Wordless melodies to soothe the soul

What would you think if I sang a ‘nigun’? A neo-Hasidic band from New York spreads the joy of Jewish prayer music

The men of Zusha, drummer Elisha Mendl Mlotek, vocalist Shlomo Ari Gaisin and guitarist Zachariah ‘Juke’ Goldschmiedt (Photo credit: Noam Chojnowski)
The men of Zusha, drummer Elisha Mendl Mlotek, vocalist Shlomo Ari Gaisin and guitarist Zachariah ‘Juke’ Goldschmiedt (Photo credit: Noam Chojnowski)

Neo-Hasidic band Zusha wants all kinds of listeners, not just Jews.

For these three twentysomething New Yorkers, making music — a mix of reggae, jazz, folk, ska and soul music — is about spreading joy and peace.

“Some people hear ‘Hasidism’ and immediately shy away because they have negative associations with the word,” said guitarist Zachariah ‘Juke’ Goldschmiedt, 23. “We want to connect with everyone; we want to spread light to the entire world.”

The threesome brings their experiences, messages and sound to their recently self-released album, “Zusha,” produced and recorded by Mason Jar Music. The six tracks of mostly wordless, lifting melodies are infused with spirituality. But there’s no need to be religious to enjoy the sound.

Zusha is trying to create universally relatable music by using fewer words and lyrics, and focusing on nigunim — those traditional, wordless melodies often used in the synagogue and at the Sabbath table, said lead vocalist Shlomo Ari Gaisin, 23.

“Nigunim beg the listener to invest his or her own narrative into the very fabric of the song,” Gaisin said.

It’s also an undefined and all-encompassing kind of sound, he added. That’s an important element for the band, which doesn’t like to be defined by any one label.

Guitarist Goldschmiedt said the nigun represents the “zero point where we all connect,” part of Zusha’s goal to connect with people on a level where they see the good in one another, rather than judging others and focusing on negativity.

Even their neo-Hasidic label is an oversimplified characterization, agreed all three.

“At this point we’re all a mix,” Goldschmiedt. “I think it’s wrong to be 100% Hasidic or 100% of anything for that matter, because it’s too closed minded. Nowadays, it’s important to be able to see the good in the other’s thinking.”

But the three, Gaisin, Goldschmiedt and Elisha Mendl Mlotek, the 24-year-old percussionist, did meet through their intertwined Jewish circles. Gaisin, who is originally from Maryland, met Mlotek at services at the Chabad House Bowery in New York City’s Lower East Side.

The two of them were later introduced to Goldschmiedt through Dani Bronstein, a mutual friend who is now their manager.

The band began rehearsing in a friend’s dorm room, and then moved rehearsals to the lower Manhattan Chabad House, after the rabbi and family welcomed them into the Jewish student and young professional hub.

But it was Bronstein, and Mlotek’s older brother, Rabbi Avram Mlotek, who encouraged the band to share their music more publicly.

“He said it was our responsibility to share this music in a very real way,” said Mlotek of his brother. “So it was his emotional push that first charged us to get our acts together and form Zusha.”

Matisyahu says that despite his changed appearance, "I’m looking very much towards the Torah and Judaism as a source of inspiration." (Larry Busacca/Getty via JTA)
Matisyahu once characterized himself as Hasidic, but no longer (Larry Busacca/Getty via JTA)

The band’s inspiration comes from many different sources, including American reggae and alternative rock musician Matisyahu, who has been creating music with spiritual messages since 2004, but no longer identifies himself as a Hasidic reggae musician.

“Matisyahu has been a personal role model, since we were all bar-mitzvah aged,” said Mlotek.

Before Matisyahu, said Mlotek, he first discovered music with his family.

“Our family would sing together at the Shabbos [Sabbath] table, in harmony, and I would drum on the table, like any drummer would,” he said.

Mlotek began practicing on drums at age eight and after years of “drumming on anything he could get his hands on,” focused on percussion, bongos and cajons.

Gaisin has been singing for as long as he can remember.

“It’s the way I connect to music, which is both so much a part of me, and so incredibly beyond me,” he said.

He was in a Jewish rock band, Judablue, from middle school until the start of college.

Goldschmiedt, who began playing guitar at age ten, was previously the lead singer and producer for electronic funk band Ch!nch!lla.

Gaisin and Goldschmiedt both provide backup vocals and harmony.

Gaisin, who also works as kosher food supervisor at a Chinese restaurant in Washington Heights, NY, said that while Zusha’s sound is Jewish, it’s also accessible.

“Sometimes when I check broccoli or eggs, I sing Zusha tunes that are ‘in-the-making’,” he said. “The first few times my co-workers heard me singing, they thought it was a little weird. But, now when I don’t sing, they ask me to sing… and sometimes I catch them whistling or humming while they work.”

When they see how their music reaches others, they shy away from the neo-Hasidic theme.

“We don’t want to be known as a Jewish band [just like] we don’t want people to think there is a Jewish God,” said Mlotek. “God is above religion, and we’re trying to reach that place, with our intentions, with our music, with our words, with our actions. The music is for all, for those enjoy the rhythm and the song.”

To hear Zusha’s tunes, check out their new six track EP, which was released on October 28 and is available on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud and Zusha.com. They will be performing at The Knitting Factory on December 7 and Highline Ballroom on December 24.

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