Odessa-Havana at Chutzpah Fest

Klezmer-Cubano group's fusion roots run deep

Multi-cultural octet montage. Photos: Odessa-Havana

Playing at the Chutzpah Festival amidst the U.S. presidential primary sweepstakes, American expatriate David Buchbinder, co-leader of the Toronto-based Klezmer-Cubano fusion band Odessa/Havana, couldn't resist a cheap shot at the land of his birth.

In note of Canadian triumphalism, he congratulated us all for melding and harmonizing our ethnic and musical diversity, rather than fomenting divisive tribalism like some countries he could name.

Well, maybe. Anyway, at least his onstage array of seven band-mates seemed to bear out his boast. He was flanked on one side by Maryam Hassan Tollar, a spectacularly versatile torch singer from Egypt.

On the other side, reed player Peter Lutek, a Canadian Ukranian, sizzled out sax and clarinet licks almost as hot as his bright red blazer. Violinist Aleksandar Gajic, billed as the "Serbian Sensation," wore the mien of a staid and portly burgher -- until he cut loose, stomping and snorting, with wildly inventive solos.

Metis bassist Justin Gray, the youngster of the ensemble, was almost dwarfed by his instrument, but his a capella intro's to several numbers left no doubt about his mastery.

Two elfin drummers: Northern Irish leprechaun Mark Kelso on traps and a puckish Afro-Cuban Joaquin Nunez Hidalgo on bongos, congas plus a whole console of rattles, woodblocks and bells. Another Cuban, Hilario Duran, anchored the keyboard and co-led the band.

Bullet headed and ramrod straight in his black sharkskin suit, he was as shiny, stolid and magisterial as his grand piano. He composed much of the repertoire.

The rest was written by Buchbinder himself, "the token Jew" of the ensemble, as he announced himself to the Chutzpah crowd. He also MC'd the evening with running commentary and banter.

Make no mistake, he stressed: there's a lot more to fusion strains of Klezmer-Cubano than just "Desi Arnaz meets Fiddler on the Roof." The group's hybridized roots reach far deeper than contemporary Toronto -- all the way back, in fact, to medieval Andalusia, In their blend of Arab, Jewish, Latin and Visigothic influences, the Moorish kingdoms of that era set a high water benchmark of multicultural cosmopolitanism unmatched for centuries thereafter.

The reconquista and ensuing Inquisition put an end to all that. Islam was rolled back to North Africa and Crimea, trailing in its wake a renewed Sephardic diaspora.

Spain's remaining Jews, after coerced baptisms, emerged as marranos, restive converts, disproportionately represented in the ranks of Iberian New World expeditionaries.

No wonder the musics of Crimean Odessa and New World Havana share so many minor mode harmonies and world-weary undertones.

Buchbinder prefaced one of the strongest pieces of the eveningwith a description of his own recent visit to the port city of Cadiz.

It's on Spain's west coast, the Atlantic edge of Andalusia, and traces its history back to ancient Phoenicians sea-farers. In its time the city has served as a terminus for caravans from the East and galleons from the West, blending myriad cultures along the way. And in the ensuing piece, Odessa /Havana brought out many of these resonances.

It started with a long bass solo, Gray spelunking way down into the bottom registers of his range. Then, to a loping caravan rhythm from both percussionists, Hassan-Tollar opens up with a long and elegant ululating treble line, echoed in snippets by Gajic.

Buchbinder and Lutek weigh in with brassy trumpet and sax fanfares as Duran adorns the whole with a filigree of arpeggios. It all adds up to a richly evocative mood piece: sun-glinting highlights on sea spume, glimpsed through a Moorish latticed window.

Not that the repertoire lacked more standard big-band fare, either. The concluding item, Rumba Judaica, had audience members literally dancing in the aisles and looking forward to Odessa/Havana's return visit to these shores.

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