by Guy Emanuel
King Django is a world renown Ska artist who runs his own label, Stubborn Records. Back in 1997, way before Matisyahu, Y-Love, Idan Raichel, and all the other Jewish urban artists that get attention for being exactly that, Django was recording urban Jewish music like no other. To date he has 11 albums; 10 of which are mostly ska and are loved in the Ska scene, but it was in 1997 when he got together a group to perform on his “Roots and Culture” album, fusing Ska with a traditional Yiddish style. It plays as one of the most original Jewish musics in our Shemspeed catalogue and is just perfectly sublime.
The album boasts an all-star line up of musicians from the Ska and Klezmer scene. Amongst the special guests and performers are members of The Slackers, The Toasters, The Klezmatics, and Andy Statman. “Roots and Culture” sets off with “Shtiklahk,” and within the first 10 seconds the listener is hooked into the hypnotic ska sound which plays as a repetitive swaying rhythm, the perfect backdrop for Django’s deep voiceskatting (does that word exist?) and Yiddish melodies. The mandolin that rests under his vocals sounds so sweet that it’s tough to move onto the next track and not keep this one on repeat. The next song is called “Seventh Day” and everyone knows what happens on the Seventh Day, so you listen up. The song has a thematic feel. If the Seventh Day was a TV talk show host, this song would be playing in the background while the host was pointing and winking at random people in the audience slowly making his/her way to the seat on stage. Django continuously gives shouts out to the Sabbath throughout the song and whispers in English how “God rested on the seventh day from all his work,” and then in Hebrew he subtly chants “Hashem Echad” and “Yom Hashiviee,” which in English means “God is One” and “The Seventh Day,” respectively.
Listening to Ska again after all these years it’s hard not to compare it all to the long beach crew, Sublime, because that was the group that stuck out in most people’s minds as THE group to satisfy any Ska cravings. However, KingDjango’s music delves way deeper musically than Sublime ever had. Sublime was to Ska what Green Day was to the Ramones. It was a catchy commercial take that no one could shut off, because it was just too fun to listen to. Well, King Django’s Roots and Culture album has fun and catchy written all over it, but this music is also ripe with tradition. Its blending of Jewish tradition with the tradition of Ska and Reggea is what makes it sound so original and different. A good example of this is the track “Lomir Alle Zingen” which sounds the most traditional. This track takes you back to a time where Klezmer wasn’t cool, but just what was going on at the time. Now, you could go to clubs in NY for your Klezmer fix, but this song makes it sound like you would have to wedding crash in order to hear the sweet old sounds.
Shemspeed took a few moments to catch up with Django while confirming his performance for the Shemspeed Launch party.
You recorded “Roots and Culture” back in 97′. That was way ahead of its time as far as the whole urban revival of Jewish music. how did it come about?
“The label I was with at the time asked me if I would make a Christmas album. I told them that I was Jewish and therefore would not. I don’t think they realized I was Jewish at first. About a week later label head Fred Feldman walked up to me in the hallway at their offices and said, “I got it! Ska mitzvah!” I had no idea what he was talking about. It was really his idea to do a Jewish ska and reggae album. After I had finished the record, I decided that Ska Mitzvah was too silly a title for a not-so-silly album, so I changed it to Roots & Culture.”
What do you think of other Jews doing reggae style music like Matisyahu and Shem’s Disciples?
“That is sort of a weird question to me. Anyone can play whatever kind of music they want. I hadn’t heard of Shem’s Disciples until you asked me this question. I’m listening to it now and it actually sounds pretty cool. Regardless of what people think Matisyahu does not do reggae, nor does he know much about it. There’s maybe 4 to 5% reggae in his music. It is my considered opinion that he gets over strictly on his gimmick. As a reggae “deejay” he is simply offensive. His knowledge and understanding of reggae music and culture is extremely surface and limited and his mock Jamaican patois is really disrespectful. He has no idea what he is doing.” (note: this answer is edited a bit because we love both Django and Matis. If you would like more info on Django’s opion or Matis. we would refer you to them).”
Could you tell us a little bit about how your Jewisheneessss went into this record?
“I think my Jewishness inevitably goes into everything I do. It’s an integral part of me; it’s who I am. This record was the first time that I dealt with that in an overt manner but Jewish themes and musical sensibilities run through my whole body of work. I’m working on a second Roots & Culture album right now which integrates the Jewish and Jamaican music and themes in a deeper way than the first.”
When did you learn Yiddish?
“Yiddish was always around me. As a child I spent a lot of time with my Bubbe and Zayde who spoke almost exclusively Yiddish at home. They would only speak English with us kids. They definitely used Yiddish to keep secrets from us. I’m not sure I realized at first that they were speaking two different languages. I remember drawing connections between similar words in Yiddish and English. At some point they discovered that I could understand everything they were saying so they switched to Hungarian as their secret language. That one worked!”
What was the reaction from the Ska world to this very Yiddish album?
“Roots and Culture was the first record that I engineered and mixed myself top to bottom. It was very well-received when it first came out, but over time I became unhappy with the sound of it on a technical level. Last year when it went out of stock again, I re-mixed and re-mastered the whole thing. I released the new “Special Edition” on my label, www.stubbornrecords.com and people seem to really be digging it again/still.”