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The Schmooze

More Cuban Than Klezmer

Unlike many practitioners of Jewish music, percussionist and composer Roberto Rodriguez doesn’t view Jewishness as a simple war chest of traditions and musical idioms to draw from. Instead, Rodriguez’s Cuban-Jewish All Stars project is a more strict interpretation of what a particular moment in Jewish history must have sounded like.

The era is pre-revolutionary Cuba, where a sizable community of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews contributed to a vibrant multi-ethnic cultural mosaic. And if Rodriguez’s July 15 concert at the The Jewish Museum of New York was any indicator, they enjoyed an incredible nightlife.

Rodriguez, who has performed in Joe Jackson’s band and for guitarist Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos, was initially goaded into the Cuban-Jewish All Stars project by avant-garde jazz polymath and fellow New York musician John Zorn, who asked Rodriguez to make a “Jewish album” for his Tzadik record label. The result was 2001’s “El Danzon de Moises,” followed by “Baila! Gitano Baila!” in 2004 and “Timba Talmud” in 2009. Echoing the titles of these albums, his Thursday show was similarly billed as “a unique Latin klezmer sound that echoes Cuban roots dance music and traditional Jewish klezmer.”

While Rodriguez is clearly inspired by klezmer, however, those looking for Cuban interpretations of klezmer tunes, like those performed by David Buchbinder’s Odessa/Havana ensemble, will be surprised. Though Rodriguez is certainly aware of the klezmer motifs that he uses, they are little more than broad inspirations.

Several of his pieces incorporate the melodic scale known in klezmer and cantorial-speak as ahavah rabah or freygish, for example, yet the scale is also common in Latin-influenced music, where the notes are emphasized differently. The results are very tasteful Cuban-flavored pieces, which, depending on the listener, may or may not be perceived as having Jewish melodies. (One audience member at the Jewish Museum concert turned to me and asked, “What exactly was klezmer about this?” in a tone indicating that she had been pleasantly fooled by the concert promoters.)

Rodriguez’s relationship to the traditional forms of Jewish music seems even more tenuous at times. He couldn’t resist informing the audience that the name of his song “La Hora” — which means “The Time” in Spanish — sounds just like the name of the famous Jewish dance. But the intensity of the song, which is a rhythmic dialogue between Rodriguez and his lively conga player (and could thus be understood as a meditation on “time”), speaks for itself, regardless of its Jewish circle-dancing potential.

Or take Rodriguez’s Argentinean-born clarinetist Ivan Barenboim. He is certainly capable of playing in the flamboyant klezmer style of clarinetists like David Krakauer or Andy Statman. Yet his classical virtuosity is better characterized by the purity and laser-like quality of his reserved soloing.

At any rate, Rodriguez, who performs at the front of the stage rather than at the more traditional rear, is a terrific bandleader. He cues his musicians with facial expressions and with the age-old trick of pointing to one’s hat to indicate a return to the song’s “head,” while simultaneously devoting his entire mind and body to his brilliant percussion technique, which sounds rich without sounding busy (a common flaw of virtuoso drummers).

Therefore, to bill Rodriguez’s music, which is certainly Jewish, as klezmer, doesn’t really do it justice — the beauty of klezmer, as a folk music, lay in its ability to transcend the day-to-day viciousness of East European life. To my ears, in klezmer there is always an element of somberness, even in wedding marches and other joyful pieces.

Rodriguez’s music, on the other hand, does not have a hint of sadness in it. It is not the music of ghettos, but of freedom (and maybe even libertinism) — of a mythical pre-revolutionary Cuban entertainment culture. Or as Rodriguez put it, “A New York type of thing.”

Listen to The Sexteto Rodriguez Cuban-Jewish All Stars play “La Hora”:

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