Denver, Colo. — No one strums more sexuality from a banjo than Dan Saks. And no one squeezes more soul out of a Glockenspiel than Amy Crawford. The duo, two-fifths of Brooklyn-based alt-Sephardi indie band DeLeon, flew through an energetic set on September 24, the gig that started their 18 nights opening for Tropicália psych-rockers Os Mutantes. Too bad the crowd in Denver was sparse, because those in attendance at the Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom got to witness DeLeon’s passionate take on al-Andalus music revamped for the 21st century.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote had it easier tilting at windmills than DeLeon strumming at Denver’s heart: this audience was there for Os Mutantes. Still, when Saks grabbed the mic, and the striking Crawford swayed on stage, the crowd had no choice but to put down their drinks and pay attention as the young musicians’ vocal harmonies swirled overhead. The pair later told me they had to strip down their sound when fellow bandmates weren’t able to join the tour for logistical reasons. And though the layered sound, driving rhythms and powerful horns from their eponymous album were noticeably absent, the duo ably compensated by switching between melodica, drums, electric guitar, the twangs of the banjo and ethereal chimes of the Glockenspiel. All the while their vocals meshed seamlessly on melodies straight out of 15th century Spain.
Lead singer Saks, olive-skinned and curly-haired, channeled the spirit of Sephard in a rich voice that pleaded, rebuked and raged over lyrics that incorporate English, Hebrew and Ladino. In a felt hat pulled low over his forehead, embroidered shirt, tight jeans and with a wide leather swatch of rhythm bells tied around his leg, the charismatic Saks swaggered on stage like a hazzan turned pirate. The angel-faced Crawford stood an easy 6 feet 4 inches tall in black spiked heels, having to bend over to hit the tuned bars with her mallets. She played with an intensity at odds with her carefree appearance, looking more like a Phishhead in her baby-doll dress than one of the key members of a band at the forefront of a wave of renewed interest in age-old Sephardi musical traditions.
Acts like Divahn, Elysian Fields, the Sarah Aroeste Band and Pharaoh’s Daughter have moved mizrahi and Sephardi music to the center of new Jewish music. And bands whose musical roots lie in the Balkans, including gypsy punks Gogol Bordello (with whom DeLeon has toured), homegrown Denver favorites DeVotchKa, as well as DeLeon’s JDub labelmates Balkan Beat Box and Golem, have all challenged listeners with multilingual songs overlaid with distinctly non-American folk arrangements. Thanks to DeLeon and these others, it may not be long before American alternative music widely adopts the haunting harmonics and minor melodies of Sephardic music the way British and American new wave absorbed the influences of polyrhythmic world music. Or the way collaborations between Avihu Medina and Zohar Argov changed Israeli pop forever in the early 1980s. This is not to say that DeLeon will alter the American music scene, but Saks and his crew just might shake up the way hipsters think Jewish music has to sound.
One listen to how bubble-gum pop infuses the plaintive melody of “Almond Trees” — miraculously pulled off live by Saks and Crawford — leaves little doubt that DeLeon could be Jewish music’s Talking Heads. The band possesses a similar appeal: cool enough for trendsetters, accessible enough for casual listeners. DeLeon manages to avoid the discord of Downtown music’s Jewish art rock, the pseudo-nostalgic preciousness of the Klezmer Revival, and the gimcrack spiritualism of baal teshuva reggae. Whether live or in the studio, they demonstrate that they are something more: high concept shot through with raw emotion, hybridity grounded in authenticity. DeLeon’s music is a showcase for Iberian and Levantine traditions in sync with the globalism and eclecticism of today’s Diaspora. Fans who catch them live or pick up their debut album won’t be disappointed.
Adam Rovner is an assistant professor at the University of Denver and the Hebrew translations editor for Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.