They’ve been called a “Hasidic hipster” band, but Zusha is all about dispelling labels and bridging the dichotomy between the spiritual and secular. “Independent on all levels,” their wordless melodies are a self-described blend of “jazz, reggae, folk, ska, gypsy swing, and traditional Jewish soul.”
So, what exactly are we in for at their Purim Festival tomorrow at Bowery Ballroom? “A party,” agree guitarist Zachariah “Juke” Goldshmiedt and vocalist Shlomo Ari Gaisin, both 23. The performance, to commemorate the deliverance of Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire, should be just as meditative and soul-soothing as their previous sold-out concerts at the Mercury Lounge, Highline Ballroom, and Knitting Factory.
Could this trio, started in the East Village, be the next cross-over hit a la Matisyahu? We spoke to Goldshmiedt, Gaisin, and percussionist Elisah Mendl Mlotek about Hasidic music (including headline-grabbing Bulletproof Stockings) and the North/South Williamsburg divide.
What is Hasidic music?
Goldshmiedt: Hasidic music started in the 18th century. The main Rabbi of the dynasty would have their own songs. These songs would then get passed down. We sing the same songs [those Rabbis] were singing. It’s a way to transmit a feeling. But, it’s almost beyond that feeling. It’s transmitting [their] spirit through generations and generations. That’s something we grew up experiencing, experiencing other people’s ideas through meditation. It’s combining the feeling of someone’s essence and the essence of the moment.
Gaisin: Hasidic melody is like wine. The more you sing it, the better it gets. Just like wine, the older it gets, the better it tastes. The idea with Hasidic melody, like one of my rabbis likes to say, is that if you can’t sing it forever, then you shouldn’t even start singing it.
Goldshmiedt: All these melodies have been sung before. They’ve been made popular by Hasidic masters. People have always been remaking them, though. The most famous one [being] Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Our uniqueness is being able to combine the dichotomy of the secular world with experiencing ecstasy and transcendence without necessarily making them dissolve into one another. It’s [about] creating something greater.
Mlotek: I think the first time we ever played music together, it wasn’t with the intention of creating music. It wasn’t even with the intention of starting a band or coming down with something new. It was with the intention of connection on the level of music because that was something so paramount in each of our lives. That’s inherently rooted in the music of Zusha.
Goldshmiedt: They’re always eclectic. We started out playing at our friends’ apartments. Slowly but surely, we’ve branded out. We have our foundation, our “peeps” and our “homies,” but we’re not xenophobic. We’re welcoming.
Gaisin: They’re kind of around college-age because that’s our social network, but it also seeps beyond. At our last sold-out concert at the Highline Ballroom, we had 800 people. There were young kids and grandparents.
Goldshmiedt: That’s part of the hope and dream. It’s not the stage and it’s not the audience. Everyone is involved. Our hope in singing [these] songs without words is that you can go to a concert for the first time and be able to just sing along.
Goldshmiedt: We’re also working on a documentary. The plan is to fly around the world and document Jewish communities. We’re working on the pilot episode now and we’re working on getting funding. The goal is to work with a Jewish community say in India, for example. What sorts of similarities might we have? What sort of differences? Cultural? Religious? What transcends place and time? Things like that. We’ll be writing a song for each place that we go to. It’ll be a documentary with released video performances.
We’ve got to ask. What are your thoughts on the female Hasidic group that gained quite a following?
Goldshmiedt: No, I mean their concerts are only for women. It’s about women’s empowerment. I think it’s beautiful. It’s a balancing act. On one end, you don’t want to forget about where you’re coming from, but on the other, you need to express music. They should feel blessed to be able to continue balancing those two worlds without sacrificing [their] moral beliefs or truths.
And the North Williamsburg/South Williamsburg divide?
Goldshmiedt: I would say that in general, there isn’t much interaction. We found a particularly friendly, open community. They grew up in South Williamsburg, but at the same time, they’re a little more modern and accepting. I think, generally speaking, [they’re] more Hasidic because the idea of Hasidism is to love your fellow man like you would yourself — the Torah is based and we found a community that does that. Here’s the short answer: the slightly more open people that grew up in South Williamsburg love Zusha. They’re all about it. They would never come to a show at the Bowery Ballroom but they try to make us sing Zusha songs at Friday services.