Kabbalah got hijacked by Hollywood. What for centuries had been the medieval mystical sub-sect of European Judaism has more recently become better-known, at least in some quarters, for a self-improvement spin-off tied to (and red strings tied around the wrists of) the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Aston Kutcher and, perhaps most famously, Madonna.
Now some Europeans are coming to reclaim the term.
Kabbalah, a French band, makes its Los Angeles debut tonight with a concert at the Mint. And an ambitious musical mission embracing everything from Greek drama to Euro-cabaret to stylized rap both in its vibrant, theatrical shows and its recent album, Boxes, Bagels & Elephants.
“Who is Madonna?” says band leader Uli Wolters, asked about the Hollywood variation. “Just kidding,” he adds.
“But let’s just say that a big part of the mystical Kabbalah was written in medieval Provence where we come from,” he continues. “And as of today nobody in the band wears red strings. Maybe we should to get wider recognition.”
The differences between the two are stark. But there are similarities.
Kabbalah, the mystical belief system, is very complex and hard to explain.
Kabbalah, the band, is too.
What they share, it seems, is that each seeks to encompass and portray, well, the whole world, one through numbers and clues in sacred texts, the other through music and cultural relationships.
“Even if you might find some reference to Jewish mythology, Kabbalah is not a religious band,” he explains. “Our goal is to write about 21st century concerns and we happen to do it in Yiddish, too, because it is a very poetic and beautiful language that deserves to be dusted off a little bit. It is maybe important to add that we are all evolving in Marseille, a city on the Mediterranean Sea whose population consists exclusively of successive waves of immigration from Northern Africa (Jewish and Muslim), Armenia, Africa, Spain, Italy, so that our music naturally embraces all these influences, mixed with a big part of all the different African-American music styles we all grew up with.”
That’s a lot for a whole career, let alone one album. How about for one song? The fact is, pretty much everything the band does can be found in the course of “Elephant Mentsh,” arguably the centerpiece of the new album. We asked Wolters for a guided tour through the musical journey, less than five compact minutes. You can listen while reading:
“It’s presented as an ancient Greek drama, with Pallas Athena opening the song and watching protectively over the hero, Moyshe the Elephant, the coryphaeu …”
...That’s the chorus leader, a key figure in Greek drama…
“… then telling his story with some response from a Greek choir and finally the hero himself commenting on the situation. What happens to Moyshe - Elephant Mentsh of course referring to Mr. Lynch …”
… That’s filmmaker David Lynch, who directed The Elephant Man, based on the true story of a Victorian-era Englishman with a disfiguring condition that gave him some elephantine characteristics which made him a celebrity/freak …
“… - is that even if he is respected and maybe even admired as an exotic character, he is quickly put back into his place every time he attempts to become like everybody else.”
“You might or might not see it as a metaphor of certain groups of people who are admired, or at least tolerated, as long as they do entertaining stuff -- play basketball, sing or dance, but are having a tough time as soon as they try to become, let’s say, President of the United States or something similar.
“And as always with Kabbalah [the band], each character is speaking in a different language, in this case English for Moyshe, Pallas Athena and the choir, Yiddish for the coryphaeus. Just to add a little bit more confusion. We can’t help it.”
And the music?
“Okay, sorry I got a little off track with my Greek play,” he says. “Let’s see if I remember everything right. The song starts with a gmbri riff, which is the backbone of the whole song, played by the excellent Malik Ziad. It’s an instrument that is central to the gnawa culture of Morocco and Algeria and which is naturally very present in Marseille. After a brief introduction by Anna, who plays Pallas Athena, Stef as the coryphaeus sings a Yiddish verse, with response by a string section reminiscent of Egyptian movies from the ‘50s.
“After the bridge, which introduces a fat Moog sound over the strings, the second verse has more percussion in it, especially the ‘boom’ with a snare sound from the bendir, another essential instrument from North Africa. After the next bridge, we get a more urban sound with a quite funky hook (Greek choir) and then a rather heavy rap sequence (Moyshe) with more Moog sounds. What follows is a long fade-out with the choir answering the coryphaeus, the musical arrangement getting more and more sparse.
“So basically, the different musical elements reflect the range of cultural influences we are all exposed to, connecting Africa (elephant) with the Balkans (Yiddish) and modern-day urban culture. And evoking different ‘exotic’ characters (Jews, blacks) who are fed up with being referred to as stereotypes.”
Hmmm. Wonder if that goes for people who wear red strings on their wrists, too.