Annette Brown, Lifetime The story of June Carter Cash comes to life in the…
- Posted on Oct 25th 2008 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
"I don't hear that a lot," he tells someone who just said that very thing before a Los Angeles concert by Saks' Brooklyn-based band DeLeon, which plays music largely drawn on that very style.
That's fine with him. "Rarely there's a 15th century historian at our shows. Generally it's people who like different kinds of music, someone coming to a show to dance and rock out. They come up after and we can talk about where the music comes from. But it's not a history lesson. It's rock 'n' roll."
For those who do follow through, there are a lot of interesting things to learn. The roots of DeLeon's music is in what is known as the golden age of Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain), a time when Catholics, Muslims and Jews lived together amid flourishing cultivation of art and literature -- and an era brought to an end when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella instituted Catholic rule and initiated the Inquisition. DeLeon's songs are shaped by the sad/sweet melodies of the Jews from that time and place, many of the lyrics sung by Saks in the original Ladino language, which is more or less to Spanish what Yiddish is to German. Needless to say, few in the band's audience understood the words. Few people in the world speak Ladino -- Saks says his knowledge of Spanish helped him learn, but he's still feeling his way with the language.
On the recent debut album 'DeLeon,' released by the unique not-for-profit, progressive Jewish music label JDub Records, the band turns this into rock in a way that Saks compares to how Led Zeppelin transformed old acoustic blues and the Pogues (http://www.pogues.com/) punked British Isles folk music. It's meaningful to him both personally (he's of Sephardic heritage on his mother's side) and artistically (after playing in some more conventional alt-rock bands he'd been looking for something more distinctive and challenging). But he certainly doesn't expect anyone else to relate to it the same way, and frankly doesn't care.
But people are relating to it. On this night, the crowd drawn primarily by headliner and fellow JDub act Balkan Beat Box were quite enthusiastic about DeLeon. And the Spanish connection seems to have worked well in stints opening for Los Angeles' eclectic Ozomatli, with another short tour leg with them about to begin.
"Ozomatli's fans really took to us," Saks says.
He doesn't even seem bothered by the likelihood that some will incorrectly identify what he's doing as having a musical/cultural relationship to the klezmer revival of recent years -- klezmer being the music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. In fact, he credits the klezmer awakening spurred by bands ranging from New York's arty Klezmatics to the various practitioners associated with avant-garde jazzbo John Zorn's Tzadik label for opening the door for Jewish music of many sorts. And while there has been some renewed interest in Sephardic music, it's mostly been by such groups as Germany's Sarband and Spanish ensemble Hesperion XXI and trying to re-create or at least approximate the sounds of the original times from a scholarly "early music" standpoint.
"Someone asked if I thought my roots renditions were authentic," he says. "The recordings I have heard are not original versions. They're folk songs in more modern settings."
Of more direct impact has been the very modern Jewish music pastiches being created by such acts as Israel's Balkan Beat Box. That group, led by Tomer Yosef, has taken music from all over the Middle East, North Africa and, of course, the Balkans and given it a dance-music electronica twist, with concerts often taking on exuberant circus atmospheres.
Asked what the attraction is to the music, Joseph says simply, "I guess it's got groove and people connect with groove. It's definitely not the lyrics!"
At least not here. As with DeLeon, few of BBB's lyrics are in English. But is it important for him that people relate to it as Jewish music at least on some level?
"Not at all," he says. "I don't think music has nationality or race. Music speaks through sounds and feelings."