SONiA Rutstein was clearly way ahead of her time. Long before it was considered sexy – by marketing executives and PR dudes – to mix upper case and lower case letters in the names of, for example, new software or even companies, the American musician had an instinctive feel for the then highly conventional blend of graphic scale.
“That is how I spelled my name before I knew how to write,” states the 56-year-old US singer-songwriter, who is on this weekend’s annual Jacob’s Ladder Festival roster taking place at Kibbutz Ginosaur.
There are other hindsight benefits to the script synthesis.
“It stands out as a logo,” Rutstein continues, adding that it also helps to keep her on an even keel. “I like the small ‘i,’ it is good for balancing [my] ego.” Fair enough.
In fact, Rutstein, if she were so disposed, has plenty of grounds for blowing her own trumpet. She has been globetrotting with great success for over 30 years now, performing material from her extensive discography in various languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, together with her Disappear Fear band.
The group’s moniker also conjures up an important associative message. “The idea for the name came up after the band had started,” explains Rutstein. “It was a good empowering idea for different situations in life. It just seemed to grow naturally. The thought process was that when you do that, you can be with people.”
That is an admirable goal, which Rutstein spelled out in a song, called “Tango,” which she wrote in 1989. The lyrics include the following heartwarming lines: “The world is ready to disappear fear. A world that is not afraid of itself or who it loves. A world that is ending hunger in every form that hunger exists – no one is left out.” Amen to that.
Rutstein is clearly keen on getting messages of unity, love and peace out there, and she does so across a broad spectrum of musical styles and genres. The folkie strand is central to her oeuvre, but there are some grungier elements in there too, in addition to an ethnic spread. The “disappear fear” pairing originally featured in a more rock-oriented number on 1999 album Me Too
, called “Opinion # 33.”
“That’s a sort of hip hop song, which I wrote out of a bass line, it’s kind of funky.”
Disappear Fear is certainly a funky catchphrase, although Rutstein doesn’t want us to get too lost in that. “People like it, but I think that some people don’t even realize that Disappear Fear is a band name, and not just an idea. That’s good too, but I’d like people to hear the music too.”
Rutstein gained a rich and diverse musical education in her formative years. “I grew up with a lot of classical music, and I loved Broadway musicals and opera too,” she recalls. Some of her early influences passed through a parental prism.
“My dad loved jazz, people like [guitarist] Wes Montgomery but also [legendary 20th century Spanish classical guitarist Andrés] Segovia. So I got a lot of different stuff as a kid, plus I went to Hebrew school and my Aunt Shoshana and I did a lot of Hebrew songs together, and I went to camp where we sang Hebrew songs, and we did folk dancing too. There was lots of music.”
Growing up in the late Sixties, Rutstein also naturally imbibed the beat and melodies of the Fab Four, but also songs from closer to home. “Living in Baltimore, we got a lot of [soul record label] Motown stuff – a lot of Diana Ross, the Temptations, Dionne Warwick and all of that stuff, which was big back then.”
The maternal side of the family pulled the youngster to the crooner side of the market, while the parental confluence led to more folk-based acoustic fare. “My mother liked people like Frank Sinatra and Perry Como,” says Rutstein. “But, I guess, my parents meant musically with things like The Kingston Trio and [folk singer] Odetta.”
Both of the latter were instrumental in fueling the folk music revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties, while Odetta was active in the Civil Rights movement. “I got to see Odetta when I was very young, when she appeared with the Baltimore Symphony. “I also got to see [iconic jazz trumpeter- vocalist] Louis Armstrong.”
Thankfully, Rutstein not only admired some of her childhood idols from afar, she also got to gig with one of the legends of the folk community, banjo player-singer, civil rights activist and environmentalist Pete Seeger, who passed away last year at the age of 94.
“We played together at the Clearwater Revival Folk Festival which was a festival Pete started. He was amazing. A very sweet soul,” says Rutstein.
Rutstein started out on her own musical path at the age of 13, when she first picked up a guitar and started putting poems she found to music. When she mustered the courage to try out her own lyrics, she initially got little encouragement from her peers.
“My friends would laugh at the songs I wrote myself,” she recalls. That early rejection led her to place more faith in something which wouldn’t make fun of her. “My guitar became my best friend. I could tell it anything and it wouldn’t let the secret go. Me and my guitar spent a lot of time together, and we got really close. I was able to say things I really wanted to say, with my voice.”
Things got more serious when, at the age of 19, Rutstein received a sisterly boost. Her parents had gotten divorced and she had dropped out of school and didn’t know which way to head, until her younger sister, Cindy, suggested becoming a professional musician.
“She said my songs were really great and that was what I should do,” says Rutstein. And the rest is history.
The Disappear Fear discography now numbers 17, and Rutstein says she is proud of her work to date.
“I can listen to my first CD and not cringe,” she notes. “I think that is great. I may or may not do the music differently today but I like what I was saying back then.”
Thousands of fans across the globe and, no doubt, at Jacob’s Ladder this weekend, would go along with that.
Elsewhere on the Jacob’s Ladder roster there are plenty of familiar names and sounds. Festival veteran singer-songwriter Diane Kaplan will team up with longtime cohort vocalist, flutist and percussionist Dana Keren – with Kaplan’s singer son Edan putting in a guest appearance – for a program of Beatles, Dylan and Carole King covers, plus some originals, while the ever-popular Larry & Mindy duo will proffer an acoustic folk rock show. Dynamic vocalist Libi will team up with her Flashback Trio for a no doubt high-energy show of country, folk and blues music, while folk and country music stalwart Lynn Lewis will be joined by a bunch of pals for his May 16 slot.
Jacob’s Ladder wouldn’t be the same without guitarist-harmonica player Shai Tochner, and his sometime singing partner Maya Johanna-Menachem is also in the festival mix. One of the offshore headliners is the Abrams Brothers bluegrass rock outfit from Canada, while the European contingent features Berlin-based virtuoso violinist Alexey Kochetkov and the German-Israeli Aletchko quartet.
For more information about the Jacob’s Ladder Festival: (04) 685-0403 and http://jlfestival.com.
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