ARLINGTON, Va., Jan. 18 (JTA) — Klezmer music, rooted in the Jewish shtetls of 19th-century Eastern Europe, is making an unprecedented comeback. So is Cuban salsa, whose distinctive Afro-Caribbean rhythms are enjoying a wave of global popularity. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising musician came along and combined the two. That would be Havana-born drummer Roberto Juan Rodriguez, founder of the five-piece jazz band Cuban Klezmer.
“People ask me if I’m Jewish,” said Rodriguez, 45, who lives in New York and disseminates his music through the Tzadik record label. “I say, ‘No, but I’m getting closer.’ ”
In a way, Rodriguez is following in the footsteps of Chasidic singer Matisyahu, who has achieved international fame by combining elements of Jewish music and reggae. Yet listening to Cuban Klezmer, it’s often hard to tell whether you’re hearing Cuban music, Jewish music — or something entirely new and different.
“My father says this is music you’ve never heard before but you feel you have,” Rodriguez explained. “There are the minor keys, the sadness in the melodies, the joyfulness of it.”
The Washington Post gives the composer rave reviews. Richard Harrington, the newspaper’s music critic, said Rodriguez’s instrumental pieces “have plenty of festive rhythmic energy, but the Afro-Cuban element is somewhat downplayed. With rich, complex arrangements, the music has a stately, chamber music feel more reflective of the European-Cuban danzon and Spanish-Cuban guajira traditions.”
Tom Hull of The Village Voice says Rodriguez’s “synthesis of Jewish melody and Cuban percussion dreams of roots that never were, yet it is convincing enough that one can imagine generations of conversos gathering in private to keep the ancient secrets of their culture alive.”
Rodriguez, who was raised Catholic, left Cuba at age 9, by which time he was already playing violin, piano and trumpet. Escaping communism under Fidel Castro, his family fled to Mexico, later crossing the border into the United States and eventually settling in South Florida.
His father, trumpeter and bandleader Roberto Luis Rodriguez had connections in Florida, Rodriguez said.
“My father had a lot of Jewish friends in Cuba, so when we got to Miami, we parachuted right into the Jewish community. At the age of 11 I became a drummer, and I started to play at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings,” he said. “In 1974 I began playing for the Miami Beach Yiddish Theater.”
Rodriguez spoke to JTA last week in Arlington before a concert that attracted some 400 fans.
“I learned a lot about Jewish culture and history through the immigrants and Holocaust survivors that I met in Miami. It seeped into my DNA,” said Rodriguez, who studied at Havana’s Caturla Conservatory of Music and at the University of Miami. “It was a lesson that you don’t get unless you’re Jewish or you study Judaism. But it was through music that I became aware of Jewish culture.”
Rodriguez’s musician wife, Susie Ibarra, is a Philippine-born, Hebrew-speaking Catholic who was once married to an Israeli. Rodriguez doesn’t speak Hebrew, but he peppers his speech with Yiddish expressions.
“These lights are so hot, I’m shvitzing already,” he quipped to the delight of his apparently mostly Jewish audience in Arlington.
“It’s not the Latin community but the Jewish community that’s supporting me,” he told JTA.
Rodriguez’s quintet, formed in 2000, includes two Israelis — clarinetist Gilad Harel and violinist Jonathan Keren — as well as New York’s Rob Curto on accordion and Bernie Mimoso on bass.
Rodriguez has worked with Ruben Blades, Paquito D’Rivera, Celia Cruz, Joe Jackson, Paul Simon, Julio Iglesias and the Miami Sound Machine, among others.
But it was the legendary Puerto Rican bandleader Tito Puente who encouraged Rodriguez to write his own music. Thanks to his friendship with composer and alto saxophonist John Zorn, whose Tzadik label specializes in “radical Jewish music,” Rodriguez went on to produce three albums.
Rodriguez’s first album, released in January 2002, was “El Danzon de Moises,” or “The Dance of Moses.” Its cover is emblazoned with the distinctive red, white and blue flag of Cuba, but with a Star of David where the regular star should be.
Rodriguez named his second album “Baila! Gitano Baila!” — “Dance, Gypsy, Dance!” — a celebration of the Jewish community of Cuba.
“Cuban music has always been popular, and the Jews especially loved it. When I was a kid in Miami, my grandfather would take me to Wolfie’s Deli on Collins Avenue, and we’d see the old Jews dancing the cha-cha and the rumba,” he recalled. “It’s in the gene pool. All you have to do is put on a record of old Cuban music and you’ll get a Jewish couple in their 80s starting to dance.”
Rodriguez noted a long tradition of Jewish musicians turning to Latin music.
“Before Stan Getz was playing bossa nova, he played klezmer in the Catskills,” he said. “Gershwin even went to Cuba. In Miami, I remember the Latin thing was Irving Fields and his Bagels and Bongos.”
Rodriguez’s third CD — “Oy Vey Ole” — is a 2006 collaboration with Fields, now 91.
Rodriguez has played his fusion of klezmer and salsa in San Francisco, Toronto, New York and Washington. He’s toured Europe and is supposed to play soon at the Barbicon Theater in London.
But the one place Rodriguez has never played is in his adopted city, Miami.
“My music is too political. I’m already mixing Jewish and Cuban,” he said. “We tried to put something together last year, but it fell apart.”
Rodriguez has been back to Cuba only once since emigrating — in 1999, to visit his grandparents, who still live in the crumbling Havana suburb of Marianao.
“That’s one of my dreams, to play in Cuba, but not for any political reason,” he said. “I would only play for the Jewish community there.”