A ‘rebbe’ with soul

Musicians Burger, Levi to combine contemporary rock music with religious and ethnic motifs.

Shlomit Levi 521 (photo credit: Dina Bova,  www.dinabova.com)
Shlomit Levi 521
(photo credit: Dina Bova, www.dinabova.com)
His guitar rhythms and solo numbers sound like anywhere from something off an Eric Clapton or Steely Dan rock album to a “heimishe” Shlomo Carlebach tune. But those who have heard Bruce Burger, otherwise known as RebbeSoul, playing one of his guitar solos on an electric guitar or an electrified balalaika enthusiastically agree that his style is one of a kind. And Shlomit Levi, his musical partner and main vocalist for the musical project Shlomit & RebbeSoul, sings ethnic folk melodies so authentic that audiences are lauding her as “the new Ofra Haza.”
“I DISCOVERED guitar playing at age 12 and wanted to play like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Martin Barre of Jethro Tull, Pete Townshend of The Who, Eric Clapton, and of course Jimi Hendrix,” says Burger in a recent interview while practicing for a concert gig.
Growing up in Utica, New York, he lived in cities across the US, including Los Angeles. One place he spent some time was Rochester, New York, which he considers “a very cold city, weather wise, but a great music town.” Some great musical artists like flugelhorn player Chuck Mangioni and drummer Steve Gadd (Steely Dan, Clapton) were from Rochester, he notes.
He began recording music under the name RebbeSoul in the early 1990s in LA, playing “Jewish music” in a more modern way, but still maintaining the integrity of the original melodies. He says that it was a “rock and world beat project,” which was unique at that time.
“When I started playing the RebbeSoul music, I reached out to Jewish musicians I knew to be part of the band I was soon to form,” he recalls. “They all thought Jewish music was corny and not cool enough.
So I called up my gentile musician friends whom I worked with in studios in the LA area. They were excited about the idea, and that’s how I ended up being the ‘token Jew’ in my own band.”
When he started recording the RebbeSoul music, Jews in LA called it anything from super cool to sacrilegious.
“I began selling my albums in local record stores on a consignment basis until radio stations began to listen to the music. Then some started saying, ‘Hey, that’s really cool.’ One large FM station, KKSF FM in San Francisco, decided to play ‘Avinu,’ one of the tracks on my first album. It’s an instrumental version of [the prayer] Avinu Malkenu. They received more telephone responses from listeners than they ever did in the station’s history. After that, getting radio play became a lot easier,” he says.
His increasing involvement with Jewish music inspired him, after living as a secular Jew for many years, to form closer ties with Judaism and take the name RebbeSoul. He has recorded five RebbeSoul albums so far. In Los Angeles, he would play to “mixed groups ranging from ultra-Orthodox Jews to ultra-liberals, blacks and whites, Anglos to Asians, teenagers to old folks.”
His most recent album, From Another World, was arranged and recorded in Israel and consists entirely of instrumental versions of Carlebach’s music. Radio personality Dubi Lenz has lauded the album and played it on his show on Army Radio and 88FM.
RebbeSoul, who decided to strengthen his connection to the Jewish people even further by making aliya in 2007, now resides in Zichron Ya’acov, where he enjoys the “small-town yet touristy atmosphere.”
He later met Yemenite singer Levi in Israel via Yedidia Snir, a business manager, and the two decided to work together. Levi, who lives in Kibbutz Givat Haim, near Netanya, says she began singing at age three.
“I’ve been singing since I was a little girl... when sitting on my grandmother’s swing,” she says.
Born in Kiryat Ekron, near Rehovot, she sang at school and later moved with her family to Rehovot at age 10.
She says her family originally came to Israel from Yemen via Operation Magic Carpet, soon after Israel became a state.
AFTER SERVING in the army, she attended Ben-Gurion University, where she received a BA in the social sciences and an MA in cognitive psychology.
“I was one of the first in my family to go to university. My parents thought it was very important for me to do this, as they didn’t have the opportunity,” she says.
A local newspaper once interviewed her at BGU, she adds, and she told the reporter that her dream was to combine rock music with traditional Yemenite melodies.
“Happily it came true!” she says.
Following her studies, she worked for a while in a hi-tech company in Airport City, but soon decided to pursue her love of music. She began her singing career by singing in Hebrew and English before she “rediscovered” singing Yemenite music from her own culture.
“I had an American friend who bought me a CD of Ofra Haza’s music.
This inspired me to start singing Yemenite songs, but with a more modern musical arrangement that involves taking traditional songs and recomposing them with a more modern musical beat,” she says.
She explains that “Yemenite poets used to write songs in three languages: Aramaic, biblical Hebrew and Arabic – sometimes in the same song. Spoken Yemenite for Jews living there is like how Yiddish, a derivative of German and Hebrew, is spoken by Ashkenazi Jews.”
Hearing the Haza CD was a turning point that triggered her to leave the world of hi-tech and pursue her dream of being a professional singer.
“I sang professionally for 10 years prior to meeting RebbeSoul, and sang with the heavy-metal oriental band Orphaned Land. I went with them on tours abroad. In Turkey, for example, it was amazing to have Muslim audiences singing along with me songs like ‘Ahavat Hadassa’ in Hebrew.”
She met RebbeSoul a year and a half ago.
“We immediately developed a musical ‘chemistry’ performing together,” he says.
The music they make is a combination of Yemenite, rock and electronic music. An example is their version of a classical Yemenite song, “Abdah,” which brides sing at their henna parties prior to getting married.
“Brides who have never been away from their parents’ home are apprehensive about going to their new husband’s home, and then being part of his family,” explains Levi. “Our version of the song is more from the heart and expresses the conflicting feelings the young bride has. Although she is happy to be getting married, she is also apprehensive and wishes she could be a bird and fly back home to ‘the real mother who gave birth to her.’” Levi herself is married and has one daughter, Agam, aged three.
“One of my favorite RebbeSoul instruments for accompanying me is the electric balalaika, which adds a special sound to the music,” she adds. “I just love it.”
The singer, who still performs occasionally with Orphaned Land, says she sometimes receives criticism for singing “Yemenite religious songs” which only Yemenite men are supposed to sing – as they did in Yemen – and only in Yemenite. She also receives criticism from people via You Tube about other holy songs, especially since it is a woman singing them.
She and RebbeSoul point to Idan Raichel, who combines the music of different cultures, including Ethiopian, as another local artist who performs ethnic music.
“Ethnic music is usually without the fancy marketing fanfare,” says RebbeSoul. “It’s generally more honest. The best thing you can do is play from the heart.”
THEY ALSO plan to go abroad eventually; they have an invitation to perform in upstate New York at Nazareth College. They are assembling musicians for this tour, and are including Orphaned Land drummer Matan Shmuely in rehearsing the tune “Spirit,” or “Ruchi,” which will be part of their musical arrangement.
Levi and RebbeSoul are also working with internationally renowned “photo artist” Dina Bova, who has created photo artwork of Levi that includes classic Yemenite henna designs. Bova’s art will be featured on all promotional material for this project, as well as on their upcoming album release.
“Most singers have to hear what they do with the music intuitively in order to sing to it. But Shlomit can also sing things that I come up with that she may not even connect with initially – and sing them flawlessly.
That’s the difference between singing as an art and the craft of simply making music,” says RebbeSoul. “Matan does the same thing on the drums. He plays his part as well as any session player would have.”
The duo is enthusiastic about the musical talent pool in Israel.“It’s vast, and there is such a diversity of fine talent here,” says RebbeSoul. “I love producing different artists here, especially those who play their own ethnic music. There’s something very honest and heartfelt about it. When I met Shlomit, it was a perfect situation. She’s one of the most talented artists I know and is very oriented toward her Yemenite background.”
Shlomit & RebbeSoul will be playing on June 19 at the Levontin 7 Club, at 7 Levontin Street near the old customs house. For more information: www.reverbnation.com/shlomittherebbe.