Herencia Judía. Benjamin Lapidus. Tresero Productions, 2008.

Timba Talmud. Roberto Rodriguez/Sexteto Rodriguez. Tzadik, 2009.

Reviewed by Lillian WohlTimba Talmud

Herencia Judía and Timba Talmud are recordings that fuse Afro-Caribbean (mainly Cuban) and Jewish (Ashkenazic and Sephardic) traditions. While Roberto Rodriguez/Sexteto Rodriguez’s compilation is largely dance music derived from popular Cuban and klezmer repertoire to be enjoyed in the home or in secular engagements, Lapidus’s album takes on the difficult task of arranging piyyutim (paraliturgical hymns) and texts from Jewish holidays with secular and religious musics of the Spanish Caribbean. Lapidus and Rodriguez’s impressions of musical encounter are presented as audiotopias—ideological spaces that offer the listener and/or the musician new maps for re-imagining the present social world.[1] They are spaces with no real place where ideological contradictions and conflicts may coexist.[2] Yet, the proliferation of a variety of Cuban musical idioms such as rumba, son, cha-cha-chá, mambo, and comparsa assure a focus on Cuban sound on both albums. Ultimately, by playing with musical materials from Afro-Caribbean, Cuban, and Jewish traditions, both Lapidus and Rodriguez must contend with the difficulties of finding a coherent musical point of view. In this respect, Rodriguez more successfully streamlines his vision, maintaining a focus on (predominantly) popular styles and images in comparison to Lapidus, whose strategy can feel almost overwhelmingly eclectic at times.

Though the suggestion of imagination insinuates fiction, Lapidus’s project and Roberto Rodriguez/Sexteto Rodriguez’s Timba Talmud intentionally invoke the musical imaginary to direct attention to the exchange of cultures and customs associated with the history and creative expression of the Jewish communities of Cuba and Miami. Though the music presented on these discs is not ethnographic in origin (that is, it is not derived from an existing Jewish Latin community in/of Cuba or the Caribbean), both musicians bridge the textures of Jewish Latin culture and history to reveal “tropicalized” versions of Jewish self-conceptualization.[3] Subsequently, Roberto Rodriguez’s album of instrumental dance music differs from Lapidus’s focus on worship music in substantive ways. As Rodriguez states on his website, “I envision this band being in Cuba in the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s like a dream band I dreamt up and put together in New York City. It’s an imaginative world that I put together to do music.”[4] As the Cuban music scholar Robin D. Moore has discussed in numerous scholarly works, the 1920s–1940s was a period during which the broad popularization of African-derived cultural expressions flourished in Cuba. These arts, particularly music, became icons of the nation; yet Afrocubans themselves remained marginalized.[5] As such, Timba Talmud functions conversationally with a historically significant period of Cuban history, creating a sonic space where “coming to terms with cultural diversity” could also include coming to terms with Jewish Cuban identities.[6]

The first track, “La Hora” (which is actually a rumba), features virtuosic clarinet, piano, and trumpet solos, accompanied by tight polyrhythmic percussive textures with a steady pulse. “La Hora” plays on the name of the Jewish folk dance and the Spanish word for hour, or time. Although melodically repetitive as is customary of a rumba, the ostinato patiently provides the critical base for the solo melodic improvisations that prevent the track from becoming boring. The second track, “Mambo Kitsch (Para Susie)” is a slower mambo with organ, piano and clarinet, evocative of a club/restaurant setting where the mambo dance could be performed. “The Son of 2nd Avenue” is a virtuosic track, also employing wordplay to conjure the idea of a boy living on the Lower East Side of New York City as well as the Cuban musical/rhythmic son style. The title track, “Timba Talmud,” is a dance tune based on a popular and once highly marginalized Cuban dance form, timba, that incorporates influences from jazz, funk, hip hop, and rock and roll. The final track on the album, “Oyemayá (Para Barack Hussein Obama ‘Omó’ ‘Ochá’),” is the most religiously charged, layering opposing theological discourses with political concerns through chanted vocals that repeat the name Oyemayá, the mother-figure deity of Afrocuban Santería. Lapidus, who plays tres on the tune, showcases his incredible skills here while Rodriguez demonstrates his unique propensity for arranging Cuban Jewish music. The album sounds aesthetically cohesive despite the challenges of mending eclectic styles. Occasionally, however, the strong focus on Cuban idioms makes the sonic icons derived from klezmer somewhat ornamental.

Rodriguez describes on his website how his fascination with Jewish music grew from his interests in musical performance and composition, his interactions with the Jewish community in Miami, Florida, the klezmer renaissance in the 1980s, and his work with Jewish musicians.[7] After establishing himself as a studio musician and recording with groups such as the Miami Sound Machine, Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos, and John Zorn, Rodriguez explains that he was encouraged and inspired to compose albums fusing Jewish klezmer with Cuban Son Montuno and Guaracha. Since the early 2000s, Rodriguez has emerged as one of the most prominent composers and performers of music often described as Latin Klezmer. He is joined by other artists such as the Argentine duo Cesar Lerner and Marcelo Moguilevsky, the Mexican group Klezmerson, and the kicky nonagenarian Irving Fields among others.

Herencia JudiaLapidus also takes up the question of hybrid Jewish, Catholic, Afro-Caribbean religiosity, striving to connect spiritual fissures through the articulation of his musical language. He relies on his background as ethnomusicologist, performer of the tres, and self-identified Jew to arrange familiar Jewish piyyutim, original compositions, and worship songs and recitations from Jewish festival celebrations. His arrangements are based in the musical language of the Caribbean with which he is deeply familiar from his work, his family, and his travels. As Assistant Professor of Music in the Department of Art and Music at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and author of Origins of Cuban Music and Dance: Changüí (2008), Lapidus’s knowledge of Caribbean musical traditions is academically rooted; and as an experienced musician and ethnomusicologist his arrangements are well-researched. By blending existing repertoire with sonorities that exist outside of common worship practice, Herencia Judía is concerned with expanding the sounds of Jewish liturgical music.

The album revolves around sentiments expressed in the title track, “Herencia Judía,” in which Lapidus declares his Jewish pride: “Orgulloso estoy de mi herencia judía” (“Immensely proud am I of my Jewish heritage”). In this track, Lapidus switches between Spanish and Hebrew to “[play] with bicultural references,” ostensibly narrating an explanation of his Jewishness (and the Jewishness of other Jews in the Caribbean) to a Spanish-speaking audience.[8] From the drumroll (perhaps barriles, but more likely congas) that introduces the first track, “Ein Kelokeinu,” Lapidus whets aesthetic expectations. The crisp swooshes of the maracas, followed by a choir of male voices singing a Judeo-Spanish melody, accompanied by tres, and arranged as a Puerto Rican bomba, exemplify the sonido of an album of non-traditional interpretations of songs of traditional Jewish worship. The texts he chooses are Sabbath prayers such as “Aleinu L’Shabeach” set to a “rumba style yambú”; Passover songs and chants such as “Dayenu,” redone as a plena; “Ma Nishtana” as a changüí; and a medley of songs for Hanukah called, “Son de Hanukah,” which incorporates “Mi Y’malel,” “Sevivon Sov Sov Sov,” and “Ma’oz Tsur.” Though charming overall, this album at times seems to lack organizational coherence, and the ordering of the tracks can be confusing to a listener familiar with Jewish liturgy and festival cycles. For instance, the original composition “Kaddish Para Daniel,” an elegiac prayer set as a rumba dedicated to the journalist Daniel Pearl, falls between a recitation of “Los Cuatro Hijos” (The Four Sons) from the Passover Seder service and Louis Lewandowski’s “Tzadik Katamar” melody. The tracks “Son for Hanukah” and “Limpieza Judía” are sandwiched between three tracks for Passover. Despite providing liner notes with detailed information about style and religious context, Lapidus gives no indication of his organizational intentions. Lapidus does end on a religiously familiar note, however, with the final track, “Comparsa de Simchat Torah,” wrapping up a collection of celebratory songs and original compositions with a comparsa procession (which accompanies Carnival throughout Latin America) to complement the tradition of marching with the Torah at the end of its annual reading cycle.

Though difference is strategically mobilized to create new musical matter on Herencia Judía and Timba Talmud, both Lapidus and Rodriguez demonstrate interests in exposing a greater sense of aesthetic and experiential commonality through their musical endeavors. As I write this review from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where it is not uncommon to hear the lilt of a tango phrase from the fingers of a keyboard player in a synagogue on Shabbat, it seems evident that these two recordings open up windows to explore past and present engagements in Jewish music making in Cuba, the Caribbean, and throughout Latin America and the musical imagination. Though these albums are New York-based studio recordings intended for private listening in the home or in the classroom, they remind us that Jewish music making in/of the Caribbean is embodied even as it presents an audiotopian quality in the minds of its musical interpreters.

[1] Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[2] Kun, Audiotopia.

[3] Juan Flores, “The Latino Imaginary” in Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997).

[4] See Roberto Juan Rodriguez and Sexteto Rodriguez’s website at <http://www.robertojuanrodriguez.com/home.html&gt;

[5] Robin D. Moore, Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana 1920-1940 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997). See also Alejo Carpentier, Music in Cuba (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

[6] Robin D. Moore, “The Commercial Rumba: Afrocuban Arts as International Popular Culture,” Latin American Music Review 16, no. 2, Fall/Winter (1995).

[7] http://www.robertojuanrodriguez.com/home.html

[8] Liner notes, Herencia Judía.

Lillian Wohl, Department of Music, University of Chicago

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