By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood (08/10/2007) published in Chicago Jewish News
As Adam Davis, the director of Kfar Jewish Arts Center, contemplated the fact that it has been almost a year since last summer’s Lebanon War broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, an idea for a concert bringing together the two traditions formed in his mind.
When he heard that members of the Rabbinical School Dropouts, a popular jazz-world music-nouveau klezmer band, were going to be in town for a relative’s wedding, the idea took shape.
That was the genesis of a Kfar event taking place Sunday, Aug. 19 at the Empty Bottle in Chicago featuring two bands, the Dropouts and Lamajamal, a Chicago-based world music group that has Lebanese connections among its influences.
“I was thinking about what I was doing a year ago, watching what was going on (in Israel), and I started thinking about how much in common people have, and that there was suffering on both sides,” Davis said recently. That led him to contemplate the parallels between the two bands. There’re both doing something with traditional music forms from their respective heritage ,” he says. “I was having an inner dialogue: How can we move forward, be more universal? The way forward is with more discussion, real dialogue between real people, and this is a good example. You can hear certain similarities in music. You hear things and think, wow, there’s a lot in common here.”
Lamajamal, he says, mixes folk music from the Balkans and the Middle East with instrumentation that includes, besides guitar, saxophone and percussion, the oud, melodica and hammer dulcimer, instruments most closely associated with other musical traditions. “They take their listeners on a journey from Beirut to Istanbul to Sofia with all stops in between,” Davis says of the band, whose members are also music educators.
The Rabbinical School Dropouts also give a modern spin to an age-old sound, mixing klezmer with jazz and injecting a heaping dose of humor that includes their name.
“Some of us are actually rabbinical school dropouts, but it’s more philosophical, humorous-sort of making a statement that we’re not the old klezmer, we’ve dropped out of the tradition and are creating our own sound in a way that reflects our personality,” Jonathan Friedmann, one of the band’s three founders, said in a recent telephone conversation.
The Chicago gig, Friedmann says, will mark a reunion of sorts as well as the 10th anniversary of the band, whose members have recently scattered to both coasts. (Friedmann himself is in cantorial school at the Academy of Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, a transdenominational cantorial and rabbinic school.) They include his two brothers, Hank and Michael; the three of them started the band originally in 1997 to play at Hank’s bar mitzvah.
Later clarinet player Michael, in college in San Diego, met fellow musician Nicolas Carvajal, who joined and formed the core of the band, along with the Friedmanns; other musicians came on board along the way and “it really took off,” Jon Friedmann says. They’ve had as many as 10 members, but he’s not sure yet how many are going to make it to the Empty Bottle gig. They’ve put out five albums in the last 10 years, including their latest, “Vehicles Behind Comets.”
Jon and Michael compose the band’s music, which is all instrumental and has been heavily influenced, at least on Jon’s part, by the late composer and quirky rock-jazz genius Frank Zappa.
“I got into him in high school, and he really shaped my musical outlook growing up,” Jon Friedmann says. “His instrumental music in particular has really influenced my compositional approach. He was half Middle Eastern in descent; he would have been a great klezmer musician.” With song titles like “Wannabe Maccabee” and “Mystical New Age Hot Dog of the Covenant,” it’s clear that RSDO has channeled some of Zappa’s wacky sense of humor as well.
Today the Dropouts fit into a loose subculture that Friedmann describes as “sort of 20s-30s Jewish people, educated cosmopolitan types. Those are our most ardent fans. They’re not necessarily religious in their outlook but they are culturally Jewish-the same kind of people who are involved with Kfar. It’s sort of a subculture of hip young Jews.
“It’s a new thing and a good outlet for Jews who are at one with the modern world but also wishing to express their identities and find something out there that really speaks to them. They’re post-modern Jews,” he says.
Friedmann credits ubiquitous composer-saxophone player John Zorn, whose Tzadik Records released one of the band’s albums, “Cosmic Tree,” as being “the godfather of the whole movement. He sort of spearheaded that whole ethos, and that’s probably where most of our encouragement and inspiration come from.”
It also comes from the past. “One of the important things about the new klezmer movement is that it is very much grounded in the traditional klezmer sound,” Friedmann says. “Even with the (influences of) jazz, rock, funk, it’s still undeniably recognizably Jewish. It really is indebted to the past. There is a continuity between the older sound and the new sound. Because we were exposed to so many different styles of music they all crept in, but under the shell it is still klezmer. That’s probably the most important thing about it, that it is a bridge between the past and the present.”
Friedmann says he has heard some of Lamajamal’s music and thinks his band will complement their sound nicely since both have a similar approach. Davis, the Kfar director, hopes that the two bands can participate in a final jam together, although with about eight musicians each that would make the stage awfully crowded.
But maybe the crowding together and fusing of musical and cultural styles is the idea. “By playing together, (the two bands) seem equally serious about emphasizing the commonalities of the two cultures, including their ability to exist side by side,” Davis writes in the press material for the event. He adds that he sees the concert as a fitting musical tribute to and commemoration of the lives lost on both sides in last summer’s war, one that “celebrates the peaceful potential of a turbulent region.”
Rabbinical School Dropouts and Lamajamal play at 7 p.m. (doors open 6:30) at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., Chicago. 21+ show. For tickets, $12 advance, $15 at door, visit http://kfarcenter.org or http://ticketweb.com.