March 26th, 2009


Hasidim? Acidim!

I'm not sure when I began to triangulate the jewishness of my favourite 21st century Parisian musicians, but it can't have been long after becoming aware, circa 2002, of the labels Active Suspension and Clapping Music, and the interesting live events happening under the Placard and Shobo Shobo rubrics. The Paris scene represented by Mehdi Hercberg, Olivier Lamm, Shinsei, Hypo, Domotic, Discom and Davide Balula seemed to me the most interesting thing happening in music anywhere, and I was delighted to become a guest vocalist (alongside Japanese musicians like Sawako, Midori Hirano and Kumi Okamoto) on Hypo and o.lamm records. In addition to being significantly Jewish, these Parisians turned out to be significantly crazy about Japan.

But if I'd been obtuse and somehow overlooked the jewishness of this scene, the penny would have dropped when I saw Moishe Moishe Moishele, the latest music project from Mehdi Shobo Hercberg, Odot Lamm and Vincent Tordjman. Located at the exact crossover point (not, admittedly, a very crowded junction) between the Hasidim and Acid House, Moishe Moishe Moishele is a high-energy, high-concept Jewish supergroup capable -- in terms of racial-national self-caricature -- of giving bands like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra a run for their money.

Taking their name from Moishe Holtzberg, the surviving son of a rabbi killed, along with his wife, in the Mumbai massacre last year (and already the subject of some much more sentimental music), Moishe Moishe Moishele are, according to taste, a joke band for weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, the point where irony meets sincerity and hipsters meet orthodoxy, a proud example of asymmetrical multiculturalism, and a post-post-ethnic gesture.

As we've seen before in these pages, "asymmetrical multiculturalism" is a term Canadian sociologist Eric P. Kaufmann uses in his book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America to point out that liberals have a self-defeating double standard: they want dominant whites to repress their ethnicity, but everyone else to express theirs: "the Anglo-Saxon should be transethnic and cosmopolitan, while other groups should be ethnically conservative". Symmetrical pluralism would see all ethnicities in a multicultural nation like the US relating to each other on a point-to-point basis; asymmetrical pluralism sees them all grouped around a hub of "Anglo-Saxon Cosmopolitans" who are disallowed from stressing their ethnic qualities (on pain of being branded "fascist"). For Kaufmann, this "remains consistent with the dictates of egalitarianism in that it weakens the power center while strengthening minority groups", but undermines both ethnicity and liberalism: "The majority, excluded from partaking in a meaningful ethnic option, turns its back on the entire concept in favor of a universalist individualism". Kaufmann rather optimistically envisions a world in which "all are taught the virtues and failings of both cosmopolitan and ethnic values".

I'm not sure if Kaufmann is Jewish, but his formula -- cosmopolitanism plus ethnicity -- is a particularly Jewish one. No people has been as intent as the Jews on preserving their national-cultural specificity, and yet no people has traveled quite as widely as the Jews, or become so cosmopolitan, either. It also strikes me that Moishe Moishe Moishele are both "meaningfully ethnic" and cosmopolitan. And this might be the point to mention the perfect aptness of the fact that Mehdi Hercberg's son with his ethnically-Vietnamese partner Khan-Linh La is called Zelig, after, presumably...

...the film in which we all began to suspect that Woody Allen might be Jewish too.