Latin rap with kosher flavor

April 09, 2002|By Brad Kava | Brad Kava,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The members of New York's Hip Hop Hoodios are probably the only Spanish-speaking rock-rappers with a hot album out who celebrated a Passover Seder.

The unlikely, mostly kosher quartet sounds like something from an Adam Sandler song, as odd as tortillas and lox or gefilte fish with salsa. They rock as hard as the Beastie Boys and are more in-your-face funny than Tenacious D.

And yet, although they firmly plant tongues in cheeks on songs such as "Havana Nagilah," they know underneath that the Beasties, another unlikely group of Jewish (now Buddhist) rappers, also started as a joke that begat a long, serious career.

"There are not many groups making Jewish music that is cool," says bassist and MC Josue Noriega, 27, who was born Josh Norek in New York. His Ashkenazi family has roots in Colombia.

"All the Jewish music is self-effacing, like 2 Live Jews or the Beasties, who are Jewish but didn't acknowledge it. When I was 15, kids knew the Beastie Boys were Jewish and they thought they were hip, but the Beasties never said anything about it. We have a goofy sense of humor but we are open about our identities, on the Jewish front and the Latin front."

The Jewish/Latino pride is empowering, says Noriega, whose band name is a play on the Spanish for Jew, judo.

When he was a student at Cornell University in 1995, Noriega began fooling around with some Jewish/Latin songs, but it was hard to find like-minded compatriots in upstate New York.

Years later, while working in Manhattan as a publicist for Latin bands such as Jaguares and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, he found band mates who wanted to celebrate their polyglot cultures.

Guitarist and singer Adam Salzman de Weinstein (born Salzman) is an Uruguayan Jew from Los Angeles. Guitarist Abraham Velez is a Puerto Rican Jew. Drummer Federico Fong was the celebrated bass player in Mexican stadium bands Caifanes and Jaguares and now plays in Mexico's La Barranca as well as the Hoodios.

An Army brat, Fong was born in Marin County, Calif., to a father who is Chinese/Jamaican/Panamanian and a mother from Arkansas, who reared him in Mexico City. He isn't Jewish, but his sister, who works in the kosher Second Avenue Deli in New York, is married to a Jew.

The band had its genesis in that deli, when Fong's brother overheard Noriega talking about music and slipped him a CD by Fong.

"I think it's kind of fun and kind of shocking," Fong says. "It's got a good energy."

There are controversial lyrics, like the one comparing the size of their noses to other parts of their anatomy.

"I thought Jay-Z and African-American rappers are given creative leeway to brag," Noriega says. "Why not make our own sexual bragging song? I have no qualms with it."

Yes, much of their five-song EP, which is being shopped to labels, comes off as novelty. But the members have a serious side, too.

"Here are some words that will hit you with a thud/Millions of Latinos got Jewish blood," they sing in the unreleased song "1492."

During the Spanish Inquisition, Noriega explains, some 200,000 Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism. Almost every Latino has some Jewish blood, he adds.

"It's not really talked about in such a Catholic culture," Fong says. "But there are so many people with a Jewish background in all of Latin America. It wasn't just the Inquisition. In the 1800s, Jews who came to Mexico had to convert because it was such a Catholic country. They are a real minority."

The band, whose record logo is a Puerto Rican flag with a Jewish star, has been more strongly embraced by the Latin community than they expected. Two-thirds of the audience at one New York show was Latino.

The Hoodios' most serious recording, "Ocho Kandelikas," is a traditional Hanukkah song turned into fuel for the mosh pit. It includes words in Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew spoken in Spain by Sephardic Jews.

It represents what Noriega is trying to do: give a proud voice to cultures that don't always have one. A guy who has spent most of his professional life trying to help rock en espanol get a foothold in the United States is now pushing his own project.

"If we can enlighten some people about and get them over some stereotypes of Jewish and Latin music, it will be worth it. My hope is that some 15-year-old who doesn't listen to Latin alternative music will read this and check it out. If we can be a stepping stone to Molotov or Jaguares, that would be great."

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