From chanting nigunim to spinning Purim groggers, Jews are a musical people. Even our holiest site is musical — it wails.
The landscape of rock ‘n’roll has proven fertile soil for Jews to thrive. Before he was Bob Dylan, Robert Zimmerman was a Jewish boy from Minnesota. KISS’ tongue-wagging Gene Simmons is really Gene Klein. Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Lou Reed are all Jews.
“The biggest artists out of Pittsburgh, from the Skyliners to the Houserockers to the Cynics and Rusted Root, may have contained a Jewish musician here or there, but were not fronted by them,” said Scott Mervis, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s pop music critic. “It’s rather surprising given the heavily Jewish tradition in rock.”
While Pittsburgh may not have produced a Diamond or Dylan, Jewish musicians in the city today are still creating boundary-pushing music. Here, we’ve picked four of our favorites.
Jeremy Malvin is a college student, but you can call him Professor Purple.
The University of Michigan sophomore has been a vibrant player in Pittsburgh’s music scene for longer than some people twice his age — he started his first band, Tunnelvision, in elementary school and practiced at the Jewish Community Center.
As Professor Purple, Malvin creates collages of gurgling synthesizers and dance beats, inspired largely by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser. “That’s my holy grail,” said Malvin. In Michigan, Malvin’s been making his name as a party DJ.
“Nobody at a party really wants artsy experimental stuff,” said Malvin. “They just want a beat going the whole time.”
While many electronic artists rely on computer trickery to assemble tracks, though, Malvin backs up his beats with real musical chops; Professor Purple, as well as his sometime-membership in local debauched rockers the Hood Gang and other music moniker Chrome Sparks, are only “side projects to me preparing for a career in an orchestra or new music ensemble” as a percussionist, said Malvin.
He’s no stranger to ducking behind the scenes as well; Malvin began organizing shows under the tutelage of local promoter Manny Theiner while in high school.
“[For my first shows] I didn’t even have my senior license,” said Malvin. “So my mom had to drive me in the minivan to Mr. Smalls.”
These days, the Professor drives himself.
Dani Buncher of Big Hurry
For Dani Buncher, even New York City couldn’t compare to Pittsburgh.
After graduating from West Virginia University, the Squirrel Hill native worked in Manhattan as an A&R rep for major label Arista Records, rubbing elbows with some of the biggest artists in the industry.
“I wanted to do something on the indie level,” said Buncher. “And I missed Squirrel Hill.”
Buncher returned with a job at local label Rostrum Records, home to Pittsburgh mainstays Wiz Khalifa and Donora, but soon felt the itch to jump to the other side of the music business. She posted an ad on Craig’s List looking for musicians.
“In doing all this work for other artists, I realized I really missed playing,” she said.
The online band assembly method worked, but it took time.
“In New York, everyone’s on Craig’s List. Your mom, your brother, your grandmother. In Pittsburgh, not so much,” said Buncher. “Eventually, I got in touch with Andy (Wilkosz, guitar) and we met at a coffee shop. Turned out he lived on my block.”
One by one, the future members of Big Hurry assembled and eventually recorded their first EP, Silver Screens. Vocalist Kelly Tobias’ melodies are catchy but vicious; the guitar-driven music pulses and drives like a warmer Gang of Four.
Buncher said Big Hurry isn’t so far from her days at Emma Kaufman Camp.
“To find this group of people I can have this experience with, it’s almost a spiritual feeling,” she said.
The three members of Wifebeater! are all be students at CAPA. Just don’t call them a high school band.
“When you get the label ‘high school band,’ [it implies] you must play bad music. But going to shows and doing what we want, we’re actually doing something productive,” said 16-year-old guitarist Reba Meyers. “But we still have a lot to learn.”
Still, the band’s scrappy, acoustic folk-punk is nothing if not impressive — especially considering its creators are barely old enough to drive.
“We could be a bunch of kids playing Red Hot Chili Peppers covers at a bar mitzva, or we could do something that people get excited about, doing anything that someone who’s 20 years older would. Why not?” said bassist Joe Goldman.
Wifebeater! — the name chosen as a jab at the overly-politically correct — touts itself as a “straight edge, vegetarian, feminist” band.
“That’s what our band is about, what our songs are about,” said Meyers. “This is clearly who we are.”
For lead vocalist Kimi Hanauer, the anger in her music comes from a unique place. After moving to Pittsburgh from Tel Aviv at 9, she felt alienated by her own people, as “people thought I should be a certain way because I was from Israel.”
“[Alienation] is something Jewish people have experienced throughout the world,” said Hanauer. “It’s weird for me to have experienced it coming into a Jewish community.”
Through pain, though, comes art — angry and snarling.
Phat Man Dee
“I used to do a half-man/half-woman act where I’d sing love songs to myself.”
That’s just one of Phat Man Dee’s (born Mandy Kivowitz) many idiosyncrasies. For about 10 years, she shaved her head bald. She used to tour with a circus troupe.
Today, though, Phat Man Dee has settled into a relatively more normal existence: singing jazz standards and originals for a faithful local fan base.
Phat Man Dee has been a local leader of all that is weird for years. Her house above the South Side Slopes is filled with costumes, toys and old collectibles. She’s tattooed and pierced and proudly Jewish.
“My first introduction to music in general was at synagogue. We sang the whole frickin’ service,” she said. “I eat lox and whitefish like it’s going out of style. But religiously I’m more open-minded. I follow the 10 commandments, though. I don’t kill anybody.”
Judaism, she believes, factors into her music almost subconsciously.
“When I first started singing jazz, my musicians would ask ‘What scale are you singing?’ ” she said, singing what sounded like Torah trope. “They’d say ‘You are not a cantor; this is not a synagogue. This is a smoky jazz club. Pick a note and stay there.'”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)