Benjamin Lapidus’ CD Mixes Jewish, Latin Cultures

For Benjamin Lapidus, mixing his Jewish heritage and the Latino culture he has grown to love was always natural. “I would have a Passover seder at my house and we would pull out the panderetas and mess around,” he said. “In my cousin’s house in Havana we make matzo balls with calabaza [squash].”

After all these years, the 35-year-old tres virtuoso has finally succeeded in combining the cultures on one record. His new album, “Herencia Jud?a,” to be released this week on the independent label Tresero, is a thoughtful, passionate attempt at combining Jewish liturgical songs with traditional music from Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Lapidus was first exposed to Latin music through his father, who played accordion for several different mambo orchestras in Catskills hotels such as Grossingers in the ’50s and ’60s. “He gave me a lot of those old charts with arrangements by different Cuban arrangers, and a lot of the classic records,” Lapidus said. When he was 14, his Brooklyn-bred family moved to the Upper West Side, where Lapidus encountered a new influence, the late saxophonist Mario Rivera.

“Mario lived two blocks away from me and I would go to his house all the time,” Lapidus said. “He was a tremendous influence on me as far as how seriously you have to take music. At the same time, there were always groups on the street playing j?baro music, merengue, jazz, rumba.” After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, Lapidus returned to New York and has been the leader of the Latin jazz band Sonido Isle?o.

“Herencia Jud?a” is a collection of songs directly associated with specific holidays or weekly liturgy, and in a few cases, Lapidus sees parallels be- tween Jewish and Latino traditions. “During the high holidays, Orthodox Jews do a kind of cleansing,” Lapidus said. On the song “Limpieza Jud?a,” Lapidus overlays a cantor-sung melody onto a rhythm used to evoke the Afro-Cuban orisha associated with that culture’s New Year.

On “Comparsa de Simchat Torah,” Lapiuds found a similarity between the Jewish holiday and the street carnivals in the Cuban cities of Guant?namo and Santiago. And with “Kaddish Para Daniel,” Lapidus pays tribute to the slain journalist Daniel Pearl. “Most non-Spanish-speaking Jews will not understand what the lyrics are about, and most native Spanish speakers are not going to know what the kaddish is about so for me it was just a way to make peace with the tragedy.”

Lapidus uses the cantor from his Brooklyn synagogue, as well as his old roommate, percussionist Rom?n D?az, on the album, and local talent like Onel Mulet (reeds, maracas), Jorge Bringas (bass) and Antonio de Vivo (percussion). In recent years, artists as diverse as jazz percussionist-composer Roberto Rodriguez and rock-rappers Hiphop Hoodios have been exploring this crossover, and Canadian trumpeter David Buchbinder released “Odessa/Havana” (Tzadik Records), a collaboration with pianist Hilario Dur?n.

“I’m not sure if this is a movement,” Lapidus said. “But it’s a testament to the fact that at some point these voices would be heard.”


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