Sexteto Rodriguez -Timba Talmud, May 2009
Painting by Javier Gonzalez Gallosa

Roberto Juan Rodriguez is a bona fide innovator, that rare musician whose creative vision synthesizes Cuban music and Jewish music into an entirely new music that breathes joy and melancholy with tremendous emotional clarity. Rodriguez speaks of his inspiration and artistic intent: “I envision this band being in Cuba in the 1930s and ‘40s. It’s like a dream band I dreamt up and put together in New York City. It’s an imaginative world that I put together to do music. It came to me because of different aspects of my life: I had a beautiful childhood [in Cuba] but there was this fear because I didn’t know what was going on [due to Castro’s repressive communist state]. I escaped that. Then I would think of Jewish culture and what happened there and my mind was moving and trying to put in this band a [quality] where you could dance and forget [the bad]. There’s always the tear factor in the music, but you can lose yourself. It’s a relief when you dance and let yourself go, when everything’s okay.”

Before leaving Cuba for Miami with his family at age 9, joining millions of others in flight, Rodriguez studied violin, piano, and trumpet at music schools in Havana, while also learning to play drums and trumpet under the approving eye of his musician father. At this time, he encountered Jewish Holocaust survivors who had re-settled in Miami, many from Eastern Europe and Cuban Jews from the island. Barely in his teens, Rodriguez started drumming professionally in his father’s ensembles in Miami. For the next decade or so, he immersed himself in the culture of Miami’s large Jewish population—exiles of the diaspora—drumming at a small Yiddish theatre company and bar mitzvas. Rodriguez, who majored in jazz and studio music at the University of Miami, took keen notice of how Jewish immigrants were fascinated with the
guijara, danzon and related types of Cuban music brought to south Florida by his father and others in his wandering tribe. He learned that a number of leading Latin pianists and trumpeters of the ‘60s and ‘70s had been Jewish. Rodriquez’s bond with those of the Jewish faith was solidified.

Moving to jazz headquarters, New York, Rodriguez soon established himself as a first-call drummer. Jazz and pop notables with whom he has worked include: Ruben Blades, Lester Bowie, T-Bone Burnett, Randy Brecker, Paquito D’Rivera, Julio Iglesias, the Miami Sound Machine, Joe Jackson, Dave Liebman, Paul Simon, Lloyd Cole and Phoebe Snow. His deep interest in Jewish music was sparked by an ongoing klezmer renaissance that started in the mid-’80 and by composer-alto saxophonist John Zorn’s series of Radical Jewish Culture recordings on the Tzadik label, and, thirdly, by playing drums in Jewish guitarist Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos band.

When Zorn asked if he would like to record an album of Jewish music for Tzadik, Rodriguez jumped at the opportunity. Drawing on his experiences in Miami and NYC bands, he began composing for the first time in his life. Soon enough, he enlisted the help of musicians like clarinetist David Krakauer and entered the recording studio.
El Danzon de Moises (The Dance of Moses)—overflowing with fresh, remarkable Judeo-Cuban music — appeared in 2002 to critical raves from DownBeat, the Village Voice and many other publications. The formation of Septeto Rodriguez and a new album followed.