Sacramento band strings together unusual klezmer sound

Andy Rubin may be the world’s only living toxicologist/klezmer banjo player. Split personality aside, these are good times for the Sacramento-based bandleader.

His Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band has just released a new album, “And I in the Uttermost West.” Add to that the renaissance in Yiddish culture, which they proudly represent in the Sacramento-Davis area, and things couldn’t be more freilach for the Freilachmakers.

(For the uninitiated, freilach is Yiddish for “joyous.”)

Anyone looking for cookie-cutter clarinet-centered klezmer music would be surprised by the Freilachmakers sound: a Jewish-Irish-Appalachian hybrid a hop, skip and a shpring from bluegrass. “We do something different,” says Rubin. “We kept the string band element in our music.”

The new album includes several traditional Eastern European shtetl tunes, some Yiddish songs of more recent coinage, a few original compositions and, in a first for the band, several songs in Ladino.

This expansion into Ladino was due in large part to the addition of Brazilian-born guitarist Felipe Ferraz. The only non-Jew in the lineup, Ferraz joins violinist Annette Brodovsky, bassist/cellist Lou Ann Weiss and Rubin. Everyone in the group sings.

The origins of the Freilachmakers sound goes back to Rubin’s early fascination with Celtic and American folk music, which he discovered while attending Berkeley High School.

Soon after, he picked up the banjo, got his hands on a Pete Seeger teach-yourself-banjo book and forged ahead, building a repertoire of American folk songs, union songs, fishing songs, cowboy songs and the like.

Says Rubin: “When I picked up the banjo and realized just how rooted the music was, I felt envious. Appalachian hardscrabble farmers of Scots-Irish descent had this music that meant a lot. It was part of their communal life.”

Little did the teenage Rubin realize that his own Jewish tradition offered an equally rich musical legacy: klezmer. It wasn’t until the 1990s that he found a way to marry his clawhammer banjo style with traditional klezmer. Thus the unique Freilachmakers’ style was born.

Klezmer not only brought Rubin closer to Yiddishkeit, but to Judaism as well. Today, the former Berkeley hippie is a devoutly observant Jew.

In his other life, Rubin has a doctorate in physiology/biophysics and works as a pesticide toxicologist for the state’s Environmental Protection Agency. “I figure out how to kill bugs,” he says.

He can also be found on any given Thursday afternoon, joining a few other musical pencil pushers from the state government and playing lunchtime concerts in the plaza.

Is he ever tempted to mainstream the Freilachmakers’ sound? Not a chance. “If we brought a clarinet into this group,” he says, “we would immediately be in a bin with 10,000 other klezmer bands. But if we keep this old-time string band face, then we’ve got all kinds of new ground to plow.”

Given the relatively small Jewish community in their part of the Central Valley, the Freilachmakers are looking to broaden their audience and hope to do more shows in the Bay Area in the months ahead. Meanwhile, it’s the wedding circuit and grabbing gigs where they can. But wherever they play, the freilach works both ways.

Says Rubin: “Playing the music and being among people who respond to it makes me realize what live music … can do for the Jewish communities we’re involved with. It crystallizes the emotions communities feel.”

“And I in the Uttermost West” by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band is available for $15 plus $2 shipping at www.freilachmakers.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.