In conversation with benjamin lapidus

By Tomas Peña

The fusion of musical cultures stands out as one of the leading themes in the jazz world during the new millennium, yet few artists have been as ambitious as Benjamin Lapidus in bringing together diverse soundscapes. His music spans the heritage of five continents, although he is especially skilled at bringing together the currents of Latin and Jewish song under the driving influence of jazz. On his new project Herencia Judia, Lapidus combines Afro-Caribbean currents with Jewish liturgical traditions in a unique and invigorating hybrid.’s Tomas Peña recently sat down with Lapdius for a fascinating conversation, which he shares with us below.

                  Benjamin Lapidus (photo by Robert Cadena)

Benjamin Lapidus was born in 1972 to first-generation American Jewish Brooklynites. He was exposed to music by his grandmother and father, who played in Latin and jazz bands in the Catskills in the 1950's. During the 1980s Lapidus became immersed in Latin music, when he moved to a predominantly Latin neighborhood in New York City. Deciding he needed a complete musical education, Lapidus earned two degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Oberlin College, becoming one of the program's first jazz guitar graduates.

In 1994, Lapidus started to play the Puerto Rican cuatro and Cuban tres. After leading his own quartet at festivals and clubs throughout Europe and winning a grant to study briefly with Steve Lacy in Paris, he returned to the U.S. At the same time he began performing with Larry Harlow, Alex Torres, and other Latin music luminaries in New York and Puerto Rico. Lapidus earned a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2002. He has taught popular music of the Caribbean, Latin music in New York, and world music at Queens College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he is currently an assistant professor of music. For the last 13 years, Lapidus has performed and recorded tres and guitar on film soundtracks, video games, television commercials, and albums with notable musicians.

You were born and raised in Brooklyn, correct?

No, I feel like I was born in Brooklyn, but I was born in Hershey, Pennsylvania. My family moved around a lot. We returned to Brooklyn for about six months when I was fourteen. Six months later we moved to Manhattan, a few blocks away from Mario Rivera’s house.

How old were you when you took your first music lesson?

My grandmother played the piano, my father played the piano and my sister played the piano and cello. I was exposed to a lot of music, my father would play, my grandfather would sing. There were a lot of records in the house …

I started on the piano when I was six but I wasn’t into it … I played a number of instruments before I settled on the guitar when I was eight.

How did you come upon the tres?

I came upon the tres when I was in college. I had seen the cuatro and the tres and I thought to myself, “this is something I should do.” My first tres was actually a guitar that was given to me by Mario Rivera. It was sitting in his living room and it wasn’t being used so I turned it into a tres.

When was that?

Fifteen or sixteen years ago. I don’t remember the exact date.

In “guitar” years that’s not a long time.

Thanks, but I still have a long way to go.

I understand you had the privilege of sitting in with the late, Israel Lopez “Cachao” the last time he performed in New York. That must have been quite a thrill.

I went to the last run at the Blue Note and sat in with Cachao’s band and he allowed me to take a pretty long solo. Cachao’s thing is to push the music and he played all kinds of different stuff behind me. It’s one thing to hear his recordings and quite another to be on stage with Cachao and experience the method behind the music. You really get to see, hear and feel what he is thinking. I compare the experience to playing bebop with Charlie Parker or being at a rumba with Chano Pozo.

Tell me about the connections you made between Afro-Caribbean music and Jewish liturgical music on Herencia Judia.

To be honest there really is not a huge connection. For the past number of years I have been a scholar in residence with the Jewish Museum of New York, which sponsors humanitarian and religious missions to Cuba. Through the Jewish museum I have connected with distant relatives in there. I have visited different synagogues throughout the world and in the Caribbean. There is no such thing as walking into as service and seeing bata drums, congas or bongos …

So the “connections” were your conception …

Basically, I took the songs from Jewish prayers, mixed them with secular music and tried to make the connections that made the most sense to me. I figured if it made sense to me it would make sense to others as well. I wanted to do this project fifteen years ago but I didn’t have the experience to pull it off.

Nevertheless you participated in Jewish themed projects in the past: La Mar Enfortuna’s Conviviencia, Robert Juan Rodriguez and Maurice Ell Medioni’s Descarga Oriental.

Yeah, it seems like a lot of people were doing this but they were doing it from a particular perspective. So I figured I would take it from another perspective, the one that I know. I don’t know if I would put it that way. Let’s just say this was the right time to do it.

You have alluded to your Jewish heritage in past recordings …

In the past five Sonido Isleño records I definitely tried to put at least one thing on there.

So you have been heading in this direction for quite some time.

It was there and I felt that this was the time to do it. I can’t honestly say that I am going to turn out record after record like this …

What I meant was, a project of this nature was inevitable. The idea was obviously percolating in your brain long before you went into the studio.

Sure, sure. I have been walking around singing these songs for fifteen years!

How long did it take to complete the project?

I mapped everything out before we went into the studio. The entire process – recording, mixing and mastering – took about two weeks.

You obviously handpicked the supporting cast. Was there a prerequisite?

I picked musicians that have a deep understanding of folkloric music. I have worked Jorge Bringas, Jeremy Brown, Antonio de Vivo, Cantor Roman Diaz, Samuel Levine, Onel Mulet, Oscar Onoz and Andy Statman in one capacity or another over the years.

Are you planning to expand on the material in the future?

Yes, I would like to. But I have to figure out how that is going to happen. I would like to see the project performing. We have our first performance on Saturday at the Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. [Interviewer’s note: Ben Lapidus and crew debuted Herencia Judia to a sold-out house. By all accounts the event was a huge success.]

Herencia Judia fuses Jewish liturgical music with the rhythms of Puerto Rico and Cuba in a very intimate and soulful way.

This is the first time that the two genres have been brought together in this way. That said, the fusions are not seamless but I tried to create it in such a way that the genres do not detract from one another. The idea was to mate Jewish and Caribbean music as it is within me. These are the fabrics and threads that run through my life, from my immediate family to my daily existence. This is who I am and this is what I do. I felt comfortable with the idea of making a statement.

I call my kids Newjewricans as a way of reminding them that this is their legacy too. Anytime a person operates in many different worlds they have to find a way to reconcile those differences. Herencia Judia is my way of reconciling those differences joyfully.

The repertoire covers a wide spectrum, from festive tunes to somber, deeply religious material.

“Ein Kelokeinu” is pretty light. It’s a Puerto Rican bomba, a concluding prayer. I sing the lyrics in Jibaro and Ladino, which is Judeo Spanish. “Herencia Judia” is kind of a light tune. It’s a Cuban son … if you know both cultures well you will understand all of the references, sometimes I will sing something in Hebrew then switch to Spanish and say something humorous. It’s kind of an insider’s thing. “Comparsa de Simchat Torah” is a spiritual song. It talks about the Torah being the tree of life. It’s not serious but it has a more serious, somber tone. “Aleinu L’ Shabeach” is spiritual song but it is pretty light. It’s a concluding prayer but we lighten it up at towards the end by interpreting fragments of other prayers.

It’s done in the old rumba style of yambu

“Los Cuatro Preguntas” and “Los Cuatros Hijos” (featuring the voice of Cantor, Roman Diaz) recites two parts of the Passover haggadah that are meant to maintain children’s interest. "Dayenu" is a very long song that you sing during Passover where you recount the things that God did to take the Jews out of Egypt. About eight years ago I was asked to play this music for a concert and that’s where I first debuted this tune as a (Puerto Rican) plena. Plena is all about trabalenguas (tongue twisters) so it goes hand-in hand.

“Limpieza Judia” – Well, you know limpieza has to do with cleansing and some kind of sacrifice so I thought it was really easy to make the connection between Santeria and Regla de Ocha. It’s pretty deep … (Laughter) “Son de Hanukah” – On the lighter side, it’s an instrumental arrangement for three children’s songs and the only tune that showcases the group’s chops. You get to hear a good bongo solo, tres solo, conga solo.

“Ma Nishtana” is part of the reading for Passover. It called out for a changui from Guantanamo, Cuba.

You wrote a thesis on Changui, correct?

Yes. I also wrote a book about Changui and the history and culture of Eastern Cuba. Everybody writes about rumba and Santeria but Eastern Cuba is where the roots of the music are.

What’s the name of the book and when will it be available?

Changui and the Roots of Cuban Son and Guantanamo. It should be out in August.

You don’t hear much Changui these days …

It’s so swinging. The first time I heard it live in a concert I couldn’t believe it. Talk about spiritual, the groove is so deep. And when somebody throws a microphone in the marimbula (bass) and it vibrates, it’s so swinging. The repetition of the montuno and the syncopation … the first time you hear it, it’s like, holy cow!

Let’s get back to the music … “Na’nu’im”?

“Na’nu’im” is for the holiday of sokkot, where we build these little bohios (huts) in front of our house, to commemorate the years in Egypt.

Are we talking about a life-sized bohio?

Yeah, but you are not allowed to sleep in it. In Herencia Judia one of the soneo’s (improvisations) kind of makes a joke about not sleeping inside the bohio.

“Tzadik Katamar”?

It’s an old 19th century prayer that you hear very often. It made good sense to do it as a danzon.

“Comparsa de Simchat Torah” – Most of holidays are in the Spring and Fall. It’s when you finish reading the Torah in its entirety. You dance around and sing these songs … it reminded me of a comparsa (carnival).

Tell me about the phone call you received in response to “Kaddish for Daniel.” The song is about journalist Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

Thanks to an amazing piece that journalist Ed Morales wrote, I am in touch with the Pearl family. I wrote the piece for myself, as a way of coping with the tragedy of his death. I riff on a lot of things. The inspiraciones ask questions and talk about how there was something saint-like about his death.

What’s your take on other recordings that have attempted to fuse Jewish music with other genres?

It’s really tough when you do this kind of thing. It’s the same thing with Latin jazz. As soon as you get away from the traditional commercially accepted notion of what Latin jazz is and you start tinkering with other types of rhythms everyone is going to have an opinion about it. You have to know the styles you are working with really well. It’s not sufficient to know Jewish music and add a rhythm section. Nor is it sufficient to know Cuban music and add Hebrew lyrics. You really have to know what the conventions are … If you don’t, you had better ask somebody who does. Someone who can really lay it on you, but then it’s not your record! It’s a tricky business. I don’t dismiss stuff but a musician can hear when you add layers of awareness. You have to be careful if you want to be faithful to the tradition and be innovative at the same time. You have to know it.

You teach at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice …

I teach at John Jay in the department of Art, Music and Philosophy. I teach sections of popular music of the Caribbean and I teach World Music. Most of my students tend to be Caribbean and I cover music, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad and the Indo-Caribbean and of course, how it all relates back to New York City. I am really, really interested in the topic. For me it’s a joy to teach. I like opening up the student’s ears … if a student comes in and loves merengue or reggaeton I love saying, “hey, check this out.” You also learn from the students, it’s not a one- way street. You would be surprised. I have had Hector Casanova’s granddaughter, Yomo Toro’s grand kids and Bobby Sanabria’s cousin in my classes, so I have to watch what I say!

What’s up with Sonido Isleño? Is the band still together?

Oh yeah, we have a couple of gigs coming up. I am not leaving … I just wanted to try something else and everybody has been kind of busy. That band is where I first began to experiment and those guys are really near and dear to me. We are going to keep playing. We talk to each other a lot.

I just wanted to get involved with other things and I really like playing for other people and working in different musical situations.

You recently collaborated with Kaori Fujii, a Japanese flute player …

That would be Garota de Ipanema. I wrote all the charts for that and I was really pleased with the way it turned out. I am going back to Japan in August …

You are one busy guy.

I try.

Before we close, I would like to quote Bobby Sanabria, who described your music in this way: “This is not a novelty presentation but a unique project that demonstrates the universality of cultures and how they can, and have been blended, in a seamless way creating a new culture.” Thanks Ben, it has been a pleasure speaking with you.

Thank you Tomas.

Selected Discography:
Sonido Isleno – Vive Jazz (Tresero Productions, 2005)
Sonido Isleno – Tres is the Place (Import, 2002)
Garota de Ipanema (with Kaorii Fuji) – (2007)


April 18, 2008 · 2 comments

  • 1 NorCalTopaz // Dec 14, 2008 at 11:09 PM
    What a wonderful article! I'm finishing research for a college paper on the Puerto Rican contribution to Jazz (and vice-versa) and happened upon this article. How amazing that Lapidus is blending two seemingly disparate music streams to create something unique.
  • 2 Eddie // Jun 04, 2009 at 09:03 PM
    Hi, This is a great article on BENJAMIN LAPIDUS. I do have a question, I live in Manalapan, NJ; are there any cuban tres instructors in New Jersey? If so, can you give me information on how to contact them for private lessons? Thank you, Eddie