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Some Things Never Change

Barbara Bensoussan

Look at the frum entertainment landscape, and you’ll see an ever-enduring popularity of “oldies.” Despite a constant influx of new talent, what is it about those pioneers of the business who — decades later — are still in demand? Neither the digital revolution nor more sophisticated and demanding audiences have hampered the enthusiasm for those “old-timers” who have not only kept up, but have remained on the cutting edge of a fickle industry. What keeps them going after all the years?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

manYisroel Lamm once thought he was going to be an engineer — at least, he’d enrolled in college and was taking classes towards a degree.

In the meantime, in the summer of 1967, he was working inCampMunkwhen the camp put on its annual circus event. They had always used canned music in the past, but Yisroel and his brother decided on the spur of the moment to put together a live band.

“That was a real chiddush — a live band at camp,” he recalls.

Trained as a trumpet player, he’d already been moonlighting playing at weddings for a couple of years. That winter, a businessman named Isaac Gross created a band called Neginah Orchestra, and “he had this idea he wanted to do an album,” Mr. Lamm relates. “But he couldn’t get the musicians to cooperate; no one was listening. My brother called up and asked if I could be the arranger.

“ ‘I don’t know anything about arranging,’ I said.

“ ‘I heard you’re a good policeman,’ my brother said. ‘That’s good enough.’ ”

The result was Neginah’s first album, entitled Oorah, and it launched Yisroel Lamm’s career as a conductor and arranger, learning on the job. “I did everything possible to get a music education without going to school,” he says. “But I still regret that I wasn’t formally trained in this — I may have been able to do even better.”

He’s done quite well anyway, thank you. After cutting too many classes in engineering school, he finally gave up on it and devoted himself exclusively to music, remaining with Neginah for decades. He says the performing and the arranging/composing feed each other: “It’s one thing to sit in your office, arranging music, and another to play at weddings where you meet people, experience the music scene, get a feel for what people are reacting to,” he says. That constant stream of feedback — in the form of tapping feet and raised spirits — influences and informs the arrangements that he writes next time around.

For those who remember, Neginah debuted with the London School of Jewish Song in a classic 1973 album, has been featured on dozens of albums since, and launched its own line of wedding albums. How has that music scene evolved over the four decades that Yisroel Lamm presided over the most popular band in the Jewish music world?

“It has certainly grown in size. At the beginning, there were just a few yechidim—there were the superstars, and there was a talented group of nonperformers — rebbeim, businessmen — who invested in the music and got some compensation through the sales. It was maybe more l’sheim Shamayim. Today the business has downsized, and people are more business-minded — they’ll ask if it’s worth it before they try to produce an album.”

The new technologies have made it easier to compose music — Lamm long ago abandoned pencil and paper to arrange on the computer. Recording used to be very expensive, executed in studios the size of wedding halls, but today many basements sport their own studios. This makes it easier for new musicians to gain entry into the music scene. “You make a cheap recording, you upload it, and you’re on the map.”

The downside, Lamm comments, is that “today the kids think music is free.”  


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