Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Exodus of Johnny Yune

It took some pleading with his manager and a few weeks of hilarious cell phone tag, but we finally made it to a Korean bakery in a strip mall in the heart of L.A.'s Koreatown to sit face to face with the great Johnny Yune. Pop culture junkies will recognize Yune from his 1982 "Asianploitation" martial arts satire They Call Me Bruce:

which helped get Yune spots as a judge on the 1984 Miss Universe pageant, as a guest on The Love Boat, and as host of his own variety show:

But for us, he is forever the "Jon Yune" of Ose Shalom, his 1975 album of Jewish and Israeli songs, sung entirely in Hebrew and Yiddish. The cover of the album finds Yune posing in front of the United Nations, which we always thought was an odd choice for such a culturally specific record, but Yune had his reasons. "I could sing in 16 different languages and I wanted to have a symbol of the whole world there," he told us. "But especially the American flag, because only in this country could a Korean guy sing Hebrew and Yiddish songs." Yune left Korea for New York in 1962 and he became a regular in the audience at Cafe Exodus, one of a few Jewish-themed nightclubs in 1960s Manhattan. After a fluke invitation to get on stage to sing a number (he did it in Italian), Yune was invited back but he had to sing in Yiddish or Hebrew. He started listening to albums by Israeli chanteuse Yaffa Yarkoni and had "My Yiddishe Momme" down cold, and was soon making 85 bucks a week and all the falafel and pita he could eat at Exodus, El Avram, Cafe Sabra, and Cafe Tel Aviv.
"Before I knew it I knew so many Hebrew and Yiddish songs and I had fallen in love with the music," he said. "Almost every Jewish song is in a minor key. There is a sadness to life. Koreans went through almost the same situation with 60 years under Japanese occupation and they treated Korean people like animals, just like the Jewish people were treated so badly. So I could feel that. Im not Jewish but I feel the same oppressions from when I was a kid under occupation." Which is why to this day, Yune still closes his Vegas act with his rousing version of "Exodus," putting his own spin on "walking without fear" across a "land that is mine."

There is nothing novelty about the music on Ose Shalom-- it is a deeply earnest and often intense album, so much so that when we played it for legendary TV producer Norman Lear (who writes about it in our book), Lear got emotional, steamrolled by memories of his own Yiddish-speaking family. Yune is mostly known as a comic and Ose Shalom was his first and last recording, but when he talks about it, it's clear that it still ranks as the most profound moment of his career.

For us, it's a major testament to the power of cross-cultural exchange and an amazing window into a 1960s Jewish music scene where all outsiders could find their voice. 'I dont converse fluent Yiddish, a bissel, you know, a little bit," Yune said before we left. "When I speak in Yiddish they say I used to have a Gilitzyaner accent! Some people tell me I speak with a Litvak accent! My Hebrew pronunciation is pretty good actually. I still enjoy speaking in Yiddish when I can and when I perform for Jewish audiences I always sing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold. When I was in Israel, I sang that sang overlooking the Gethsemane garden and Golden Dome of Jerusalem. I had tears in my eyes."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Found! El Avram, Avram Grobard...

The journey was only from New York City to Wachtung, New Jersey -- but the distance we traveled was best measured in decades rather than miles. We are proud to say that we have just located and interviewed Avram Grobard, the legendary former Israeli paratrooper turned West Village night club owner and performer who fused Israeli, Jewish, Spanish, Greek, Italian, Arabic, and Japanese sounds into a folk cocktail. His El Avram clubs in New York and Florida became a veritable underground railroad for a flood of Israeli acts hoping to strike it big in America after the Six Day War and were frequented by the likes of Louis Armstrong while acting as a launch pad for performers as universally beloved as George Karlin, Gabe Kaplan, and cult heroes like Jonny Yune.

In Grobard's own words, the clubs were "a downtown bouillabaisse of Mediterranean condiments -- an Israeli owner, an Amermenian oud player, an Israeli Arab chef in the kitchen, and Greek, Italian, Spanish, and French Music in the air." The bouilabaisse had Spanish ingredients to begin with -- the club was previously El Chico, a latin music hub with a bull's head and a sombrero hanging over the stage. Mr. Grobard informed us in interview that the name change was part homage to the El Chico roots, and part a money saving stroke of genius, as in Hebrew, El is one of the names of the deity and so El Avram translates through roughly as Almighty Avram. With that justification, Grobard was able to forgo the expense of totally rebranding the club and kept the Latin decor. To our delight, he took us to the finished basement of his beautiful home, and revealed that he had moved the entire club to Wachtung, fixture by fixture. The tables, chairs, stage, and bar were all there, replete with PA system, and El Avram's personalized accordian. Put a bouncer on the door, and the club could be back in business.

It was an honor to interview El Avram and to video the story of his arrival, club success, and recording career. His funk guitar classic Any Time of the Year is rarely off our turntable. Grobard's swarthy chest hair drawing the eye despite being surrounded by what we now know were three Playboy bunnies. We thank El Avram for his patience and detail in interview and celebrate his career by sharing our favorite track, Orcha Bamidbar, in which the relentless horns and jaunty keys play off Grobard's precise yet seductive vocal magic.

If you know of any former musical performers like El Avram, please let us know so we can capture their story for our archive.

El Avram performs in his nightclub, reconstructed in the basement of his home:And how it looked back in the day. Louis Armstrong drops in to check out the talent, and El Avram celebrates. He was told there'd be cake.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


When it comes to emotional attachment to the Jewish State, previous generations may have had the Six Day War, or the Raid on Entebbe. If you came of age in the 1970’s you had the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes, the annual continental battle of warbling tonsils that launched the juggernaut careers of bands such as ABBA, and… well, ABBA.

The tournament was must-see stuff across the country, despite the fact that it was perennially won by innocuous Scandinavian warblers and dastardly French lounge acts. But in 1978 all that changed when Israel’s entry Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta took to the cavernous stage in their glitzy kibbutz shirts with sneaking hint of chest hair. Since when has Israel been in Europe? The song, A-Ba-Ni-Bi gave us no chance to ask the question. It was all stabbing cut and thrust with tight horn work and orchestration adding a screaming urgency. The combo sang as if their lives depended upon it, even though the lyrics of the song were somewhat curiously about how children relate to love. When it became clear in the voting that Israel had won, Jordanian television cut their live broadcast and replaced it with a screenshot of spring flowers, telling their populace that the Belgian song had won the competition.

But I was in England. 8 years of age, and watching till the sweet, sweet end with everyone else in Europe. The performance was breathtaking. Israelis who could rock. I went to bed that night unable to sleep. My body still giddily thrilled by what I had seen, counting down the days till the next years competition which would now be held in Israel… for the first time the mighty Eurovison would be held outside of Europe.

And lo and behold, if Israel did not win that one too… with Gali Atari and Milk and Honey’s performance of Hallelujah, a song that built from a solo voice into a quartet’s crescendo. Replete with spangly bow ties and braces and formulaic shoeshine shuffle. A song purpose built to be played by bar mitzvah bands for years to come. Hallelujah has become the more famous song, entering the pantheon of popular Jewish sing-a-longs but A-Ba-Ni-Bi is forgotten masterpiece. A throbbing, soulful moment of Jewish triumph.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mambo Chicano

For American Jews, ghosts of the past, ghosts of other worlds, languages, longer names, are part of what it means to occupy the present. How Jews embrace or ward off those lingering spirits is a prime ingredient in configuring identity. That, at least, is what Donald Weber, an old friend of Hippo’s, and a particularly inspirational one, talks about in his must-read book from earlier this year, Haunted in the New World. The haunting is what makes Jewish-American culture play its changes and duck-and-cover in its transformations — the whole Jewish chameleon, Jewish mercurian theory (check Yuri Slezkine on this for at least one particularly sweeping history). I’ve been thinking about all this while listening to Rene Bloch, a Mexican musician born to French Jews who immigrated to Sonora before they moved the family north to Los Angeles. Bloch became a primo sax man in the LA R&B scene, dropping one of THE quintessential West Coast solos when he gigged with the Johnny Otis Band on 1945’s “Harlem Nocturne.” Bloch soon set out on his own in the 50s and led a number of different Latin dance bands that were the liasons to big name East Coast players like Tito Puente , Mongo Santamria, and Perez Prado (Bloch also had a stint as the leader of Prado’s band). Bloch’s particularly interesting in the kinds of mergers he pulled off in his career: bridging the Black & Mexican scenes in 40s LA, and bridging the coastal divide of the Mexican and Latino scenes in the 50s and 60s. You can hear it loud and clear on forgotten LPs like Latin Heat With A Beat (which featured him alongside Santamaria & Willie Bobo) where he did “Las Chiquillas” and on Let’s Dance The Mambo where he trailblazed with his own Mexican-Americanization of the mambo craze on what should be a classic, “Mambo Chicano”. The haunting comes in strong years later, when Bloch digs into his Jewishness, finds Christ (I mean, Yeshua) while he’s looking for the Messiah, becomes a Messianic Jewish rabbi, and now (in his early 70s) puts out albums of Messiah tunes when he’s not leading his congregation at temple Beth Shalom in Rancho Cucamunga. The Al Jolson Story it ain’t.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Locusts! Matzoh! Cowboys!

The last good passover seder we had in our family was when everyone was still alive and we videotaped it. It was instant performance art, tossing red wine onto white china with exuberant cries announcing each plague, goofing on the four questions while doing our best Henny Youngmans, and feeding matzoh to the dogs (who quickly spit it out–what do dogs know of desert suffering and guerrilla baking skills?). Well, it’s passover time again (which means college students everywhere will be invoking Bob Marley over bitter herbs), so Mr. Campus thought he’d send over a little something you might want to play while pouring a little liquor for Elijah. No Jewish holiday should go uncommercialized and nobody knows that better than Manischewitz, resident matzoh monopolizers and the reason for all Jewish pre-teens’ first hangover (”Manischewitz wine, the original Jesus Juice”). They out did themselves in the 60s by releasing this 45 that paired “a real honest-to-goodness Jewish cowboy” named Harold Stern (he’s pre-law, single, and can ride bareback!) with Avram, a former Israeli paratrooper who sings tunes in Hebrew and, without explanation, Italian. It’s a plug for Passover products that interrupts Stern’s aw-shucks musings on Jewish prairie seders with Avram’s international song stylings. Stern wasn’t the first Jewish cowboy of course and he wasn’t the last: rewind to Jewish gauchos in Argentina and “Yonkle the Cow-Boy Jew,” then flip to pioneer, gold rush Jews out West, then head to Mickey Katz’s “Haim Afen Range” settlers and Gene Wilder’s reluctant Polish cowboy Avram Belinsky (Frisco Kid), then end up with Kinky Friedman and his Texas Jewboys and this guy, a Yiddish singing chicken rancher up in Petaluma. The wagon train must be murder on the allergies.