Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blackface White Faces

A friend alerted me to this the other day:

It’s an Israeli group called Kleibedik (it's a pun on Klezmer and leybedik [lively]) doing a “klezmer” medley. In blackface. With fake neon payes. The whole video is like a seven layer pie where every layer is “WTF.” I mean, the terrible arrangements of Barry Sisters and My Yiddish Mame and and and COTTON EYED JOE? Guys, shit goes deep and that’s BEFORE we even get to the blackface 

Which… I have no explanation for. Do you? It seems to be their shtik, as you can find videos online of Kleibedik performing live in the same get up. And the sad thing is that the audience is eating it up. It makes my heart hurt. It’s like multi-level minstrelsy. The blackface goes with the blackhat.. face. Oysh.

Israel has so much amazing Jewish culture, but when it comes to eastern European/Ashkenazi stuff too often it’s just a big box full of cringe wrapped up with a bow of horrible. I mean, is this truly how young Israelis process and relate to Yiddish? Don’t answer that.

It makes me wonder… why is blackface still so compelling to artists? And not just American artists or Jewish artists.  I’m not sure there’s one answer, but it gives me an excuse to talk about some of my favorite examples of modern blackface, both Jewish and non.

(For a really great, though academic, exploration of the history behind American pop culture, Jews and blackface, please read Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Melting Pot of Hollywood by Michael Rogin.)

But we're staying mostly in the recent-ish past and present now...


Taco, Puttin’ on the Ritz

Apparently this video had the blackface parts removed when it was first released, but you can find the original now on YouTube. What could blackface possibly have to do with anything here?

Two thoughts. First, when Irving Berlin originally wrote the song in 1929, apparently the original lyric referred to young fashionable Harlemites strutting up and down Lenox Avenue. According to Wikipedia, when it was recorded for the film Blue Skies in 1946, the lyrics were changed to “Park Avenue” and a whiter kind of image.

Second, Taco isn’t just Dutch, he’s Dutch-Indonesian. Perhaps Taco was attracted to the idea of first, reminding us of the original racial dynamics of the time and place where Puttin’ on the Ritz was written. And/or, as a bi-racial artist, perhaps he was intrigued by the ambiguity of blackface as a way of playing with race. Or, maybe, the video is directly referencing some movie I’m not familiar with. This is always a possibility. Feel free to educate me in the comments. 

So, I think I finally figured out what the deal is with Taco. Or at least, part of the deal. It's so obvious I can't believe it didn't occur to me when I first wrote this piece. But here's the thing: there's a Dutch tradition of blackface called Zwarte Piet. It goes back to the mid-19th century and is influenced by and parallel to our own. This is a National Geographic Article from 2018:

The character was popularized in a mid-19th century children’s book written by a man who was very interested in the Dutch royal family members, “one of whom bought a slave in a slave market in Cairo in the mid-19th century,” says Joke Hermes, a professor of media, culture, and citizenship at Inholland University. This slave, Hermes suggests, may have helped inspire the character of Zwarte Piet.
Before the Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863, the country was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It grew prosperous by selling enslaved people to the United States or sending them to work in Dutch colonies, and some nobles “gifted” each other with enslaved black children, who are shown in paintings wearing colorful, Moorish clothing 
The exaggerated appearance of Dutch Zwarte Piet costumes may have also been influenced by American blackface minstrel shows, which toured throughout Europe in the mid-19th century. “The Dutch tend to argue that Black Pete is a Dutch thing, and other people outside the Netherlands don’t understand our culture,” says Mitchell Esajas, co-founder of New Urban Collective and Kick Out Zwarte Piet. “But it is part of an international tradition of racial stereotyping.”

Culture Club, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me

Boy George is on trial and a whole jury of black face Jolsons are there to render a verdict? Again, Boy George strikes me as an artist who is playing with sexuality/gender and perhaps is attracted to blackface as akin to his own trademark ‘drag.’ I’m not sure. What do you think?

Two icons of Jewish male sexuality: Elliott Gould and Neil Diamond. Both Diamond and Gould were very conscious of their Jewishness and never shied away from it, though Gould, being a much more talented actor, has played a much wider variety of parts.  Nonetheless… it makes sense that even in the 1970s, the shadow of Al Jolson crept behind both performers- both as products of American pop culture and as out Jewish men in the public eye.

Neil Diamond, The Jazz Singer
Neil Diamond tackles the Jolson legacy, straight on, by remaking the Jazz Singer in 1980. (I'm counting this as 1970s. Too bad.) Was The Jazz Singer 1980 a disaster on pretty much every level? Yes. Was it so bad it’s good kinda bad? I’d say yes. And that’s exemplified by the way Diamond works blackface into the modern setting. See, Neil and his band are playing at an uptown club and they can’t have no white man on stage. Hence the need for black face. It's so gloriously cheesy you can't help but enjoy the appalling spectacle.
For comparison, here's some Jolson:
Elliott Gould, The Long Goodbye
A modern (1973) remake of Raymond Chandler's LA noir. I can’t find a clip of the scene I’m thinking of, so you will have to see the movie yourself. You’ll thank me. 
But here’s an image of Elliott Gould in the scene I want to talk about. He’s playing detective Philip Marlowe and he’s been brought in for booking at the police station. After being finger printed he smears ink on his face and breaks into a sardonic version of Jolson’s ‘Swanee’. It's his way of expressing his contempt for the corrupt police who know they've arrested an innocent men.   According to Gould, the whole thing was improvised on set, which only adds another layer of intensity to his performance. 
(He was a damn good looking man, right?) And some more Jolson, for good measure. What do you think about contemporary blackface? Do you see it around? Is it ever appropriate? Can it be a legitimate part of American-Jewish culture?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Weekend Links

Couple interesting things popped up in the feed this weekend:

  • A new blog by an African-American Jewish man living in Crown Heights called 'Zein Shver.' He only has one entry so far, about his decision to participate in a project exploring his experience around the word 'shvartse.' It's an interesting read and I hope he'll continue to write more about life as Black Jewish hasid.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New York Klezmer Series Returns Next Week With Miryem-Khaye Siegel and the Dave Levitt Trio!

Exciting news, klez fans. The New York Klezmer Series returns to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue next Tuesday. It's curated by the only Seattle grunge style Klezmer poyk master in New York- Aaron Alexander- and it's the hottest spot for Jewish music and dance. 

Now, I'm not biased at all, but you'd be crazy to miss this rare feature appearance by the Dorot Division's most famous Yiddish chanteuse (and accordionistke) Miryem-Khaye Siegel.

Here's the details:

Miryem-Khaye Seigel and the Dave Levitt Trio
Tuesday, Jan. 28th, 7:30pm
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue
30 W. 68th St. NYC (bet. Central Park W. & Columbus)

$15 admission
Christina Crowder will lead the Klezmer Workshop before the show! 5:30-7:00pm $25
$35 for Full Night pass
Klezmer Jam session to follow the show

And the rest of the season's schedule:

Feb. 4 - CTMD -Tantshoyz featuring Avia Moore
Feb. 11 - OFF
Feb. 18 - Dmitri Slepovitch's 'Litvakus Trio'
Feb. 25 - Jake Marmer's Hermeneutic Stomp, featuring Greg Wall, Frank London, Uri Sharlin, & Eyal Maoz 

Mar. 4 - A Night of Montreal Klezmer! featuring Julien Biret's 'Ichka' and Yoni Kaston's 'Siach Hasadeh"
Mar. 11 - Tantshoyz, Featuring Steve Weintraub, and Alex Kontorovich's German Goldensthteyn Memorial Orchestra, with special guest, Naum Goldenshteyn 
Mar. 18 - OFF
Mar. 25 - OFF

April 1 - Inna Barmash's Hindele - Yiddish Lullabies & Love Songs
April 8 - Brian Glassman's Klez/Jazz Alliance 
Apr. 15 - OFF
Apr. 22 - Isaac Sadigursky 
Apr. 29 - Susan Leviton Band, w/Michael Winograd MD

May 6 - OFF
May 13 - OFF
May 20 - Allen Watsky's "Djangle Box Project"
May 27 - CTMD Tantshoyz w/Steve Weintraub, Music by Amy Zakar's Fidl Kapelye

June 3 - OFF
June 10 - Pete Sokolow's Klezmer Plus, with Ken Maltz 
June 17 - Student Concert, & Aaron Alexander's Klez Messengers