DeLeon brings Sephardic rock to Kansas

What do you get when you combine the sounds of the Beatles, spaghetti Westerns and Sephardic Jewish cantorial nusach? Something like the sound of DeLeon, the New York-based indie-rock group that opens for Ozomatli Oct. 31 at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kan.

DeLeon’s sound was intriguing enough for JDub Records – original home of Chasidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu – to sign the band to a contract and release its debut album in August. JDub (www.jdubrecords.org) is a non-profit record and event-production company “striving to build community through new and innovative Jewish music and cross-cultural musical dialogue.”

DeLeon is certainly new. Singer, guitarist and band leader Dan Saks, age 29, said in a phone interview that DeLeon has been together about 18 months – “not that long, considering all that has befallen us.”

In addition to its leader, DeLeon consists of a bass player, keyboardist, drummer and trumpet player, each of whom also sings.

“You’ve got to have a real trumpet player – if you’re gonna play Sephardic rock music,” Saks said.

Saks said the band’s name is the family name of some his ancestors, who include the 12th century Spanish Kabbalist Moses DeLeon. Moses DeLeon was said to have been the redactor of the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism.

500 years later

Saks said he looked to a somewhat later, if still medieval, period for musical inspiration for the band’s eponymous debut album.

“They are all ancient, Sephardic folk songs – pre-Inquisition, songs from that tradition,” Saks said. “There are plenty of recordings of people doing them in a very traditional way. There is the cantorial, liturgical stuff, and I have just kind of sifted through all these records and sheet-music books I have found, and pulled out ones that I felt held up 500 years later. It was a surprising amount; I had to narrow it down.”

Saks has translated some of the lyrics into English. Others are sung, in whole or in part, in the Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino.

“I have translated some songs; on some, I have changed the arrangement; some are as is – or as was – with the same exact lyrics and the same chord progression,” Saks said. “Obviously, I kind of changed it suit our band; arranged it differently.”

Samples can be heard at jdubrecords.org.

Folk meets rock

Saks said he grew up listening to the American folk music – e.g., Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger – that his father liked.

“My influences are all over the map,” Saks said, “?and that’s what comes out in the music. I grew up listening to a lot of folk music – and in some ways, I think our album is taking part in that folk process, the notion that these songs are sort of alive and open to be reinterpreted; they are open to adding a verse, changing the key – things that keep folk songs around forever.”

“I’ve been a pretty serious music listener since I was a little kid,” Saks said. “I love music from all around the world. I love the current indie rock scene. There is so much to pull from these days, and the floodgates have sort of opened since the Internet. If you hear about some psychedelic music scene from Peru in the ’60s, you can read about it online.”

Saks said he had never been to Lawrence before, and he aims to impress the locals on Halloween night.

“We are thinking of something special for Halloween, trying to make it a special night,” Saks said. “When I go to see a show on Halloween, I am hoping the band pulls something out.”

Halloween with DeLeon

DeLeon opens for Ozomatli at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 31, at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St., Lawrence, Kan. It’s an all-ages show. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit www.pipelineproductions.com, www.libertyhall.net, or call or visit the Liberty Hall box office, (785) 749-1972.

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