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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

Young Jewish Music Label Gets Grammy Nomination

At first glance, combining the traditional music of Eastern European Jewish shtetls with the lyrics of a left-leaning Dust Bowl refugee living near Coney Island may not sound like a good match. The folks at The Recording Academy thought differently. When Grammy Award nominations were announced last month, included in the Best Contemporary World Music Album category was “Wonder Wheel” by The Klezmatics and distributed by the Jewish Music Group based in Studio City. While the music label’s business plan relies heavily on selling to a Jewish audience, its president David McLees is confident of reaching a broader listenership. The Grammy nomination is evidence of that, McLees said. “We are taking a leap that there is more of a mainstream acceptance of Jewish music and music artists so it can cross over out if its niche,” McLees said. Founded 18 months ago by McLees and Richard Foos, both music industry veterans who worked together at Rhino Records and the Warner Music Group, the Jewish Music Group has released 30 albums and has eight acts actively recording new material. The Klezmatics are among those acts, as are Chutzpah, a four-man Hip Hop supergroup who had copies of its album donated to U.S. military serving in Iraq. “It’s fun music that will make you smile,” McLees said. The relative success of a Hanukkah music release while serving as an executive at Rhino Records opened McLees’s eyes that Jewish music could expand its boundaries. McLees wanted to do more Jewish-related releases at Rhino but the company’s business model was geared toward acts that could ship 500,000 to 1 million units and not the modest 30,000 units sold of the Hanukkah release. Cut loose from Warner in 2004 in a layoff, McLees teamed up with Foos in 2005 to found the Jewish Music Group. Foo’s connections give the label distribution into chain music and bookstores. Two salespeople, meanwhile, get the catalogue into 500 Judaica bookstores across the country. “We are self-distributed in the Jewish world,” McLees said. “We sell directly to temples, synagogues and Jewish non profits and other places where you would expect our customer base to be directly found.” Some habits, however, die hard in the music industry. Taking a page from the playbook that made Rhino a success licensing out-of-print material or that had never been released other than on vinyl JMG began to license for re-issues (“Don Rickles Speaks!”), best-of collections (The Debbie Freedman Anthology”) and compilations. But it is with the original acts that JMG is making its stand to introduce traditional Jewish music to non-Jewish audiences and to follow in the tracks of Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae artist who last spring hit number 7 on the Billboard U.S. Modern Rock chart with “King Without a Crown.” The Grammy nomination for The Klezmatics is a start. For their first English-language album, the five-member band performed the lyrics of Woody Guthrie to what McLees describes as a “uniquely Jewish art form.” Over 11 songs, the words of an icon of American folk music meet the music of a centuries-old folk music mixed with elements of jazz. Having other musicians use Guthries’s lyrics proved successful in 1998 and again in 2000 by Americana rockers Wilco and Brit folkie Billy Bragg and their highly acclaimed “Mermaid Avenue” discs both of which earned their own Grammy nominations. Rather than tell tales of his native Oklahoma or the down-and-out uprooted by the dust storms and the Depression, the lyrics reflect Guthrie’s life in Brooklyn and contain Jewish themes. “He experienced a big Jewish population in Coney Island and Brooklyn in the Forties and Fifties,” McLees said. Time to Say Goodnight Move over Teletubbies and Wiggles, the next great children’s program may be coming from the San Fernando Valley. In the two years since Steve Syatt created the characters and music for Shushybye, he has taken the concept from a self-published book to a live stage show, a DVD and CD, and satellite radio show. Starting in February, the Shushies, magical creatures living in Nap Valley and Snore Shores who create children’s dreams, will appear in short form programming called “Shushybye Baby” broadcast on BabyFirstTV through DirectTV and Dish networks. The channel will be available in 10 countries by April. The 26, seven-minute programs will be made available on DVD in the fall, said Syatt, who owns a public relations firm based in Encino. “It will air in the early evening to serve as part of the preparing for bedtime ritual between parent and child,” Syatt said. Shushybye a combination of the words “shush” and “lullaby” started as a way for Syatt to get his then 3-year-old son to go to bed at night. A Shushybye-based show already airs on Comcast’s video-on-demand service. In September, St. Martin’s Press will release “Close Your Eyes,” the first of eight planned books on the Shushybe characters and situations. What has Syatt even more excited for his expanding franchise is reaching a representation deal for the Shushybye Dream Band with the management company owned by Pat Magnarella, the manager for alt-rockers Green Day. Chris Allen, who handles the All American Rejects, will work directly with the band for which Syatt plays guitar and writes all the songs. “As a result of this relationship the Shushybye Dream Band will be part of larger venue tours in 2007,” Syatt said. “Pat and Chris love the Shushybye music and think the music is what separates our children’s product from others and will put it in front of a mainstream audience.” Syatt is finishing production on 10 new songs that will be finished in January for inclusion in the BabyFirstTV programs. Staff Reporter Mark R. Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or at mmadler@sfvbj.com.

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