Last year while walking along Beverly Road I noticed a large gathering on one of the many gigantic porches that line this street. This neighborhood is a Brooklyn anomaly: roughly four streets by three avenues of colonial style (and size) mansions plopped down between Flatbush and Prospect Park, at the apex of Southern Brooklyn before entering the long stretch of brick-built, Orthodox Jewish-dominated neighborhoods that spread to the feet of Coney Island. Founded in 1899 and today known as Prospect Park South, this urban project conjured by developer Dean Alvord became the blueprint for the modern suburb. It's so shocking simply because the area is a chunk of Flatbush turned into plantation-style homes, each at least 3,500 square feet large, surrounded by aisles of bodegas and hair supply stores and the virtual parking lot otherwise known as West Indian Flatbush Ave.
On that large, winding porch stood three dozen or so men donned in dark black suits sporting slicked hair, three generations of rugged men wielding cigarettes and weathered grimaces. My initial reaction: Russian mafia. In itself, that is not surprising, given the long history that Russians have of settling in Brighton Beach. Part of me wanted to jump up onto the porch and listen to their stories, but I doubted that the fact that my grandmother was from their homeland would give me enough street cred to leave the porch intact. I ogled quietly before slouching towards the park.
At the time I knew little about the Kosher Nostra, Jewish American gangsters claiming heritages predominantly from Eastern Europe and Russia who have done everything from fixing the World Series to helping to create Las Vegas. Most organized crime bosses prefer anonymity, like the Koch brothers who used Citizens United as a cover to fund GOP initiatives before the press realized who was paying for those Tea Party buses to wander around Middle America. While I doubt that Kosher Nostra: Jewish Gangsters Greatest Hits (Essay) will reveal much about the secret politics of the Jewish mob, this fascinating 21-track collection of songs will hip you to a few generations of what past thugs were grooving to while fitting unwilling Americans with cement boots.
Compiled by one of the best producers on the planet today, Bucovina Club founder Shantel, along with Vienna's Jewish Museum curator Oz Almog, listeners are treated to a wide array of 'gangster hits' from the 1920s-'60s. These choices are no mere guesses. Shantel wrote his Frankfurt University graduate thesis on organized crime, especially interested in the Kosher Nostra's influence on American music. Hence you have songs by a wide array of artists, with more known Jewish singers like Connie Francis, Sophie Tucker and Tom Jones mixed with Al Jolson and Chubby Checker. The hidden gem is Wilmoth Houdin's "Black But Sweet," a klezmer calypso jam that would be immortalized by Shantel's numerous renderings of his most beloved track, "Bucovina." The juicy original is below, followed by Shantel's first reimagining of it.
Jewish mob music comprises a small sliver of this country's musical export. America has produced a startling number of regional music styles. Members of the Colorado-based quintet, Elephant Revival, joined forces to explore as many of them as possible. Inspired by bluegrass, fiddle music, Appalachian folk and even hip-hop (in some ways a folk form itself), the band recently released its second album, Break in the Clouds (Ruff Shod), once again merging their many shared passions. Along with its self-titled debut, the band's two albums feature a nice blend of acoustic singer-songwriter material, as in the lead-off "Point of You" on the latest. It's a sumptuous song in the vein of Cat Power and a really good Ani Difranco ballad. Violins, banjos and mandolins immediately follow: an alt-country "Cosmic Pulse" and fiddle jam on "Lexington," with members jigging on "What is Time?" Elephant Revival is not five musicians supporting one songwriter, but friends in full collaboration for the betterment of music, both their own and what folk means to modern America, which is inevitably embedded in the lyrical content.
The essence of folk is to live the poetry preached. With that in mind, the band has mounted a musical and social struggle against society's ailments: carbon footprints, waste, global warming. They tour on tanks of vegetable oil, eat with To-Go Ware bamboo silverware and print CDs on recycled cardboard. The GOP's attempt at stopping the biodiesel tax credit frustrated its members; fortunately last year's lame duck Congress reinstated it. Still, the Republican agenda has demanded an end to environmentally friendly legislation. Recently, a GOP-led Senate brought back plastic utensils and Styrofoam to its cafeteria as a middle finger up to environmentalists. As always, we turn to artists to remind us of our connection with the earth beneath us. Elephant Revival is one of the finest of the young crop of folk artists touring today, and long do I foresee the career of these five unfolding.
Perhaps even more diverse in scope, members of Hazmat Modine are intrigued by American musics from the 1920s-'60s, such as Hokum jugband, Swing and New Orleans funk. Invoking one of the loudest insects on earth, the band named its new album Cicada (Barbés). Known for its buzzing chainsaw of a 'song,' certain forms of cicadas have 17-year life cycles while others regenerate like a cocoon to a butterfly, breaking out its own small skin as a larger, winged version of itself. The bug is interesting as hell, and so is this band. Members conjure Sudanese music in a bluesy murder ballad. "Uptown Mocking Bird" is a southern call-and-response style tuba-led marching song. They skank out Irving Berlin. "Dead Crow" features the Kronos Quartet. Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame co-wrote "Child of a Blind Man" with bandleader Wade Schuman while on an Indonesia mountaintop. The loudest of 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant, is featured, while West Africa's Gangbe Brass Band backs everyone up. There are plenty of familiar sounds woven together as to make this a completely unique record, which is a rarer feat than you may believe. Hazmat Modine pulls it off gorgeously, deserving of whatever buzz Cicada receives.