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Traditional Jewish Folk Music Gets a California Make-Over

The music of Eastern European Jews, first played 600 years ago, has a new sound… which is nothing new. Klezmer, as the music is known, constantly evolved as Jewish communities relocated to new cultures. The expressive and emotional klezmer violin intentionally mimics a human voice - sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing. You can picture yourself in a tiny Romanian or Russian village of the late 1800's and then… your hear the unmistakable sound of American Bluegrass. The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band of California is infusing the traditional sound with strains of the Old West. "I say that we're a klezmer, Sephardic string band," explains Andy Rubin, the band's banjo player, singer and founder. "(With) Blue Grass and Celtic influence," he laughs. "It's not exactly a well-known genre!"

Andy Rubin was trained as a traditional folk musician, playing American cowboy songs, as well as Irish music. But then, he and his musical partner - both observant Jews - realized something. "We sort of looked at each other and said, 'We like Irish music, of course, we love this music, but why don't we play Jewish music? Why don't we try and see what these instruments do playing klezmer music.'" And the Freilachmachers were born.

The dominant instruments in klezmer music are the violin and clarinet. The Freilachmakers substitute the banjo and mandolin for the clarinet, and add a guitar, cello and accordion. The band practices in a cabana behind guitarist Felipe Ferraz's house. Today, the Freilachmakers are rehearsing a Ukrainian dance. At least it starts out that way. After a minute or so, it sounds like a very different dance: the Can-Can, by 19th century French composer Jacques Offenbach. The classical music blends into true folk music as easily as the sun sets over the Santa Monica pier, and Andy Rubin says it's a "California kind of thing." But he leaves it to others to decide if the band is defining a new genre with its sound. Each band member brings a range of influences into the mix to create that unique sound. Mr. Rubin laughingly says the band's philosophy is "Oh, you can do that? We should take advantage of that and do it that way!"

The Freilachmakers literally means 'the makers of freilach,' the Yiddish word for joy. And there's now a bit of alegria, as well, as their latest CD has a Spanish flavor, emblematic of California's Latino culture - and Jewish history. For centuries - until the late 1400's -Jews had a vibrant culture in Spain and other Mediterranean countries. Persecution by the Catholic Church scattered the community throughout Western Europe and eventually, the New World. The Sephardim, as they're known, brought their language - Ladino, a mix of Hebrew, Turkish and Spanish - and their music with them.

Brazilian-born Felipe Ferraz joined the band five years ago as a guitarist and singer, and is helping the Freilachmakers create a new style of Sephardic music. In their recording of the popular love song, Puncha la Rosa, sung in Ladino, he changed the traditional waltz arrangement to a jazzy, Bossa Nova. "Many of these Sephardic songs are basically very romantic," he says, "and they make analogies of the loved one with geography. It talks about the force of love, being in the ocean and pulling you in." Mr. Ferraz says the version on their new CD came together the day of the recording. "I remember just about 5 minutes before we went into the studio, I said, 'I love it. It sounds really good now, I understand.'"

The Freilachmakers named their new album after a poem by 12th century rabbi and philosopher Yehuda Halevi. It's called And I in the Uttermost West. "He was writing from what to him probably was the edge of the earth, Spain…. just yearning to be in the land of Israel," Andy Rubin explains, adding the the Freilachmakers are applying their own interpretation of what it means to be 'in the west.' "Here we are, you know you get a little farther west than California and they start calling it east… To us it was not a sad thing to say, 'Here I am in the west.' We love being here. And we love all the influences that have come down on us, sort of funneled into the music that we make. So here we are, in the uttermost west."