into some kind of hero.

Also, as an excellent article by Dean Obeidallah in The Daily Beast points out, those who are up in arms that Robertson was suspended by A&E are raging hypocrites. Those same people were ready to pillory Martin Bashir for making nasty statements about one person: Sarah Palin. These people didn't champion Alec Baldwin's homophobic statements or his firing from MSNBC because he isn't a conservative.

Surely, equating gay people with terrorists and with bestiality can and should be considered hateful. Saying that black people were happier in the Jim Crow South before integration is certainly racist. It should never be defended and A&E has every right to hold the man accountable for his statements.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

With All the Things Wrong in This World... My Take.

I wrote this for a friend who expressed real frustration with the state of the world on a Facebook page. I decided it's something I want to share with everyone with only minor editing:

I've had the good fortune to travel the world in my career. I have family and friends scattered all over the world that I keep in touch with. I'm a citizen of two countries and I'm probably eligible for citizenship in three more. Most people are decent everywhere my travels have taken me.

Are governments flawed? Yep, everywhere. For all it's flaws the U.S. is still ahead of most of the world in more areas that you'd imagine. There are judges who should never be judges. There are terrible decisions made by people who just don't get it. Still, I find a lot more that's hopeful about our world today than the one that existed when I was young.

Don't give up on the world. We Jews have an obligation called "tikkun olam", literally fixing the world. We each are supposed to do our little part to leave the world a better place than we found it. I think if we all (not just Jews but everyone) embrace that concept we can all make a small difference in our own little way. Lots of small differences can add up to a large change.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review: Karolina - Zohar (Special Edition)

For the first time since November, 2005 I wrote a product review for Amazon. Eight years ago it was a book I really enjoyed; this time it's a two CD boxed set:

If you've heard either Funset's "Pumpkin Ragga" or Habanot Nechama you probably already know that Karolina (Keren Avratz) has an amazingly flexible and expressive voice and is a very capable songwriter. When she sings in English her Israeli accent is thick enough to cut with a knife but somehow that doesn't matter.

"Zohar" (Glamor) is her second solo album. The original CD was rather short and included two different versions of Al Te'ahar (Don't Be Late), with an acoustic rendition closing the album. On this album she drops the soul and reggae influences which were so evident on her first album and with Funset and adds a little Mizrahi flavor, even though she is not from that tradition. Zohar, with the exception of her Chanson For Lebanon, has a much more contemporary feel. The words are entirely in Hebrew with the exception of "Save Me From Myself", and surprisingly that may be my favorite from this album.

The new version adds an EP of covers, three well known Israeli songs from the '60s and '70s plus a collaboration with Boom Pam on a version of Led Zeppelin's Black Dog, with a surprising amount of Middle Eastern flavor added to the instrumentation. Karolina practically channels Cilla Dagan, who sang the original version of Yom Bo Yakom, and does a beautiful rendition of Zohar Argov's Tzel Etz Tamar (Shadow of the Palm Tree).

This is an album I just keep going back to again and again. Definitely pick up the Special Edition if you're going to get a copy of Zohar. It's more than worth a little bit extra to hear Karolina rework the old songs.

Here are a couple of songs from the album: