Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Matisyahu and AKA Pella perform in Omaha

Last Thursday my wife came home early from the Matisyahu concert.  I asked her how it was and she said that somehow the Jewish reggae singer just was not his old self that night.

It is not the clean shave or the vanilla ice hair-do that bothered her.  She had seen Matisyahu in the past and his music and performance had truly inspired her.  But this time she felt that there was something that was missing.  She could not exactly put her finger on, but he was less animated, some of his songs were truncated, and there was a certain passion that she felt was lacking.  For most of the show he stood still in one spot, not really moving around the stage or connecting with the audience, and he was almost mechanical in his delivery.

In a review of a Matisyahu show in 2008, pre shave, Jewish blogger Yoni Sarason from St Louis wrote:
The highpoint of every Matisyahu show occurs as the band’s energy swells and Matis belts out the Shema, hashem substitution included.  As the set wound down, Matisyahu began pulling people from the crowd onto the stage, until the stage overflowed with dancing bodies. 
There was none of that in his 2012 show.  According to my wife, and many others who attended the show, the lyrics were the same, but somehow the soul was gone.

Two nights later, Omaha Jewish Connections for High school had a special midnight Selichot concert featuring the Jewish group AKA Pella.

AKA Pella rocked the house and delivered a meaningful and spiritual prayer experience - and a night of great Jewish music - that the Omaha teens will never forget!

The idea of a midnight selichot concert to kick off the year was first thrown around at an OJC meeting in the Spring.  Who should we bring in?
This is a very difficult decision.  We needed a band that would engage a group of teens, most of who don't know of or care for Jewish music.  The group also had to be sensational enough to make the event a concert, but subtle and versatile enough to make it a meaningful and spiritual prayer experience.
In addition, the OJC is a program for kids from all of the synagogues so the decision had to be agreed upon by Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform lay people and clergy.
Not an easy decision.
The answer - AKA Pella!
AKA Pella is a Jewish A Cappella group (Pella is Hebrew for "wonder") mostly from Baltimore.  They started singing together as Yeshiva boys over 10 years ago and recorded 5 albums together.  (Warning - this link is noisy)

They created their own brand of Jewish music that takes popular jewish songs and fuses them with popular billboard hits.  For instance, on one of their albums they take the song Yafyafisa by the Jewish band Shalshelet, and merge it seamlessly with Nothing Else Matters by Metalica.  They call it Yuffing Else Matters.
They may not be the first band to blend Shalshelet with Metalica (or they might be, I don't know) but they do it so perfectly that you think - "of course!  That is what Metalica and Shalshelet actually had in mind!

But the real PELLA in AKA-Pella is the way that it is almost impossible to tell that they are a Cappella.   They cover everything from Simon and Garfunkel and the Beach Boys to Beyonce and Katy Perry - and you would think that they are singing with full bands!  They have drums, guitar, keyboard, and other instruments, but all sounds are made with their mouths.  It is really incredible!

So we called up CD Eichler - the man behind AKA Pella - and we started talking about what it would take to bring them to Omaha.

The band started about 10 years ago and they are no longer yeshiva boys.  They have families and day jobs (one works for a dental supply company which I thought was funny since one of the Beach Boys is a dentist) and some have left Baltimore and live in places like Israel, Palo Alto, and Alaska.  Consequently, they mostly record albums nowadays, however, he has a group of three guys who he can put together who do gigs.

He gave me a reasonable price and put me in touch with Zevi Daniels (here he is singing the national anthem at a Baltimore Orioles game) and we were in business.

Zevi - who it turns out is my father's mother's sister's son's son's wife's sister's husband - was great to work with.  We spent many hours in phone calls and e-mails telling him about our community so that he could customize a program that would best suit our communities needs.

We also worked out a schedule to get them maximum exposure to different demographics in the community.

When they final came on Friday we had a packed schedule of programs planned.

On Friday afternoon they performed at Tea Time at the Rose Blumkin Jewish home.  The Home had generously helped to sponsor the program.  They gave the community and the residence a small taste of some of their great songs, as well as some traditional hits.
They played my favorite song of all time - Zaidy- by Moshe Yess.  When I was a kid I used to listen to that song again and again, and to this day every time I hear it I get choked up.

As a surprise, AKA Pella called me up to sing Zaidy with them!  I felt like Courtney Cox when Bruce Springsteen pulled her up on stage for Dancing in the Dark!

Later that day they did a pre shabbat Kabbalat Shabbat at the Blumkin home.  After the service they stuck around to get to know some of the residence and the other community members who came to hear them.

Friday night they davened Kabbalat Shabbat at Beth Israel.

They ate dinner that night at our house.  During the week we invited as many teenagers as we could for dinner.  In the end we hosted 40 people for dinner.
We also had the great honor of hosting four Israelis who happened to be passing through Omaha.  They are bike riding cross country in an organization they started called Bike for the Fight - an organization that raises money for cancer research in Israel.  

The kids from Omaha loved meeting the Israelis and everyone loved singing with AKA Pella.  People stuck around until after midnight, and the Israelis didn't want to leave!

It was really an honor for us to meet the Israelis from Bike for the Fight.  They told us that Friday night was one of the most memorable Jewish experiences that they ever had!
Birthright takes Jewish Americans to Israel to get them excited about Judaism.  My wife has always said that they should have reverse Birthright to take Israelis to America.  So often we host Israelis that take Judaism for granted growing up in Israel but are inspired for the first time when they experience the warmth of Jewish communities in the US.

The next day, after davening I walked with AKA Pella to the JCC community center where we had lunch and a great program with the Rabbis from the three synagogues (Orthodox, Conservative, and reform).
The high school kids broke up into three groups, each group had one Rabbi and one AKA Pella guy.  In the groups we study texts that the Rabbis had put together before Shabbat.  The texts were different commentaries and perspectives on the familiar Jewish song - Shalom Aleichem.
After we spent some time learning with the kids, each group was charged to take the words of Shalom Aleichem and put it to a popular tune that they felt reflected the theme of one of the commentaries.  (AKA Pella has a great Rhianna version on their new album!)
One group focused on the communal and family aspect of the song and they composed a Shalom Aleichem to the song Lean on Me.  The second group focused on the welcoming aspect so they put it to the Beatles - Hello Goodbye.
It wasn't a contest - but if it was, my group would have won.  They focused on the text that speaks of the good angel and the bad angel that come home.  They expressed this struggle between good and evil by putting Shalom Aleichem to a medley from the Star Wars Saga.
The AKA Pella guys helped with all of the musical arrangements and the kids had a really great time.  Who knows, maybe we will see some of the songs on their next album!

Saturday night was the big concert!!!  AKA Pella were awesome!!!
They opened up with Havdallah and then went into their Simon and Garfunkel Gam Ki Eilech.
Then through in their Help me Rhonda / Naar Hayisi fusion from their second Album along with their Hey There Delilah Adon Olam.  In the middle of the concert they prepared the kids for the high holidays with a suite that included songs from the Rosh Hashana service.  Each song was preceded by an introduction by one of the Rabbis present.
Then they took us home with a great rendition of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band Classic - Hafachta, followed by a brand new song written just for the occasion - they AKA Pella-ized the song "Omaha" by Counting Crows (it occurred to me that song from 1993 is older than all of the kids in the room!  Scary!)

The kids had a great time, they learned about selichot, and had a great kick off to what will be a great year of Jewish learning and experience.  Thanks so much to AKA Pella and to all of those who made the program possible.


  1. Exactly. I left the Matisyahu concert early, too. He seemed so empty...

  2. Thanks again, Rabbi Gross for a spectacular Shabbos and a really nice write up! We are true Omaha (somewhere in Jewish America) fans!


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