Bright melodies and danceable rhythms feel good in any language.
That’s a message DeLeon thrives upon with its new album “Casata,” out June 14 on JDub Records. The CD has 11 tracks that flow with the warmth and fun that only comes from the early days of summer.
“Casata” would be the perfect soundtrack to any summer night party, but the album might hold more significance for a party of Jews. The band was named after 12th century Kabalistic philosopher Moses deLeon and the great-grandfather of front man Daniel Saks, Giorgio deLeon. With the band, Saks sets out to bring together centuries-old Spanish Sephardic music with modern rock ’n’ roll influences.
Sure, that set up may sound forced at first, but the music of “Casata” couldn’t sound less so — DeLeon’s fast, catchy dance music flows out freely, sung in Ladino, Hebrew and English, no less.
“Casata” opens with “High is the Moon,” a light, floating rock song that wouldn’t feel out of place on an FM radio station playing Top 40 hits, right alongside any Jason Mraz song. The track’s melody was based on a Greek Sephardic folk song.
From there, DeLeon flexes its musically multicultural muscles even more. “More Than Wine,” with a great chorus (“Nothing makes the world cry, more than wine,” lifted from a Judeo-Turkish proverb) and start-stop Spanish beat, calls for holding someone close on the dance floor.
“Chichi Bunichi” slows down that dance and tosses in some beautiful harmonies and a horn section for a bittersweet and beautiful result; suprising, considering the song is adapted from an old Sarajevo nursery rhyme. “Nimrod” adapts what sounds like a niggun into a stomping refrain.
DeLeon’s secret weapon is Amy Crawford’s sultry voice, which takes the lead from Saks on “Yo M’enamori.” It’s a steamy, horn-laden track with Crawford’s vocals twisting the song into a perfect paean to humid summer nights. Saks described the song as “one of Sephardic music’s greatest hits, and one I’ve wanted to record for a while.”
Saks has said that the band named the album “Casata” partly because making this music feels like home. It might seem hard to believe Saks felt so comfortable taking cues from pre-Inquisition Spanish music — not exactly the music of his father, or even his great-great grandfather — but “Casata” isn’t some obscure musical relic. It sounds like now, winking at the past as it makes audiences move.
Checking in with DeLeon’s Daniel Saks
Chronicle: You’ve toured with some incredible party-starting bands. What have you gained from sharing a stage with an act like Gogol Bordello or Balkan Beat Box?
Saks: By now it’s a live music cliché, but there really is a give and take between crowd and band, and when the crowd comes willing to react physically and emotionally to your music, you end up leaving more of yourself on stage. We put on some of our best shows on those tours because those were some of the best crowds we’ve had the pleasure of playing in front of.
JC: Your music uses Ladino, Hebrew and English. Do you think that can alienate non-Jewish listeners? Is that an issue at all?
DS: I’m pretty sure the risk is the same for alienating Jews and non-Jews alike when you sing in Ladino — or Hebrew for that matter — if the concern is the listener not being a native speaker. But luckily there are enough people who respond to music more viscerally at first and then dig deeper intellectually once the rhythms and melodies have caught their fancy.
JC: How has being a Jew focused your outlook on making music?
DS: Being a Jew certainly played a role in my exposure and interest in Sephardic music. It’s hard to imagine going down this road as a Catholic.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)