I have always been a fan of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band - and when the opportunity came to interview the band members and write a feature about their new album, I grabbed it. Here is my piece on "Jerusalem is Calling" - the latest effort from Avraham Rosenblum and Diaspora.
It's been nearly three decades since the strains of "Malchuscha" and "Pischu Li" first reverberated from the walls of Jerusalem's Old City and inspired a generation of thirsting Jewish souls to follow the path of joyful Judaic expression.
In those days, students of the Diaspora Yeshiva would set up their musical instruments every Motzei Shabbos at Kever Dovid, playing and singing through the night. The young men were all returnees to the Torah life, encouraged by their Rosh Yeshiva to use their musical talents for spreading Yiddishkeit. The Diaspora Yeshiva Band, as it came to be known, created a new sound in Jewish music, and instilled a new energy into the slowly emerging "scene."
Rabbi Avraham Rosenblum founded the group and led it throughout its touring and recording years, culminating in "The Last Diaspora" album of 1983. Since then, he has carried on the name and musical style that made the Yeshiva and the music legendary. His latest release: "Avraham Rosenblum and Diaspora: Jerusalem is Calling," represents a new beginning and an energized return for the band that never stopped rocking.
"The Diaspora sound is still alive and well," Rosenblum said. "This new product is a mixture of the old and new - essentially it's a hybrid of where I'm at and the Diaspora sound. But the point is, Jerusalem is calling - we have to find a connection back to our roots."
The first track on the album, Bar Yochai, was recorded in Jerusalem last May, with several old friends from the original band. "That session ignited me and brought back the energy," the Rabbi said. "It helped me find the spark again. That session was the point that inspired the rest of the album."
Listeners will find the vocal blends familiar, Rosenblum said, as he and guitarist/fiddler Ben Zion Solomon harmonize in the songs of "Calling." The styles are upbeat, folksy and thought provoking all at the same time, designed to transmit a message of Torah life to old friends and new audiences as well.
"The purpose is to touch people and give them a feeling that there's something happening in Judaism," Rosenblum said. "[To show that] Committed Jews are still creative and can put out a product that's inspiring and moving."
The music style has shifted to keep up with the times, he said, because the message must be repackaged for a new generation of listeners. "I feel that my values are coming from Torah lifestyle and learning - but music gives you the unique opportunity to universalize the message," he said.
Diaspora legends Ben Zion Solomon, Ruby Harris and Adam Wexler appear on the album, with new band members Moshe Rosenblum and David Morgan adding a new-generation twist to the music.
"As a member of the band that invented Jewish rock - we were [always] pioneers with a futuristic sound. The original members are still that way - and the new members are adding their own, youthful energy," said Harris, who plays violin, mandolin and harmonica in the band.
David Morgan is Diaspora's new piano and organ player, credited as music director for "Jerusalem is Calling." He met Rosenblum through Jewish folk-rock singer Peter Himmelman, in whose band he was playing piano. "David hung out with us about a year ago and heard some of the songs," Rosenblum said. "He told me to get back into the studio as soon as possible."
Morgan is a classically trained musician, with a solo jazz album called "Hands of Time" already to his credit. Harris also recently released a blues record titled, "Almost Home: Ruby Harris Electric Violin Blues All-Star Revue," featuring some of the world's greatest blues musicians.
Ben Zion Solomon's easily recognized voice is also featured on several solo projects, including collections of Breslov niggunim and "Give Me Harmony," an album containing previously unrecorded songs of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory.
Twenty-two-year-old Moe Rosenblum, Avraham's son, is Diaspora's drummer and co-producer of the album. He was literally born into the music, and wanted to be a part of it since he was a small child.
"My parents loved it since day one," Moe said. "I would run around the house banging on furniture." Moe began accompanying his father at age 14. "We would do 'Diaspora All Stars' shows, with me, my father, and Ruby all playing together," he said.
As co-producer, Moe was in charge of organizing the recording sessions and keeping the production moving smoothly. Avraham credits his son with providing the drive and push to complete the album.
"He's been watching my movements and activities," Avraham said, "And we started playing together, and it really cooked."
"The direction is to inspire," Moe added. "And we're using rock and roll - which kids are into these days. The message, energy and music can reach a lot of kids and show them a better direction."
"I'd like to be part of Diaspora for however long we produce," he said.
Jerusalem is Calling, the album's title track, reminds listeners that Jews always have a deep connection to the Holy City. "Hear it echo through the canyons of your mind / Until you reclaim the things you left behind / Telling you, it just might be the time," Rosenblum sings. The song climaxes with a harmonious rendition of "Im Eshkacheich," bringing together the message of the song with the poignant declaration from Tehillim.
No album would be complete without a tribute to Reb Shlomo Carlebach. On "Calling," Solomon and Rosenblum offer a haunting rendition of Carlebach's "Hinei Yamim Ba'im - Days Are Coming," sung in harmony that truly moves the listener.
"Hinei Yamim" was Harris' favorite as well. "People won't be hungry for bread and water - they'll be starving for the word of Hashem. ?That's a nice image to conjure the feel of this generation - the one in which the Moshiach comes," he said.
"Rhythm Messiahs," a kind of self-portrait song, joyfully examines the way music can "get you through the door" of a spiritual quest. After all, Chaza"l tell us that shira - song - opens the gates of heaven. This track brings out all the positive energy first heard in the Modzitz-turned-Diaspora theme "Simcha Leartzecha" and in Marvin Feingold's search for the "light of wisdom." "We'll lay it all out for you," Rosenblum sang on "Land of Our Fathers," urging searching souls to sample the Torah. On the latest album, "Messiahs" bounces to a lively tempo and sets the stage for Diaspora's musical style and message.
"Mi K'amcha" was originally composed by Rosenblum and band alumnus Rabbi Shimon Green for Israeli television back in the 70s. "We rocked it up," Rosenblum said, and Ben Zion's son Noah adds his vocal talents to the harmonious mix as well.
"Shma B'nee" also represents new ground for the group, Rosenblum said, with a Blues Brothers style and electric harmonica solo that present a lighter attempt to bridge the generation gap.
The album contains 10 songs, and was released last month from Rare Productions. "This album has lots of range of depth and feeling," Rosenblum said. "It really flies."
The band is looking forward to more performances and more exposure, as the new Diaspora sound spreads throughout the Jewish community and the world. Their new Web site: Diasporaband.com is up and running, featuring historical information, a discography and music clips. Classic Jewish rock and roll is back and better than ever.