A Tale of Two Imaginative Sephardic Bands

by delarue

Deleon and Jaffa Road are two good examples of the current crop of gypsy-flavored rock bands. Both sometimes get pigeonholed as Sephardic bands, but much as each is influenced by global Jewish sounds, each group’s sound is unique and incorporates a vast web of genres. Deleon’s Tremor Fantasma is the more consistently enjoyable of the two’s most recent albums; it’s streaming in its entirety here.

The opening cut is a bhangra groove with hypnotic vocal harmonies and keening steel guitar; later on, another track reminds of Indian-influenced British folk-rock from the 70s. One particularly killer cut here is the brooding Bie Sarika, with a luscious web of flanged banjos mingling with roaring slide guitar as it winds out. La Muerte Chiquita, a reggae tune with steel pans, has a similarly flamenco-inflected feel, followed by Los Bibilicos, another reggae cut that builds from spaghetti western ambience on the wings of a soaring brass arrangement.

Buena Semana kicks off by blending jangly soukous guitar, those steel pans again and hints of American country music and rises to a soaring, anthemic art-rock interlude. Lamma Bada works a haunting, slowly syncopated spaghetti western/Arabic psychedelic rock groove, while Ansi Dize la Novia takes a west African kora riff and makes bouncy Middle Eastern stoner rock out of it. With its echoey vibraphone and searing guitar leads, Para Que Quiero takes a French ye-ye pop theme and builds it into psychedelic reggae-rock..

Barrinam coyly finds the missing link between Mexican banda music and bluegrass. The album ends with A la Nana, an absolutely creepy, stately minor key banjo waltz and then a brave attempt to turn a Turkish folk tune into chicha.

Jaffa Road’s new Where the Light Gets In is just as diverse and should be just as good but isn’t. How come? The band are all excellent musicians, they draw eclectically and imaginatively from styles around the globe, they write interesting, counterintuive songs and they sound like they’d be a lot of fun to see live. What could possibly be wrong with this picture? Schlocky production. The stench of stale cheese pervades this album. Case in point: a pensive Aaron Lightstone oud solo can’t just be left alone as it it is, it has to have a useless synthesizer track grafted to it. Alto saxophonist Sundar Viswanathan, who adds an welcome unpredictable edge throughout the album, leads the band into the one interlude that they could take into genuine jazz territory…and suddenly a computerized drum track stomps the life out of it.

Cheesy canned beats, dated trip-hop cliches and halfhearted rap and corporate-rock tropes pop up like ads in your favorite video: they’re annoying to the point where you reach for the mute, or simply click off. Which is too bad, because at the top of their game this band is every bit as good as Deleon. Groups like this you root for, you want them to succeed, especially when they can come up with a track like the haunting rai-rock of The Mist of Your Eyes, or the lusciously swirling psychedelic Bollywood vamp Hamidbar Medaber. It’s frustrating when they don’t, especially since that may not be their fault – a manager or producer may be to blame. Memo to musicians: corporate pop is dead and has been for decades. Nobody over the age of eight wants to hear it, or anything associated with it. Nobody listens to corporate radio either, except for sports or the weather. We’re in a new century now. Get with the program.