This interview was conducted with Roberto Rodriguez by phone, prior to his Washington DC appearance at the Washington Jewish Music Festival on Monday, May 14th. See the festival website for details.
David Hintz - So where are you right now.
Roberto Rodriguez - I live in the Catskill Mountains in New York.
DH - Oh!
RR - I'm in a little town called Kerhonkson, New York.
DH - Well that sounds like a nice quiet getaway.
RR - Yes, it definitely is.
DH - Great. So a few quick questions for you before your Washington DC appearance at the Jewish Music Festival. I see that music was a family tradition for you. But has it always been a personal calling for you? How early did you get started?
RR - Well, it started from my Father, who taught me the music. And from there on it just involved in many ways. In Cuba, it had a double meaning. One was music and the other was just to stay at home more, to stay more musically aware, with all the turmoil that was going on, being in a place that was not stable. That was a blessing, but kept me at home a lot. It is interesting in retrospect I can remember being around instruments, musicians, etc. My father was very involved in teaching in Cuba, so he would take me everywhere. Then of course coming over to the US opened up a whole new world.
DH - Right, and what year was that?
RR - That was actually 1970. And that was just amazing. My father was just buying old records and saying this is the greatest musician in the world--Louis Armstrong. Just all kinds of ramifications... it was just a real longing for what we were at times prevented from having in Cuba. So this was a backlash, a good backlash. Musicians were coming in and out of the house all the time and eventually I ended up with a drum set. Then it was from violin to piano to trumpet and eventually yes, the drums. And musically it all started with blues to rock to jazz-rock to everything... to Yiddish Theater at 15 to Jewish weddings... bar mitzvahs, partied, night clubs. I started early at age 14.
DH - You're actually headed toward my next question, did the branching out from a Cuban heritage happen when you came here?
RR - Well, if you really want to look at it, it is kind of the opposite.
DH - Oh, ok.
RR - It was actually classical music early on. And then, the music of my father was Cuban music. So then in Miami, it was a bit more where I was turned on to rock and jazz... all the bands I was playing in where more pop and jazz and rock. Jewish weddings were just normal work down there. So it was pretty much a calling later on, but then you know jazz was always at the forefront. We were always attuned to what was happening there. Actually I got into the University of Miami on scholarship for the jazz program and that was my first love.
DH - And jazz seems more welcoming. I have some background in the folk movements in both Great Britain and the United States. In the sixties, there were traditionalists that did not like a lot of the musical changes. Have you ever encountered anyone that had problems with you crossing over into different styles?
RR - No.
DH - That's great and I would attribute that to jazz, but perhaps also with Cuban music.
RR - Yeah, originally they both connect in the big band form and the arrangements. A lot of music was coming into the US from Cuba, but they were getting like the forties and fifties Big Bands were coming here. It was just a back and forth--how can you avoid it? We're only 90 miles away. So the influences in many ways are reciprocal. We were both gaining from each side. The passage of records coming in from Cuba was a big deal. So, it always made sense to me to keep exploring and investigating and just try to check out what is out there. It is basically a journey that is still going on. It eventually got me to New York after I had done the pop scene in Miami, the Miami Sound Machine, the Julio Iglesias, and that kind of stuff. Knowing then, I planned to find myself as a composer and go into the multicultural aspects of putting things together. That was what I was longing for... how to connect people with different cultural talents and not shun them out because it is not jazz or not rock. Jazz is a real tool for that. And blues... I have connected from Hank Williams to you name it. It is just music. It's all music. The similarities are amazing and the differences are even more amazing (laughter). You know, I've worked with John Zorn and others and have been able to explore. I wasn't aware of it, but I was in a passageway to making music that some how connected to people and that have lead to new project debuting at the Lincoln Center.
DH - I wanted to ask about John Zorn, as I am a bit of a fan. Was the experience of working with him enjoyable for you?
RR - It was a really amazing experience. We remain friends for life. I learn from him along the journey. There are challenges on the way, but we've grown up since I've first met him. You get great ideas from him and people that are original. You create a chain letter with the people you work with link by link...
DH - And he is as versatile as they come.
RR - Exactly. It's a beam of light that is not easy to find. You do it yourself as best you can with other people. A very positive experience.
DH - Speaking of versatile, describe the band you will bringing here to Washington DC. Do they have backgrounds in Jewish music, Cuban music, Jazz, Everything?
RR - Well once you are in New York, it is pretty much everything (laughter). The bass player was with Tito Puente in the last seven years of his life. He's an amazing bassist and his uncle is Minnie Minoso, the baseball player.
DH - Oh really!
RR - Yes. My accordion-pianist is an incredible musician, Uri Sharlin, from Israel. This guy can play ANYTHING...so diversity is definitely in this band. (I have) a young clarinet player from Argentina (bringing) a warm tone... M. Kuta (?)...on violin, Japanese-American--she's Japanese and an incredible musician and I introduced her to the whole Jewish thing in New York. I have a young flute player who is an incredible player, myself, and Igor Arias, a conga player, singer from Cuba, an incredible musician. And with everybody, I call it all-World music, you know?
DH - Right.
RR - So there's plenty of Cuban-Jewish music... You know it is something that I never thought about, I never said I was going to do this or do that. John Zorn said to me...'you have a Jewish record for me.' (I thought) what is this guy talking about? I said, 'oh, I put the pieces together' and that was it. So it's been a journey, David, and continues to be a journey. Now John (Zorn) asked me to do a private record for him, like the Book of Angels. So I'll do that, then I've got a whole other thing, too.
DH - Yes, that was my next question on the upcoming projects you have next. Sounds like you have multiple projects going on?
RR - Yeah, I do have multiple projects going on, but in this sort of vein, I have new orchestra called Orchestra Faravia, that I named after my grandfather. It is basically a group of artists that have come from different places and all live in Brooklyn now. They will be debuting this month and is another New York project that has come together. Just more of that dynamic talent that is here, and I just wrote some music and am covering other music and I'm just trying to shoot the arrow... It's tricky, with even some of the Cuban players, eventually they go 'wow, this music is pretty cool, this Jewish music thing'. Everything is pretty cool if you put your head to it and you really work hard and do it. You come up with something. This new group has Arabic musicians, Cuban musicians, Jewish musicians, Greek and we all play with each other in different bands. That is the approach I am on now with projects on a multicultural level. Most of my projects involve that, like one with my wife as well. I enjoy playing all over the world with this.
DH - The versatility is amazing. Fortunately for me growing up as a rocker, I saw Tito Puente about 25 years ago and I didn't even know he was and it was like 'whoa!', he really opened my eyes. And then there is the Klezmatics, a Jewish band that plays a lot of diverse integration of things.
RR - Yeah, and like everybody rocks in their own way.
DH - Yes.
RR - It is great what you are saying, trust me, I have dissected every John Bonham beat because there was a love for the music and this guy learned from the Blues.
DH - That's right.
RR - And it all connected. It is all there, I guess I am just privileged to listen and study such music, and lately it is Arabic music which is amazing with quarter tones and the fluidity to it. So I am applying that to future projects.
DH - Ah, that's good. I know some rock drummers that have done some serious studying of Arabic music.
RR - That's the idea. It is really an amazing thing that we have to keep going.
DH - Great. Well I look forward to seeing your show. I was always try to encourage people to branch out more and I think it is great with what you are doing by combining different things and exposing audiences to different music.
RR - You know David, about ten years ago Joe Jackson asked me to play with him. He's a really incredible talent and he's got this thing for Latin music and it's passion. That's it, you have got to have passion and you can do so much. It is incredible. He was so kind, talented and open, generous... And that opened my mind in the last ten days that this is all possible, you can put it together. Others may put it out in a plastic bottle, and you go to the river and it's there. It has been a blessing to have this incredible spectrum of music.
DH - And it is our blessing, too. Thank-you for your time.