America's got talent - and they're in town to prove it

Brooklyn is the hottest place in Jewish music. Rising stars tell Elisa Bray why

August 26, 2010
Reflecting: Ana Silvera says there’s an insularity in London that doesn’t exist ion New York

Reflecting: Ana Silvera says there’s an insularity in London that doesn’t exist ion New York

The best new Jewish bands come from Brooklyn. The contention will be tested in London next week when some of New York's top up-and-coming acts attempt to show that the scene over here cannot hold a menorah candle to theirs.

The concert, at The Macbeth venue in Hoxton, features DeLeon and Girls in Trouble, both signed to the Jdub record label. Jdub, whose most famous signing is the Orthodox rapper Matisyahu, is just one of a few New York Jewish labels that have been growing in the past few years. There are no such labels dedicated to nurturing Jewish acts in London.

Alicia Jo Rabins, singer and violinist in the four-piece Girls in Trouble, who describe their music as "post-biblical art pop", also plays in the klezmer punk band Golem. In New York, it seems, there are many outlets for bands creating culturally-themed music.

"There are actually multiple Jewish music scenes in New York," says Rabins, whose husband Aaron Hartman is bassist in the band. "There's a klezmer scene, an experimental jazz scene, and the Girls in Trouble and DeLeon stuff is more about integrating into indie-rock. So it's pretty vibrant. We play each other's events, we're friends. There are so many clubs and musicians that we all know each other in multiple ways."

Strange then that Rabins first met DeLeon frontman Dan Saks at a festival in Guatemala. While Rabins was playing American folk music, Saks was playing straight rock 'n' roll, and they bonded quickly as the only American bands there. Years later they found themselves signed to Jdub, and Rabins performed at Saks's wedding.

"It's very strange we ended up playing in this very small circle of musicians together," muses Saks. "The people making alternative Jewish music is a relatively intimate group in New York and I cross paths with the same bands with some frequency - playing the same festivals, just being on similar bills - which is fun."

Rabins is also friends with Ana Silvera, the classically trained London-born musician who has put together the Hoxton concert. They met through a mutual contact, and all three acts forged a friendship when the Londoner moved to Brooklyn last year.

Reflections: Girls in Trouble describe their music as ‘post-biblical pop art’

Reflections: Girls in Trouble describe their music as ‘post-biblical pop art’

Silvera, who has just completed her debut album, is well-placed to assess the differences between New York and her home city: "In Brooklyn, there's a real sense of an artistic community who support each other. In London, people are more reserved; there's an insularity to Londoners that doesn't exist in New York. On an artistic level it's much better in New York because people are just ready to co-operate and experiment immediately, whereas in London it's: 'Let's wait see what happens - it probably won't work.' So I think there's that cliché of American positivity that is really true in New York. I like that."

One of the reasons she was drawn to New York was the absence of a platform for her kind of music in London. She says: "I didn't find a songwriter scene that was doing what people were doing in New York, which was quite classically-oriented - like Rufus Wainwright, Regina Spektor, Elysian Fields and Antony and the Johnsons, who were taking classical instruments and putting them into an indie context. I don't see that in London. I see there's a songwriter scene, but it's very confessional and has quite a commercial edge. I got to Brooklyn and said: 'Wow, this is like home'."

Silvera's set of melancholic, piano-led songs with lyrics inspired by fairy-tales includes the Sephardic song Adio Querida. DeLeon bring an indie-rock flavour to traditional Sephardic music, a result of sifting through stacks of CDs, books of manuscripts, and online research. Saks explains: "I've come at it from a different angle. I started with the music and found it interesting to work backwards and explore where the music's coming from. The songs are from Turkey, Morocco, Syria, Spain and Italy, so it's a rich and varied history."

Girls in Trouble, by contrast, focus more on the religious, applying story-telling lyrics inspired by the Torah and Midrash to heart-warming indie-folk.

It is the first London show for both Brooklyn bands, who were also playing at Limmud Fest this week. "There's a pride that they're crossing the Atlantic and we're bringing it all together at somewhere like the The Macbeth," explains Silvera.

Whether this could spark something bigger in London, Silvera is not convinced. "There's a real Jewish pride in New York that doesn't exist here. Girls in Trouble tour synagogues and I just can't imagine that happening in London." She laughs: "Like me playing a gig at Belsize Park Reform."

The Macbeth, London N1, August 31. Tel: 020 7739 5095

Last updated: 11:17am, August 26 2010