One of the big concerts at this year’s Tarbut: Festival of Jewish Culture is David Buchbinder’s Odessa/Havana: Roots. Imagine Jewish folk music choosing Cuban jazz as a dance partner. The match is surprising but also somehow obvious when you hear it—the song forms, the energy, the mix of ache and joy…
Odessa/Havana emerged from one of those perfect accidents that happen often in musical lives. Buchbinder, a Toronto trumpet player, was playing with Grammy-nominated Cuban pianist Hilario Durán —a colleague at Humber College—and was struck by the congruence between the Cuban song forms and traditional Jewish tunes. As a person with a cross-cultural passion, he teamed up with Durán to explore the possibilities. Their first recording, Odessa/Havana, appeared to rave reviews in 2007, winning a Canadian Folk Music Award. Walk to the Sea, their second outing, won a Juno in 2014.
Buchbinder’s instincts were sharp. Exploring back through musical time, he arrived at medieval Moorish Spain, a common ancestral root for both the Jewish diaspora and the Spanish overlay in Cuban music. Both musical branches share haunting minor modalities, a strong rhythmic drive, improvisatory gestures, and an openness to other influences. Both Buchbinder and Durán were energized to discover the common echoes of Arabic, Roma, Sephardic, and North African accents in their musical languages, and began to find ways to connect with one another across that historical gap.
Both Buchbinder and Durán write for the group, which itself is a melding of traditional sounds. A vocalist from the Sephardic tradition sails over lively Latin percussion—and it sounds like a perfect fit. As Thom Durek puts it in his review of the first Odessa/Havana recording, “The complete interweaving of these two musics, neither giving up a shred of its individual identity in the process, is quite literally stunning.”
Buchbinder’s interest in intersections and interfaces underpins all of his creative endeavors. He started the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, a music-oriented festival celebrating Jewish music and arts and fostering collaborations with other cultural communities. He’s the Artistic Director of Diasporic Genius, a community-building initiative that folds together storytelling, workshops, festivals, and other creative endeavors that bring particular communities into fuller contact with civic life. He’s at work now on a project that will reanimate the historical soundscape of a multicultural section of Toronto.
He admits that “cross-cultural creation seems to sneak in to everything I do. I really like the places where ecosystems connect. That can mean: genres, cultures, styles, disciplines, or communities. I realized a long time ago that the place where ecosystems bump up against each other is where there’s always the most life. Also, I’m always looking for something that’s celebratory.”
Don’t miss the celebration at the Berney Theatre on Saturday, November 12, when David Buchbinder and Hilario Durán take to the stage with singer Maryem Tollar, percussionist Joaquín Núñez Hidalgo, and bassist Steve Kirby. Odessa/Havana is haunting, thrilling, lively—a dance of the spirit. ν Charlene Diehl