Laughing and crying, at the same time

A Cuban-born percussionist has created a new form of jazz that blends the rhythms of Cuba with the flavor of traditional Jewish melodies.

Roberto Juan Rodriguez (photo credit: Valerie Trucchia)
Roberto Juan Rodriguez
(photo credit: Valerie Trucchia)
As the hybrid world music genre spread its tentacles across the globe, and drew in countless cultures, new artistic synergies sprung up almost overnight. But, before 50-year-old Cuban-born Miami USA-bred percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez came along, no one had conjured up the idea of mixing Klezmer and Cuban music. Rodriguez will be in town later this week, to show us just how seamlessly the two genres flow together, under his guidance, when he heads a seven-piece ensemble at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai (Thursday, 8:30 p.m.) as part of the Tzadik series which will take place over the coming months.
The Rodriguez-led show will focus on material from his most recent release for the New York-based Tzadik record label, Timba Talmud. Tzadik was founded by John Zorn and puts out countless albums culled from all sorts of areas of musical endeavor, including jazz, avant garde and what it terms as “radical Jewish music.” In fact Rodriguez’s foray into the klezmer-Cuban mix was prompted by Zorn.
“One day, John asked me if I had a Jewish record for him, and I thought, what is this guy talking about?” recalls the percussionist.
“But I guess I was in the right place at the right time. I sat down and worked really hard at it. I’d sit up all night just working on a two bars.”
The upshot of that hard graft was that Rodriquez had a demo ready for Zorn just a couple of weeks later, which Zorn liked, and that evolved into Rodriquez’s first release on Tzadik, El Danzon de Moises, which came out in 2001.
“That was wonderful for me because I got to write my own music for the first time, and I was already 40 years old, says Rodriguez.
Three years after that Rodriguez put out Baila! Gitano Baila!, which also blends Latin and Jewish traditions.
“I think the blending of the genres which, as far as I know, had never been done before, was the result of a process. I had to craft the blend to make the mix feel right and honest. I have classical training and jazz training, but I learned a lot from the process of bringing to the two genres together.”
In truth, though, all three CDs are a natural expression of some of the percussionist’s musical upbringing. He moved with his family to Miami when he was a young boy, and it was there that he came across the local Jewish community and its traditional music.
“I remember I used to go Miami Beach with my grandfather at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and I’d see all these old Jews having a great time listening to the mambo and cha-cha and all that Cuban music. That was great and a real revelation for me.”
By the time he was in his teens Rodriguez got in on the act himself.
“I used to play Yiddish music at the Miami Beach Yiddish Theater, and at bar mitzvas and weddings. We were all in bands back then. I grew up with a lot of Jewish music in Miami so it was all quite familiar to me. I was moved by these sounds and by the cultural experiences.
That gave me the impetus to put pen paper and try to figure out this concoction.”
He certainly did figure it out and this week’s concert in Jerusalem will not only marry klezmer and Cuban musical vibes, it will also, by dint of the other players on the stage with Rodriguez, draw on a wide swath of musical energies. The percussionist will be joined by the likes of US-based violinist Jonathan Keren, who is classically trained and has some Celtic musical ventures in his CV, as does accordionist Vitaly Podolsky who has also played his fair share of klezmer and rock music.
Rodriguez says that this week’s concert will be very much a sum of the participant parts.
“I am the leader, and it is my music, but the different musicians will take things in their own direction too. I am perfectly happy to listen to what they have to say and offer, and go with it. I am fortunate to play with these musicians.”
The percussionist also says the two genres have a lot in common in an emotional sense.
“I think both Cuban music and Jewish music have joy and also sadness in them.
Somebody once told me that he feels that both kinds of music are music you can dance too and cry too. I think it’s a natural process, in which I brought them together. I think back, again, to those old Jews in Miami. They were celebrating with Cuban music, and they had all come from Easter Europe and had been through a lot of hardships before they came to the States. So the mix of joy and sadness is perfectly natural.”
Presumably that emotional encounter will come across loud and clear on Thursday, and seems a suitable sensorial mix for this part of the world.
Roberto Juan Rodriguez and his band will perform at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and more information call (02) 621-5300 or visit