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Moment to Strike Was Right For Musician's Klezmer Band

November 06, 1987|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — When San Diego Symphony musicians went on strike last season, Ron Robboy suddenly found himself without a job.

So the cellist decided that was as good a time as any to assemble a Jewish klezmer band similar to the one he had founded eight years earlier and had kept going until 1984, when it became clear to him that "the chemistry in the band was no longer what it once had been."

Like the original Big Jewish Band, which performed regularly at San Diego area coffeehouses, synagogues and Jewish community centers, Robboy's Jewish Orchestra is a modernized version of the traditional klezmer bands of Eastern Europe that played dance music at Yiddish weddings and festivals.

"People think of klezmer music as a centuries-old tradition, but it didn't actually acquire the sound we know today until the 1820s, when Jews serving in the Russian army started bringing back trumpets and clarinets," said Robboy, whose current band's next appearance is Saturday at the Old Time Cafe in Encinitas.

"Before that, the only instruments used were the violin, the flute, the cello, the bass, and, most importantly, the tsimbal, which is similar to the hammer dulcimer," he said.

"And klezmer's peak wasn't until the early part of the 20th Century, a period that abruptly ended with World War II, when the Jewish communities of Europe were all but wiped out."

Robboy, 37, said his main purpose in forming both the Big Jewish Band and Robboy's Jewish Orchestra was to introduce San Diego audiences "to my own musical heritage."

But with the addition of two singers, Deborah Davis and Phil Shopoff, to a seven-piece instrumental core, he said, the new, improved model is a lot more vocally oriented than the first.

As a result, Robboy's Jewish Orchestra is also able to introduce local audiences to another side of its creator's musical heritage: the songs of the Yiddish theatrical and vaudeville scene that thrived on New York's Lower East Side during the 1920s and '30s.

"In the early years of this century, every ethnic group that emigrated from Europe to the United States, particularly to New York City, developed its own cultural scene," Robboy said.

"And the body of work produced in the inner-city Yiddish communities includes a particularly vibrant range of material, from musical revues and operettas to serious dramas and operas.

"For a long time, this music was basically disregarded by serious musicians and Jewish high-art purists. But now, people are finally starting to realize the meaning it had in Yiddish-American culture, and what it still has to offer today."

Robboy's Jewish Orchestra intersperses songs from that era with Eastern European klezmer instrumentals. Among the songs are "Papirosn," a teary ballad about an orphan peddling cigarettes "on the street, in the rain," Robboy said, and "Bei Mir Bist du Schon," a No. 1 hit for the Andrews Sisters in 1938.

"That song was originally written, in Yiddish, by two Jewish songwriters for a Brooklyn musical at the height of the Great Depression," Robboy said. "After printing an initial sheet-music run of maybe 10,000 copies, they sold the rights for just $30 to Sammy Cahn.

"Cahn wrote English lyrics for the song and got the Andrews Sisters to record it. And when they released it in 1938, it went straight to No. 1. Their hit was a swing version; the original version, which is the version we play, is this kind of maudlin Yiddish theater song."

In the nearly three years between the break-up of Robboy's first klezmer band and the formation of his new one, he said, he has spent a fair amount of time studying Jewish history and culture.

"And while the superficial reason for starting up a klezmer band again was that I was out of work, the real reason was that I seemed to be surrounding myself with Yiddish music no matter what," Robboy said.

"In my spare time, if I wasn't playing it, I was listening to it, and if I wasn't listening to it, I was reading about it. Somehow, it's the impulse for making music in me.

"So when the symphony went on strike, I just felt the moment was right. The musicians I wanted to work with were ready, I made contact with two new singers, and it all sort of clicked."

Robboy will be performing with the rejuvenated San Diego Symphony, which makes its debut next week, and he has been playing cello with the San Diego Opera Orchestra.

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