by Adam Dickter – NY Jewish Week
When planning a celebration, few choices are as important as the music selection, which not only sets the tone and pace of the event but sends a message to guests about the host’s values and taste.
Jeff Neckonoff has been a party DJ since the days when they actually spun vinyl records on turntables under disco balls. But since he took up Orthodox observance in 2004, he’s changed his perspective on the impact of music on kids and on the Jewish quality of a celebration.
The Jewish Week spoke to Neckonoff, 43, of Merrick, L.I., known to hundreds of recent b’nai mitzvah as Azamra DJ, about the impact of music on kids, his own quest for meaning, and the challenge of spreading cheer while coping with private sadness.
How much are you involved in selecting the playlist for a bat mitzvah, and have you raised objections to requests?
I’m 80 percent involved and for the other 20 percent I tell them to come up with a list of what they want to hear.
Normally, clients will provide some type of music list, usually between 5 and 20 songs. On average during the dancing portion of a reception, between 40 and 60 songs are played. This is why, depending on the length of your list, you should have only five to 10 “must” plays, so then your entertainment will know which songs are most important. Along with a playlist you can make a do-not-play list, including any song titles, artists, or styles of music you would not like to hear.
You should communicate as often as you like with your entertainment, and if you feel like you’re being blown off, don’t hire them.
How far in advance should we book simcha entertainment?
Depending on availability, most simchas are booked anywhere from 3 months to 2 years in advance. Most reputable simcha entertainment gets booked up sooner than later, so the earlier you book, the better chance you have securing the entertainment you were recommended.
Some DJs charge for set-up or break down time. Is this standard?
No. If anyone tries to pull this on you, run.
What won’t you play?
Any song with lyrics or attitudes which are not conducive to raising menches. I have become a musical gatekeeper regarding what they will be hearing at my events.
How have you seen musical tastes change over the years?
Before I changed over to doing the Orthodox events, I used to do mostly non-religious ones, also mostly bar/bat mitzvahs as well as Sweet 16s. Witnessing the pre-teen and teenage kids behaving very inappropriately used to bother me quite a bit. As I watched this behavior, I said to myself, ‘You’re out of your mind’. Believe me, I’ve seen it all as I worked in the hottest nightclubs for over ten years. Through the years, most music became just unplayable as all boundaries faded away resulting in everything now being acceptable.
When I’ll do a party for clients in New Rochelle, Scarsdale or the Five Towns and the kids are all b’simcha, dancing. It matters what they’re listening to. If they listen to happy music they are happy kids.
What drew you to Jewish observance?
I started studying with Rabbi Yossi Korngold, who at the time was with the Jewish Heritage Center in Queens and with Chabad of the 5 Towns. I was also involved with the Manhattan Jewish Experience and Isralight. I just wanted meaning. I had little kids and felt there was something more to reality than what we see. The first thing I did was stop doing parties on Shabbos. Then I took my daughter out of public school and put her in Hebrew Academy of Nassau County.
What’s the right mix of Jewish or simcha music and other songs?
For 90 percent of my customers, from the party’s first dance it’s Jewish music and then they have about 25 percent of the classic songs towards the end of the party.
What are some of the worst party disasters you’ve seen?
The wedding cake sliding off the cart and onto the floor as it was wheeled in. And the bat mitzvah girl’s hair catching fire during a candle-lighting ceremony.
What are the most requested songs?
“Cotton Eye Joe” is still pretty popular, and so is the “Cha Cha Slide.” The “Macarena” is out and so is “The Hustle.” And we will not play “Hava Nagila.” Ever. I have banned it.
Because every DJ out there has the same exact version of it. I play authentic Jewish bands like the Yeshiva Boys’ Choir, Miami Boys’ Choir, Mordechai Ben David, and Avraham Fried.
You’re currently mourning the loss of your mother, who passed away just last month. How does that affect your job?
The first party I did afterward was weird. But my goal is to remain b’simcha. I’m good at compartmentalizing. I was told by my rabbi that it’s OK to do parties because it’s my parnassa [livelihood], but for the next 11 months, I can’t volunteer or attend an event as a guest. I sometimes listen to music in my car because I’m listening to lyrics, making sure kids are protected from those music producers and artists who do not have the best interests of our kids at heart.
For more information on Azamra Events call 516-771-9377 or www.azamradj.com