The Jewish Monkeys was a hot tip from Balkan pop personality Shantel. “The Marx Brothers on acid; the nightmare of Benjamin Netanyahu,” was how he described them. “They are freaks, millionaires on a mission impossible, the story is great. Check them out. You can make them big.”
Well, thank you Shantel. I will try my best.
It appeared a good deal of the story of this Tel Aviv based outfit centered around the band’s oddball frontman Jossi Reich, who sang in the Frankfurt synagogue boys’ choir in the seventies together with fellow Jewish Monkey Roni Boiko. Later the two met again in Israel and the idea of a band began to crystallize.
Out of a jam session in Tel Aviv, involving Jossi, Boiko and Gael Zaidner arose a song that blended Havala Nagila with Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat, featuring lyrics inspired by the Middle East conflict — thus the Jewish Monkeys came into being.
I was, I have to say, a little bit skeptical of the Monkeys at the outset. The first CD fell into my hands, the second, then the third – entitled Catastrophic Life – fresh of the press. And I still wasn’t convinced. The Jewish Monkeys seemed too much like a comedy band. It was cabaret; not rock and roll.
Plus they were old (Alte Kacker was the name of one of their songs), in their fifties mainly, which made me wonder if they had it in them to really rock?
I now know that the Jewish Monkeys are a helluva band. It took seeing them perform live at the UFA Fabrik in Berlin this past November to finally make a believer out of me.
Before the show began, however, I still wasn’t sure as I watched grey-haired concert-goers file into the wood paneled hall cradling glasses of wine and chatting amiably.
“It’s like Dawn of the Dead here”, I texted a friend.
But, waddaya know? The gig was a hot one. The seven piece band played a tight set of mostly original songs in a klezmer-punk style. The lead guitarist, the backbone of the group,and band lyricist, kicked out some killer Middle Eastern riffs, while the young blood brass section rocked.
Jossi Reich – a kind of mix between Jello Biafra and Borat – dressed all square in a coat and tie (he lost the coat, but kept the tie for the whole concert), was one of the strangest singers I had ever seen. He flung himself all over the stage, jerking and jumping about like a spastic jack-in-the-box, his face all screwed up in a simian grimace – a real Jewish Monkey if there ever was one.
Throughout the show there was a good deal of idle bantering between Jossi and fellow singer Gael Zaidnerin a mix of English, German, Hebrew and Yiddish.
They made fun of themselves with songs like the punk number Too little, too late, a satirical spoof on Too much, too soon by proto punks, New York Dolls.
Jossi sang “Ich bin ein alter Kacker”, which translates basically as “I am an old codger”.
“But you can still move,” said Zaidner. “If you call that moving.”
And then they slowed it down and played Catastrophic Life, a plodding, schlepping song making fun of midlife crises.
The crowd was a mix of fifty-something world music aficionados, aging hippies and citizens, mixed with twenty-something hedonists looking for some good-time music. There were some tentative attempts at dancing.
Zaidner called to the crowd to not be shy and come forward to the stage.
“He needs warmth,” Jossi told he audience. “He was neglected as a child. So give him warmth.”
At this point the gig really took off, with a bunch of alte Kackers boogying down with some of the kids, who knew the band perhaps from other clubbier settings.
And I even made some friends. A girl chatted me up, asking me if I was the manager of the band. I took this for the jibe it was no doubt intended to be, and said actually I was just a simple hack here to cover the show for Songlines magazine.
She had never heard of Songlines. Naturally. She herself was an actress from Cologne, who appeared in some German cop show. She asked me what it was like to interview Jossi. I said I expected more wisecracks.
Before the sound-check I had met with Jossi and guitar wizard Omer Hershman in the foyer and I asked them about who their fans were.
“I can’t say that there is a typical Jewish Monkeys audience,” said Hershman. “One night you can find 25 to 30 year-old guys and girls dancing. And you know, it’s a rock and roll concert. It’s a party. The other night it can be more Jewish – mostly in Jewish culture festivals. Where the audience consists of mainly older people.”
Naturally the band preferred the younger crowd, which they got in some of the small clubs they played at, as well as Purim (Jewish Carnival) parties, over the synagogue gigs.
I asked Jossi later if he was now enjoying the rock and roll lifestyle he never had as a kid.
“Hell no!” said Jossi. “It sucks! It sucks being stuck in a van driving from place to place. The so-called rock and roll lifestyle is tiresome as hell, and something for young and naïve musicians”…not for alte Kacker – like the Jewish Monkeys.
By Robert Rigney