When I got to Israel, I played a lot of weddings as a guitarist/sideman, particularly in Jerusalem. Often the material consisted of Reb Shlomo Carlebach's songs and that's how I learned many of them. He wrote something like 2000 songs, many of which are so popular and common in Jewish culture, people think they are traditional, folk songs. One of the most popular that I played was "Adir Hu." It's from the Jewish holiday of "Pesach" or Passover, the holiday that occurs at this time of year.
I love the scale and I love the groove. Naturally, when it came time to record the new RebbeSoul album, which was to consist entirely of the material of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, his "Adir Hu" was high on my list. Even though, I had played it often, recording it was anything but routine and expected. Here's what happened.
I was recording at the studio of Dan Gil, the Gearer Rebbe in Sharon, MA. Dan is called the Gearer Rebbe because he knows a lot about musical gear and is obsessed with it. He had just acquired some new equipment and instruments and one of them was a Turkish saz, sometimes called a baglama. I was at the studio for a few days and Dan kept telling me about the saz and how I should play it on the new album. "I don't know how to play saz. I don't even know the tuning," I replied. That didn't matter, he didn't stop trying to convince me to play it. At one point, he was setting up 4 mics in an elaborate configuration for something I was about to play and of course while doing so, he carried on about the saz. I finally conceded. "Okay, since you're busy doing this and I'm waiting, why don't you get me the saz and I'll see if I can do something with it?" As soon as he handed it to me, I strummed it once and knew it would be perfect for something. The Gearer Rebbe had quite an insight.
A Turkish saz
"Adir Hu" was exotic sounding to begin with, incorporating the fragish (Yiddish) or hijaz (Arabic) scale so that seemed like the right tune to choose for the saz. I used some of the strings as drones and whether or not that's part of the method of playing or not, it sounded good. So I stayed in the performance room for 3 hours figuring out how to play it and we got it all. I even laid down a 2nd track and the 2 sounded really good together. I was astonished at how well it came out and grateful that the wise Gearer Rebbe, Dan was so persistent.
I went back to Israel and was listening to the tracks. Although they stood well on their own, I wanted to add a few more things. I was just having too much fun with the song and didn't want it to end. I had made a stop in San Francisco on the tour before returning to Israel and went to one of my favorite music stores, Clarion Music, named after little Clara Hsu who is now a fully grown woman, by her loving father who founded the store. It's a wonderful place in San Francisco's Chinatown to explore non-Western instruments. I first discovered it in the mid-90s, with our percussionist in RebbeSoul, Cassio Duarte and both of us were like kids in a candy store. We were in San Francisco to play Great American Music Hall and Cassio heard about this store so we went there and didn't leave for a few hours. I got a dolak from Pakistan and used shortly afterward on "A Narrow Bridge" or "Kol Ha Olam Kulo" in Hebrew, on my Fringe of Blue album.
This time, in 2009, I was in Clarion music with my brother, Scott and his son Steven. We were having fun being tourists in Chinatown and this was one of our stops. I left with a jaw harp and some hand percussion from Viet Nam and China. When it came time to record the additional material for the song. I was tracking on my mobile recording studio in Israel and pulled out these new toys of mine and rolled a few tracks. I added some finger cymbals which I often use. You can hear them all over my recordings. Between the finger cymbals and the newly acquired Asian percussion, the top end was pretty well covered. The only thing missing was a deep sounding drum for the bottom end. All the drums I had to fit the bill were in the United States and I wasn't there at the moment. It was so hot in Israel, I was drinking bottles of water constantly and just polished one off. I gave it a bang and it sounded pretty good so I played "four on the floor" on the water bottle and that's what you'll hear on the track. It comes in toward the end and sounds like a big drum.
I had so much fun with this tune, I decided to do another take on it and record it again, only more techno or electronic as opposed to this version which was entirely organic, with all real instruments.
I jumped on the computer and came up with a short programmed drum part or a loop, as they are fashionably called. I added some synth sounds and created a nice bed for the new lead instruments. But what would they be? I took out my nylon string and it sounded divine, so soothing. I recorded it and didn't want to stop because I was having so much fun with the tune. I spotted my balalaika, sitting in the corner, being ignored so I picked it up and played a track of balalaika which sounded really nice too, totally different, but really nice. I liked them both and decided to use them, the balalaika at the beginning and the nylon string afterwards.
Me and my balalaika in NY; photo by Melissa Stonehill
I wanted an intense, groove-oriented bass part so I called up one of my very favorite bassists, Moran Baron who happens to live on a kibbutz just minutes away from me and he came over slammed a killer bass part. Moran has lots of ideas and usually lays them all down. Then it becomes an editing exercise to decide what to keep and what to discard. One must be brutally disciplined to discard anything he plays because it's always so musical. I loved what he played so much that I lengthened the song by a few minutes with a long ride-out at the end just to accommodate his many ideas. If you listen to the bass on the song, you can hear a variety of different ideas, all working well but all a little different from each other, especially at the end where he play 1/16 note harmonics. The long ride-out also allowed me to indulge myself, playing another one of my new toys, the jaw harp I got in San Francisco.
I called this track, "Adir Hu Revisited" and it's at the end of the album, just before the radio mixes. I liked the way it finished off the album, providing a long, late-night, college dorm kind of mood.
You can listen to "Adir Hu Revisited" on SoundCloud
RebbeSoul - singer, song writer, musician, recording artist, guest blogger:
At first glance, you would not label him as a Rabbi or a Rebbe. In fact, not even at a second glance, but RebbeSoul is a musical brand name who combines Jewish music with soul and jazz. Now he is coming out with a project renewing Carlebach nigunim (melodies) as instrumental pieces, unique from the more prevalent, Carlebach style and just as unique for the soul.
He made aliyah (moved to Israel) about 3 1/2 years ago and lives in Zichron Yaacov and, like many other Jewish, western, music creators, his heart lies in the east but his work originates far in the west. He was born in upstate New York and embarked on his musical career at the age of 22, when he moved to California. At age 12, he had a plastic guitar his parents rented for him "because they didn't believe that I would take the instrument seriously. I played at bars that I wasn't even allowed to enter because I was too young." he tells, "They just looked the other way, and let me play."
Like the classic Jewish mother, his own mother didn't see music as a worthy profession one can make a living at. With a degree in engineering and his guitar in hand, which he was much more attuned to, he traveled across the US to look for a his place. "I went out of my house in a snow storm and drove for 2 weeks until I finally got to sunny California, where I only had on a pair shorts and my guitar in the back of my car. I spent 3 months practicing about 10 hours a day, working on every style of music. I didn't care what it was."
(Excerpt taken from RebbeSoul's press page of his website, rebbesoul.com, where you can see his current touring schedule, or even order his amazing music - yes, that was a plug... and yes, I have several of his CD's).
He can also be found on YouTube, Facebook, and on ReverbNation, both as RebbeSoul, and with Shlomit Levi as Shlomit & The Rebbe.