On Thursday night, May 29, a modestly-dressed, sheitel-wearing Orthodox mother of five took center stage at Arlene's Grocery, a trendy Stanton Street music club. She proceeded to thrill the capacity crowd with her original, alternative-rock music compositions.
The audience contained a mixed group of observant and non-observant Jews, young club-hoppers and older, more mature patrons. There were even a few record producers in the crowded club, all present to hear the exciting new music of Dana Mase, singer and songwriter extraordinaire.
Her music is featured on two previous albums, "Diary" and "Sitting With An Angel." The Arlene's Grocery show gave Mrs. Mase and her band a chance to test some new material, and get a feel for the mass appeal and live sound of several new songs.
"We like to organically develop the songs in a live setting," said Barry Mase, Dana's husband and manager. Arlene's Grocery is the popular spot to showcase musical talent for mass audiences and recording executives, and the performance was very successful.
Dana Mase's music has been described as pop, folk-rock, adult alternative, inspirational and spiritual all at once. She sings of her quest for truth and her appreciation of life's joys and experiences. She sings of her relationship with her parents, her children, and G-d. She asks questions, makes observations, yearns and rejoices in songs that strike a chord in Jewish and secular audiences throughout the country.
In short, she sings about life. Life for everyday people and everyday families who can all relate to the messages of her music. And the conclusions and advice she has for her audience are the result of many years' soul-searching and introspection.
Born and raised in an affluent Cleveland suburb, Dana's exposure to and knowledge of Judaism was limited to unfulfilling visits to a reform temple, Chanuka candle-lighting and Passover seders. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and her Jewishness was not a source of inspiration or pride for the budding musician.
As a senior in High School, Dana first began to truly question her place in the world and seek out the spiritual answers to her questions. The journey back to observant Judaism was a long and arduous one, and Dana first experimented with born-again Christianity and attended Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma.
Throughout her college years, "The music was always there. I was obsessed by music," she admitted, and after graduating college in 1984, she moved to Manhattan and began playing the dance clubs and music halls.
In 1985, she met Barry Mase, the man who would be her bandmate and eventually her husband. A few months after they met, he made a trip to Israel to learn more about his roots, and she followed suit. Together, they began learning and experiencing Jewish life. They married in 1987 and settled in Manhattan.
"We weren't keeping kosher, or Shabbos," Dana recalled. "It was a very slow and gradual process." Barry started attending a Jewish study class during his lunch break, and found that he truly enjoyed the teachings of Judaism. Little by little, they incorporated Jewish thought and practice into their lives, and now they are fully observant, living in the predominantly-Orthodox area of Monsey, NY with five beautiful children.
After officially becoming baalei teshuva, or returnees to the faith, Dana and Barry weren't sure how exactly to reconcile the music business with the traditional lifestyle of Orthodox Judaism. For several years, her songwriting and singing were put on hold as they readjusted the values and thinking behind the music. After consulting with several rabbis and sending demo tapes to various Jewish record labels, "Diary" was produced and released in 1994.
The music on "Diary" is specifically and enthusiastically Jewish, and intended for Jewish audiences. The songs offer fresh perspectives on the role of women as Jews and mothers, the strength of character Jewish women have historically exhibited, and the appreciation everyone must have for each day of life.
Her second album, "Sitting With An Angel," is more universal in its appeal, and was released in 1995 as a mass-market production for the adult alternative music set. The songs on "Sitting With An Angel" also deal with themes like man's relationship to G-d and the importance of spiritual fulfillment over material gain, but the lyrics are designed for secular audiences as well. The album was well-received by critics and fans alike.
Dana is hard at work recording her third album, ("Through the Concrete and the Rocks" - available now) which she will produce together with guitarist John Putnam. "I want to be more involved with the production," she said. "To hear my own music, and get it (on record) the way I think it should sound is very tough."
Many of the songs she played at Arlene's Grocery are featured on the new album, which will probably be finished soon and released in early 1998.
Dana opened the show with a song called, "Not So Clear." This hard-hitting rock song reflects on the doubts and questions that plague people who realize that they can't control every aspect of their lives. "I'm human," Dana explained, "I'm not always sure about what I'm doing." The honest and heartfelt lyrics, combined with Dana's powerful and wide-ranging voice, made this song an instant favorite with the audience.
"Sitting With An Angel," the title track of her album, was the second song she played. The words and music are about a baby being born -- leaving the safety and security of the womb for the uncertainty and danger of the unknown world. Rabbinic literature tells of an angel that dwells in the womb with a growing baby, teaching it and preparing it for life. In Mase's song, the angel in the womb is replaced by the mother of the child, a warm and comforting presence that calms the baby and holds the key to a hopeful future. "I think I'm going to like it here," is the last line of the song, as mother and child face the new challenges together.
The next piece was a low, intense song complete with a heavy bass line and pounding drums. Tentatively titled "Nobody," the song deals with an issue that plagues every community -- judging others. "Nobody knows what's going on in people's hearts except G-d," Dana said. "So many times people misinterpret what I have to say, and twist the truth. The rabbis said you can't judge a person until you're in his place. We really can't know."
"Standing Naked" is a possible title for the fourth song in her performance that night. Partially adapted from Psalms, Dana sings about the absolute honesty, stripped of all pretension and fa┴ade, that can only be attained through a relationship with G-d.
One of the striking aspects of Mase's music is the frank and honest way she describes her feelings. The audience can very readily relate to her themes and lyrics, because she is speaking directly to them, talking about ideals and issues that affect everyone.
A tragic incident of domestic violence in the Jewish community inspired Dana's next song, which she wrote for a benefit concert to raise funds for Project Tikva, a family counseling and shelter service. "Woman in Apartment 3-C" describes the hopelessness and grief experienced by victims of domestic violence. "I tried to put myself in her position," Dana said. "They're emotionally stuck, they can't break out of it. I know that G-d is our shelter, but these people need to be rescued. We have to reach out and help."
"I Believe In You" is an expression of belief and faith in G-d, despite the existence of suffering and injustice in the world. Dana speaks here on a personal and communal level, describing her parents' divorce and her lack of religious training, then the overall reality of anti-Semitism and persecution that is the hallmark of Jewish history. "We don't understand it," she said, "but we believe in G-d anyway."
The next song was a fairly country-style piece called, "A Little Light." "It's about how you never know what can happen," Dana said. "For example, if there's a basic person, just a regular guy, and G-d gives them a drop of light ˝ you never know what that will do for him. I feel that that's what happened to me. For a moment, He shined on me, and that started me looking for the truth.
"If we take it even further," she continued, "if you smile at someone, you could change their whole day." We really don't know just how far a kind word, a little light, can go.
Her final new song of the evening was "Fall Away," a piece about putting aside all the petty and trivial emotions that get in the way of our true path in life.
The show was over at that point, but the audience begged for one last song. Dana asked the fans for a request, and the overwhelming response was, "Be Happy," an upbeat, feel-good song from the "Sitting With An Angel" album. In "Be Happy," Mase sings that although some days are far better than others, she's in control of her attitude, and knows that each day is a gift from above.
Mase's music was interspersed with short anecdotes, poems and stories, vignettes that she found interesting and inspiring, and wanted to share with her audience.
"Clubs are not exactly my favorite places to play," she said. "I'd rather do benefits for different community groups, college Hillels, and that sort of thing." In September, Dana will perform at a benefit for the Rockland Family Shelter.
"I play for all kinds of groups, and all kinds of people," she said. At all-women gatherings she usually plays solo, but whenever possible, she'd rather play with her band.
The boys in the band were all outstanding at the Arlene's Grocery performance, and they are the musicians Dana is working with in recording the new album. Rick Molina and John Putnam play guitar, Joe Bonadio is the drummer, and Michael Viseglia is the bass player.
"The music on the new album is a little bit heavier, a little more raw," she said. "It's basically for people in their twenties to forties - ordinary people, with good values." Dana's music would probably not entertain 'cool,' trendy, younger audiences, but that's not the crowd she's aiming for.
"The music business is not easy," Dana said, "but we work together." Barry handles the business and management end of the Dana's career, and even contributes to the creative process, occasionally writing a song or helping with the music.
"I know I'm a little biased, but Barry is a genius at what he does," Dana said.
Water Records, the label under which "Sitting With An Angel" and the new album will be released, is run by the Mases and offers promotional music samplers and concert information for interested fans. The company also maintains an internet website, at danamase.com , where fans can learn about upcoming events and offer comments to Dana and Barry.
Between caring for five children, aged 10 months to 8, and composing music, Dana's days and nights are quite full. Recording the new album is a further drain on her time and energy. "I still give myself 'days off'," she said, "but it's good, because I can do this (songwriting) at home and be with the kids."
Dana Mase occupies a unique and unusual niche in the Jewish and musical worlds. As a woman whose life has been filled with change and upheaval, she has a wealth of experience from which to comment on Judaism, relationships, spirituality and life in general. Her voice and her music are exciting, enjoyable and compelling.
Everyone needs a moment or two to pause and think about life, or to enjoy something more sublime than the everyday grind. Dana Mase's music helps us do just that.
Michael / Yaakov Steinhart is a freelance writer and editor on assignment for the Lower East Side Voice.