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Klezmatic Convergence

Rubinchik's Orkestyr

By Christopher Hess, Fri., Aug. 21, 1998



photograph by Todd V. Wolfson



As a founding member of Austin's seminal bluegrass outfit the Bad Livers, bassist Mark Rubin has seen his share of notoriety. And like many musicians of his caliber, he has also enjoyed success in other musical projects - which can be a problem, apparently. "[Bad Livers guitarist] Danny [Barnes] and I have talked about this, and we've decided that we have to be real careful about our side projects, because they have this terrible tendency to do well," says Rubin.

Everyone should have such problems.

But the Livers have always been a busy bunch. They'll be releasing a new CD in September, and touring extensively immediately after. Fellow-founder Barnes, who now lives in rural Washington state, is playing an increasing number of unaccompanied gigs these days and has cut a solo CD. He's also been working on a recording project with Bill Frisell, as well as corresponding with Eugene Chadbourne about a future collaboration.

Meanwhile, the Austin-based Rubin continues playing bass for Santiago Jimenez Jr., a part-time job that could easily be a full-time one. While guesting on any number of local releases, and spending a good chunk of 1997 working on the soundtrack to The Newton Boys, Rubin's involvement with any one side-project in particular has been kept to a minimum during his decade-long tenure with the Livers.

One notable exception was the Madcat Trio, a group consisting of Rubin, Barnes, and fiddlemaster Erik Hokannen that played locally a few years back, but stopped before it got started, because like any project that's in demand, the group diverted time and attention away from the main objective of both the Bad Livers and Hokannen's career.

A number of interrelated combos and a request from Texas Folklife Resources for Rubin to gather a klezmer band for their first Culture Bash led to Hokannen and Rubin teaming up with Mike Maddux (accordion), Mike Stinnett (clarinet), and Rachel Rhodes (vocals) under the name Rubinchik's Kapelye. The first outing went well, and the group soon had a weekly slot at Flipnotics coffeespace, where they came up with the name Rubinchik's Orkestyr.

The goal of this group, according to Rubin, is simply to have fun. Klezmer music is, loosely, instrumental Jewish folk music derived from Eastern European folk songs, Yiddish melodies, polkas, and other ethnic forms. And it is fun. It's often fast-paced - clarinet, fiddle, and accordion setting off at a gallop to the oom-pah-pah of a tuba or the heightening thump of a double-bass. It cries out for the complement of dance, the circular rushing movement of a family celebration. It can also be mournful, especially when Rachel Rhodes' vocals in Yiddish, Bosnian, and (especially) Russian convey the mood.

Along the way, guitarist Jake Zuckerman started to play with the Orkestyr. When Hokannen decided to leave the band, Rubin was approached by Lisa Schneider, a fan of Rubinchik's since their first show, and one who happened to be a fiddler. She was on hand the night Hokannen left, and was on board for the very next show. Clarinetist Ben Saffer was likewise serendipitously recruited when he showed up and asked to sit in during the show following Stinnett's relocation to Denton. Over and beyond any musical bond, fate seems to be holding this band together.

As the band's repertoire has grown and their styles converged, Rubinchik's Orkestyr has excelled at playing these often ancient songs and melodies. In fact, Rubin recently played a gig at the Smithsonian Institute, where he shared a stage with some of the most revered musicians in klezmer.

"Normally you get intimidated by that kind of thing," he says. "But I was thinking to myself, the band I play in right now is not too dissimilar to this right here, really. They're not as seasoned, but that comes with time and effort. I think any of these musicians, if they wanted to, could go as far as they wanted to in this genre."

If the stated purpose of Rubinchik's Orkestyr was to have fun, this summer saw that goal come to fruition on a grand scale as the band was invited to play in France's "Les Nuits Atypiques de Langon," a music festival held in a small winemaking city 35 miles outside of Bordeaux. Musicians from Burkina Faso, Niger, Spain, Bengal, and Brazil, among others, were brought to this provincial town for four nights of music and celebration.

"We're not well known there," Rubin says. "In fact, we're not known at all. In fact, I have such a laissez-faire attitude toward this band that I don't have a press kit."

That didn't keep the Orkestyr from being a hit, though. By the end of the festival, each of the Rubinchik's sat in on many a stage, and the reactions were overwhelmingly approving.

"We got a lot of press," says Rubin. "One of the press officials there was pointing out to me the uniqueness of a klezmer band right off the bat. It's pretty unique for that part of the world. There aren't any homegrowns. In the papers, they kept calling us `The Mysterious Rubinchik's Orkestyr.' Mysterious how? Well, because we're from Texas and we play this music that's better known as coming from Eastern Europe.

"They liked us a lot, but I don't think they had anything to compare it with. The people there are very familiar with Romani (or Gypsy) music, which shares a lot with klezmer, to be sure. But the Jewish music of this style, most people have never been exposed to it. So we kind of had an open slate."

Just as Rubin has his side projects, so do his cohorts in klezmer - and on this trip that came in handy. Schneider, Maddux, and Zuckerman played Scandinavian songs under Schneider's name, as well as a set of the Hungarian, Romanian, and Greek folk musics that Schneider plays in Austin with her band Kolorash. Maddux's El Grupo Centzontle played South American folk music with available personnel. Rubin, for his part, was given free reign to play what he wished.

The response the band received individually and collectively from audiences abroad and the growing affinity they felt for the music, instilled by hours playing together and inspired by the rich history of the places they were suddenly playing, brought forth a realization. The goals had been met. What next?

"That's the question," says Rubin. "And it kind of arose while we were there. We had to have a meeting in the downtime between the festival we played first and the festival proper. I kind of laid it out: `We all know why we're here, it was my dumb idea to start this band, we learned a bunch of tunes and golly look where we are!' I said we'd met our goal, and I have a new goal; tell me what you think. The new goal was to come back next year and do it again, only present ourselves a little less casually. ... Everyone pretty much agreed."

He says this looking across the table at Lisa Schneider.

"I'm overwhelmed," she says. "Up until now, everything has just sort of happened, and it's been lots of fun. I'm doing this because I love this music and I've always wanted to play it."

"For years I've played as an accompanist to bluegrass and Western swing and country," explains Rubin. "With Santiago, Tex-Mex music. With Gil Baca of Fayetteville and Brian Marshall in Houston, Polish music, Greek music, and Hungarian music - all of these kinds of musics. At the end of the day, though, you can only speak authoritatively and truthfully about the kind of music you know the best. The first music that I knew was in shul (synagogue or school). That's the first thing I heard."

However intentionally, momentum is increasing; Rubinchik's Orkestyr have made a CD.

"A little CD, that's all it is," says Rubin. "The reason why I have a CD is because we didn't have one. In the absence of a CD, this is one. It's these musicians playing this music utterly live - clams, false starts, missed chords, and all."

Recorded live, half at a KUT LiveSet and the rest at a Flipnotics gig, the Orkestyr's eponymous self-release has its rough spots, sure, but it has no trouble communicating the spirit of the band and the music it plays. And since the band excels in a live setting, and said setting is the band's weekly TGIF gig at Central Market, the irony of a Jewish band playing every Friday is fully apparent to Rubin, who explains that klezmer is a secular music born of the culture of Judaism more than the religion.

"Jewish religious services are on Friday night and Saturday morning," he explains. "What working musician can make that gig? It was like that even in the old days. Musicians in the Jewish community have always been `put up with.' Central members of the community say, `Just because we don't see them in synagogue doesn't mean they're so bad. They gotta work for a living.'"

Not that there's a killing to be made in klezmer. There are camps to attend, and cultural and musical festivals. There are communities that demand klezmer wherever there is a concentration of Jewish people. But nobody's getting rich at it.

Luckily, that's not the point.

"Music has always been like a religion for me," concludes Rubin. "It's been the surest spiritual expression I've ever been involved in. That's what Lisa meant by this is more like me than anything I've ever done. It's haimisch; it feels like home. I can play all kinds of different music, but this is the one that's most deeply ingrained."

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