JTA / January 18, 2007
By Larry Luxner
ARLINGTON, Va. — Klezmer music, rooted in the Jewish shtetls of 19th-century Eastern Europe, is making an unprecedented comeback. So is Cuban salsa, whose distinctive Afro-Caribbean rhythms are enjoying a wave of global popularity.
It was only a matter of time before some enterprising musician came along and combined the two.
That would be Havana-born drummer Roberto Juan Rodríguez, founder of the five-piece jazz band Cuban Klezmer.
"People ask me if I'm Jewish," said Rodríguez, 45, who lives in New York and disseminates his music through the Tzadik record label. "I say no, but I'm getting closer."
In a way, Rodríguez is following in the footsteps of the much more famous Matisyahu, who has achieved international fame by combining elements of Jewish music and reggae. Yet listening to Cuban Klezmer, it's often hard to tell whether you're hearing Cuban music, or Jewish music — or something entirely new and different.
"My father says this is music you've never heard before, but you feel you have," Rodríguez explained."There's the minor keys, the sadness in the melodies, the joyfulness of it."
The Washington Post gives the composer rave reviews. Richard Harrington, the newspaper's music critic, said Rodríguez's instrumental pieces "have plenty of festive rhythmic energy, but the Afro-Cuban element is somewhat downplayed. With rich, complex arrangements, the music has a stately, chamber music feel more reflective of the European-Cuban danzon and Spanish-Cuban guajira traditions."
Adds Tom Hull of The Village Voice: "His synthesis of Jewish melody and Cuban percussion dreams of roots that never were, yet it is convincing enough that one can imagine generations of conversos gathering in private to keep the ancient secrets of their culture alive."
Rodríguez, who was raised Catholic, left his native Cuba at the age of 9, by which time he was already playing violin, piano and trumpet. His family, escaping communism under Fidel Castro, fled to Mexico, later crossing the border into the United States and eventually settling in South Florida.
"My father [noted trumpet player and bandleader Roberto Luís Rodríguez] had a lot of Jewish friends in Cuba, so when we got to Miami, we parachuted right into the Jewish community. At the age of 11, I became a drummer, and I started to play at bar-mitzvahs and Jewish weddings," he said. "In 1974, I began playing for the Miami Beach Yiddish Theatre."
The bandleader spoke to JTA last week in Arlington, Va., prior to a two-hour concert at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater that attracted around 400 fans.
"I learned a lot about Jewish culture and history through the immigrants and Holocaust survivors that I met in Miami. It seeped into my DNA," said Rodríguez, who studied at Havana's Caturla Conservatory of Music and at the University of Miami. "It was a lesson that you don't get unless you're Jewish or you study Judaism. But it was through music that I became aware of Jewish culture."
Interestingly, Rodríguez's wife — Susie Ibarra, also a musician — is a Philippine-born, Hebrew-speaking Catholic who was previously married to an Israeli.
Rodríguez himself doesn't speak Hebrew, but he does pepper his speech with Yiddish expressions.
"These lights are so hot, I'm schvitzing already," he quipped, to the delight of his Arlington audience, the vast majority of which appeared to be Jews.
"It's not the Latin community, but the Jewish community that's supporting me," he told JTA. "I didn't do this project to get famous or make money, but because the opportunity came up. I was already working with Jewish musicians who were part of this label and had CDs on Tzadik."
Rodríguez's quintet, formed in 2000, includes two Israelis — clarinet player Gilad Harel and violinist Jonathan Keren — as well as New York's Rob Curto on accordion and Bernie Mimoso on base. Mimoso, who is half-Cuban and half-Puerto Rican, played with legendary Puerto Rican bandleader Tito Puente, who died six years ago.
"Tito told me I should write my own music," said Rodríguez. "I give him credit for that in one of my records."
Thanks to his friendship with composer and alto saxophonist John Zorn, whose Tzadik label specializes in "radical Jewish music," Rodríguez went on to produce three CDs.
"I would never have done a record if it wasn't for John, who I think is one of the best modern composers now," he said, adding that "this kind of music is radical because we break the rules."
Rodríguez's first CD, released in January 2002, was "El Danzón de Moisés" (The Dance of Moses). Its cover is emblazoned with the distinctive red, white and blue flag of Cuba — except with a Star of David where the regular star should be. Rodríguez calls his second CD, "Baila! Gitano Baila!" a celebration of the elusive Jewish community of Cuba.
"Cuban music has always been popular, and the Jews especially loved it. When I was a kid in Miami, my grandfather would take me to Wolfie's Deli on Collins Avenue, and we'd see the old Jews dancing the cha-cha and the rumba," he recalled. "It's in the gene pool. All you have to do is put on a record of old Cuban music, and you'll get a Jewish couple in their 80s starting to dance."
Rodríguez has worked with Rubén Blades, Paquito D'Rivera, Celia Cruz, Joe Jackson, Paul Simon, Julio Iglesias and the Miami Sound Machine, among others.
"I've been through the gamut," said Rodríguez, though he added that he rarely performs other people's compositions — which is why you won't hear him playing Guantanamera, Como Fue or My Yiddische Mama.
"I'm not a lyricist, I'm a drummer and a composer," he explained. "I could play other people's songs, but that takes me away from being original. I express an emotion just through musical sound, without lyrics."
Rodríguez said there's a long tradition of Jewish musicians turning to Latin music.
"Before Stan Getz was playing bossa nova, he played klezmer in the Catskills," he said. "Gershwin even went to Cuba. In Miami, I remember the Latin thing was Irving Fields and his Bagels and Bongos."
In fact, Rodríguez's third CD — "Oy Vey Olé" — is a 2006 collaboration with Fields, who is 91 years old and still playing piano.
Rodríguez has played his unique fusion of klezmer and salsa in San Francisco, Toronto, New York and Washington. He's toured all over Europe and is supposed to play soon at the Barbicon Theater in London. BBC-3 has already nominated Cuban Klezmer for a cross-cultural jazz project, and in Montreal, his latest CD, "Descarga Oriental: Maurice el Medioni Meets Roberto Rodríguez" recently won acclaim as "Best CD of the Year in World Music."
But the one place Rodríguez has never played is in his adopted city, Miami.
"My music is too political. I'm already mixing Jewish and Cuban," he said. "We tried to put something together last year, but it fell apart."
Rodríguez has been back to Cuba only once since emigrating — in 1999, to visit his grandparents, who still live in the crumbling Havana suburb of Marianao.
"That's one of my dreams, to play in Cuba, but not for any political reason," he said. "I would only play for the Jewish community there."