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Jewish Journal

Master of musical fusion blends klezmer with salsa

by Roberto Loiederman

November 22, 2007 | 7:00 pm

These days, the world is constantly getting smaller, and musical styles don't respect national or traditional boundaries. Matisyahu, for example, has made a name for himself by fusing Eastern European Chasidic strains with Jamaican reggae.

At the Skirball recently, Chango Spasiuk performed songs that combine his Ukrainian heritage with his Argentine upbringing. Practitioners of world music are constantly exploring ways to fuse disparate musical strains in new and interesting ways.

Given all that, it should not be a surprise that there is a new group that combines klezmer with salsa. Odessa/Havana -- "The Explosive Jewish/Cuban Musical Mash-Up" -- a musical project that brings together these two musical traditions in a jazz context will perform at the Skirball Cultural Center at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29.

During a telephone interview, David Buchbinder -- the Jewish jazz trumpeter who founded the group and who composes (or co-composes) much of its music -- said that he first felt the close ties between Jewish and Latin music many years ago.

"Even in my early days of playing klezmer," Buchbinder said, "I heard the connections and noted that they shared modes and scales, similar melodic approaches, a strong rhythmic drive and deep spiritual underpinnings"

Twenty years ago, Buchbinder was in a recording studio, laying down tracks for a klezmer CD.

"I was working a chorus into one of the pieces," Buchbinder said, "when a merengue tune came out," referring to the exuberant merengue music and dance from the Dominican Republic.

He included that merengue-style in the finished product. "This made perfect musical sense, and it remained in the back of my mind."

In 2006, Buchbinder was nominated for a Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) and was asked to put together a musical group for radio concerts. He invited pianist Hilario Duran -- a fellow Juno nominee, originally from Cuba -- to join him.

"The musical idea in getting together with Hilario," Buchbinder said, "was not necessarily to fuse klezmer and Cuban but rather to create and play jazz that has both influences in it." And, indeed, their music, as heard on the promotional CD, is rich and complex, embodying elements that Jewish and Cuban music have in common: from foot-tapping, celebratory joy to moments of profound dirge-like sadness.

"The musical associations [between Jewish and Cuban music] are many-faceted, multilayered and rich indeed," Buchbinder said, "rooted in their common ancestry on the Iberian peninsula and sharing Arabic, Roma -- Gypsy -- Sephardic and North African forebears.... After the expulsion of the Jews [from Iberia] ... a minority went to Eastern Europe, so that stream flowed into Yiddish culture."

Buchbinder's first Canadian concerts with Duran, who also lives in Toronto, were sold out, and people were turned away, which is unusual for a new musical project.

"I think what happened," he said, "is that people found the idea fascinating. I also think that Jews have been mightily attracted to Cuban music for many years. The Miami association, the whole mambo craze in the 1950s, was fueled by the American Jewish community."

Buchbinder and Duran have composed music specially for Odessa/Havana. "People who attend the concert," Buchbinder said, "can expect high-energy, unique music that is rich, dramatic, intense, challenging but ultimately very accessible."

Buchbinder gives part of the credit for bringing different streams and traditions together to Toronto, which, he said, "Is truly a multicultural city.... It's an incredibly diverse atmosphere, a rich mix of different cultures. And a mix between cultures.

"Toronto is moving ... to what I call post-multiculturalism.... At first, the attitude was that one should celebrate one's own culture, which meant looking backward toward the culture that people came out of. But then it changed, and now people are dedicated to creating new, unique art that combines different streams in new ways."

Buchbinder practices cross-cultural fusion not just in his musical life but in his private life, as well. He's married to Roula Said, a dancer-musician-actress.

How did he meet his wife?

"I met Roula in the large, floating group of musicians and performers that are part of the Toronto scene.... We knew people in common and met at a party about eight years ago. We liked each other and took it from there. She's of Palestinian-Christian background. We have a daughter who's 4 1/2. Some people can't imagine how we did it, but we've aligned in life."

Buchbinder and Said have also aligned in their art.

"We've worked together on several projects," he said. "'Feast of the East,' which brought together different musical groups from the Middle East. And we did a series of concerts: 'Imagine the Sound of Peace.'"

Both personally and professionally, Buchbinder is the master of fusion.

Odessa/Havana will perform on Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-4500

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