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Roberto Rodriguez's breathtaking Orquesta Sarabia weaves "all-American" music from Cuban, Sephardic and Arabic styles

Tony Cenicola

We love our origin stories. Just ask Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker.

Roberto Juan Rodriguez has a great one, specifically for his new musical project, Orquesta Sarabia, which weaves together Afro-Cuban, European Jewish and African-Arabic styles, but also for his full life as a musician and composer of stunning breadth and ambition.

“I named it after my grandfather,” he says of the new venture. “He is the reason I do what I do. He is the one who would take me to Wolfie’s Deli and to see the old Jews dance to Latin music on Sundays in Miami Beach at the public club house. Said to me when I was going to college, ‘Do what you love. Forget what anyone else tells you. You don’t have to be a lawyer.”

Those initial deli ‘n’ dance days were in 1970 when Rodriguez was around 10 and freshly arrived in Florida with his parents (fully Catholic, not Jewish at all, by the way), having been able to leave old East Havana, where he was born. And, tellingly, his grandfather, who had come over a few years ahead of them, was a lawyer. 

Flash forward to the present, and we see (and hear) what grew from those seeds. Orquesta Sarabia will be giving its second-ever performance on Thursday as part of the Skirball Cultural Center’s summer Sunset Concerts series. Meanwhile, you can get a full preview if you click on this link and then click on Orquesta Sarabia to watch the video of the full concert debut, from May at New York’s Lincoln Center. (And for a shorter, audience-shot excerpt, scroll down to the end of this story.) Mambo, Sephardic modes, Arabic and/or Persian maqam and even some Egyptian-influenced East African taraab mix via hammered santoor, plucked oud and  bouzuk, jazz bass, sinewy violin and winds, and several kinds and several layers of percussion, often led by Rodriguez, though often not.

And then, at the end, as the audience applauds rapturously, Rodriguez holds his five-year-old son Emmanuel and says, “I just had this thought today. When we close our eyes and we listen to a beautiful melody, we’re all reminded that we are all the same and we all come from the same place. Thank you. The music is everything.”

In this case, the music is everything, or close enough. There is so much going on, so much history represented, styles employed, traditions honored, personalities of the specific musicians displayed. It’s almost as if he’s taken all the cultural streams of the various diaspora that happened after Isabella and Ferdinand ended the “golden age” of medieval Andalusia — when Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in relative harmony, with a great flowering of art, music, poetry and philosophy — and brought them back together.

And yet there are no conflicts, no instances of one thing crowding out another, not even any seams showing. It’s like a very intricate puzzle that’s been fit together so well that you can’t even see the pieces any more, or maybe like an M.C. Escher work of interlocking figures.

“You can explain it better than I can,” Rodriguez says with a laugh, as those analogies are posed. 

But he, too, has found himself sometimes just admiring the whole picture.

“In this particular project I’m standing back more as a percussionist, trying to navigate the ship — ‘Go ahead, take it!’” he says. “‘This is the music. You read it, perform it with each other, feel each other and say something. Make it yours and give it up to the audience. I give it to you, you give it to them and we connect.’”

Arguably, it’s all the culmination of a lot of connections Rodriguez made between those Miami Beach days with his grandfather and this remarkable work. His father was a trumpeter and music obsessive. Often, Rodriguez says, his mother would despair as his father funneled the government support meant to go to powdered milk and cheese to the purchase of records.

“He bought a record, said, ‘Here’s the greatest trumpet player of all time! Louis Armstrong.’ My mom would say, ‘But we need food!’ He was the loose cannon.”

A cannon from which young Roberto was launched, starting his music career at age 13 in his dad’s band, continuing as a teen with that group and others, including that of the great Afro-Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez. That led to a scholarship for the University of Miami’s vaunted music program and then a move to New York where he quickly became a go-to drummer and percussionist for artists ranging from Celia Cruz to pop innovators Joe Jackson and Rufus Wainwright to avant-garde jazz-and-beyond figures Lester Bowie, Marc Ribot, Wadada Leo Smith and John Zorn.

It was Zorn, the doyen of New York’s Downtown music scene and catalyst for a new era of musical experiments with Jewish themes via his Tzadik label, prodded Rodriguez to become a composer. It was that origin story that particularly piqued his interest.

“He said, ‘Do you have a Jewish record for me?,’” Rodriguez says. 

The musician was a bit flummoxed at the notion, particularly so when Zorn said it would have to be original material. But Rodriguez, who had never seen himself as a writer, took up the challenge and took the old Miami days as inspiration, at age 40 creating the 2001 album El Danzon de Moises with a cast of players including art-klezmer innovators David Krakauer and Matt Darriau, cellist Jane Scarpantoni and percussionist Susie Ibarra (Rodriguez’s wife). And most significantly, at the front of the group was his “loose cannon” father, Roberto Luis Rodriguez.

That was followed in 2004 by Baila! Gitano Baila!, bringing out the pan-cultural Gypsy traditions. And in 2009, with the newly created Sexteto Rodriguez, he made Timba Talmud, digging deeper into what he’s described as the imaginary music from Havana’s Jewish community. Along the way he’s continued various other pursuits, including his electro-percussion collaboration with Ibarra under the name Electric Kulintang

For the Orquesta Sarabia concept, the imaginary community expanded. Rodriguez had traveled in the Arab world as a young man and returned recently to Lebanon, exploring small villages and the cities alike. 

“I just saw that there’s another appendage there where I have a connection,” he says. “A je ne c’est quoi.”

Somehow, he just seems to fit in, instinctively.

“People ask me if I’m Jewish,” he says. “Yeah, by food! Then I go to Lebanon and they say, ‘You look Lebanese.’ Well, there are a lot of Lebanese in Cuba.” 

Ultimately, though, he doesn’t see this as an international endeavor. 

“It’s American,” he says. “All an American creation.”

Most of the musicians, he points out, live in Brooklyn. Their ethnic or national backgrounds are not pertinent, he insists. And he, Ibarra and their son reside in the Catskills, as American as it gets.

“I live in a rural area,” he says, excited to share the music with his neighbors. “I have good ol’ boys listening to Arabic music, saying ‘yalla!’ I have a guy working with me, a local boy, he has an open mind. He saw the video of the performance on his laptop and was blown away. Never heard anything like this before. I’m out there sharing what I do, part of my American experience. I’ve played rock and blues, can play country. ‘This is what I’m doing now. Check it out.’ That, to me, is big.”