The Black Sea Social Club: David Buchbinder fuses klezmer with Cuban musical traditions in his Odessa/Havana project

For a short time in the 1950s, Jewish melodies and Latin rhythms were all the rage. Irving Fields’ two-million-selling Bagels and Bongos, with tunes like Havannah Negila and Mazel Tov Merengue, made the pianist the darling of the cocktail set around the world.

Alas, the novelty wore off, and Fields now holds down a weekly gig playing requests for diners in an Italian restaurant in New York. Is there no future in such cross-cultural fusion? Toronto trumpeter David Buchbinder believes there is. In the bio for his new disc Odessa/Havana, where Jewish and Afro-Cuban traditions collide, he states emphatically, “This is about as far from Fiddler on the Roof meets Desi Arnaz as you can get!”

There’s nothing remotely schlocky, schmaltzy or stereotypical about the music Buchbinder has written with pianist Hilario Duran for this project, which exploits the similarities between klezmer and Cuban scales, rhythms and uses of counterpoint –not to mention the talents of some of Toronto’s best jazz musicians.

“There’s a post-multicultural thing going on in the country and certainly in this city,” says Buchbinder, combating a flu with some chicken noodle soup at a cafe near his rehearsal studio in Toronto’s Liberty Village. “Multiculturalism is very much about people reproducing in some unreal way their culture of origin. This [album] is a more nimble and exploratory response to [the fact] that we find ourselves in a city that has so many people from so many backgrounds. To me, the coolest direction is towards the development of something that nobody’s heard before.”

Buchbinder first discovered Latin music in the early ’80s in Germany, where he played in a salsa band with American and Puerto Rican GI’s. More recently, he experimented with Cuban rhythms with his longtime outfit, The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band. For instance, he says, “we took the Romanian hora in 3/4 and put it up against the Afro-Cuban 6/8. But I felt to really do it right, I had to find someone from the Cuban side.”

Buchbinder was introduced to Duran by producer/bassist Roberto Occhipinti when all three artists were up for Juno awards last year. “He was quite into some of my somewhat unusual compositions,” Buchbinder recalls. Duran gave the trumpeter some recordings of Cuban folk music, while Buchbinder gave the pianist “turn-of-the-20th-century klezmer music, including some stuff that was recorded in a village in 1910. He soaked it up and really dug it.”

Both musicians began writing music reflecting the other’s tradition.

The old-school klezmer, for instance, found its way directly into Duran’s piece Freylekhs Tumbao, which sets a variety of Jewish folk tunes over rhythms that morph from the South American cumbia to the Puerto Rican bomba to the Eastern-European bulgar. It’s tricky to execute such shifts, and Duran and Buchbinder took advantage of Toronto’s multi-faceted jazz scene to find a set of players who could operate fluidly in disparate styles and settings. Violinist Aleksandar Gajic, for instance, is from Serbia and plays klezmer and classical music, but also lived in the Dominican Republic for two years, where he learned to play the Afro/ Latin hybrid, charanga.


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