Sababa plays contemporary Jewish music, but it would be a mistake to think that the band’s music only touches young people, says Scott Leader, who co-founded the musical trio with Robbi Sherwin and Steve Brodsky.
“We had this gig in Naples, Fla.,” he says, “and there was nobody there under 75 years old.” He admits he expected that a rock group and the older crowd wouldn’t mix.
“Instead, it wound up being one of the best shows we ever did. They loved it — and everybody had a granddaughter that they wanted me to meet, too.”
Leader, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who has been the music director at Temple Gan Elohim in Phoenix for nearly a decade, is also a major light in Jewish rock — writing, performing and recording his own music, as well as producing recordings for other artists.
Sababa will perform on January 25–27 at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle and Bellevue.
Sababa’s latest recording is called “Shalosh.” That’s the Hebrew word for three, and it seems that threes are wild right now for Sababa — whose three players who live in three time zones recently released their third album — hence the title.
Sherwin and Brodsky have Jewish rock credentials just as strong as Leader’s.
Sherwin, a cantor, hails from Austin, Texas, one of the capitals of American music, has sung on a host of albums and has two solo albums to her credit: “Todah LaChem” (“Thanks, Y’all”) and “Aish HaKodesh” (“The Holy Fire”).
Brodsky, who lives in Denver, was a founding member of the band Mah Tovu and is director of new media and special projects for URJ Books and Music, the Union for Reform Judaism’s publishing house.
“We got together in 2005 and it’s been a great ride,” Leader says of the group. “Individually, the three of us were heavily involved in Jewish music.”
They traveled in the same circles, doing performances at Jewish events such as CAJE (Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education) gatherings and the Union for Reform Judaism biennials, and they all had a background in Jewish summer camps and as NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) song leaders.
“We were going out of our way to perform with one another,” Leader says. “So we decided one day: ‘Why don’t we get together and be a band?’ ...
“We all write and play instruments, and we really believed that when we came together we had a great synergy.”
That was borne out by what he calls “a killer first album” (“Pray for the Peace,” 2007).
“It did really well, and we started traveling all across the country.”
“It’s All Good,” the band’s second album, was released in 2010, continuing Sababa’s journey.
Since radio play is negligible, it’s the traveling and performing — mostly to do synagogue gigs — that builds their audience.
“It’s at the live performances that people hear about us,” he says. “We’ll be at a temple in some city and somebody who was at the show will come up afterward and say, ‘I’d love to have you come to our temple.’ “
In case you’re wondering, Sababa’s music is not rock ala the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen. The group’s sound is driven by vocal harmonies. On the band’s recordings, you’re just as likely to find a vocal backed by a quiet piano or acoustic guitars and mandolin as you are to find full-on rock arrangements using such staples as electric guitars, saxophones and drums.
The songs’ styles range from reggae (check out their “Hinei Mah Tov” from “It’s All Good”) to calypso (“One Little, Two Little” from “Pray for the Peace”) to harmony-drenched folk-rock (“Am Yisrael Chai,” the sprightly track that leads off “Shalosh”).
“If you would have told 19-year-old Scott that I’d make a living playing Jewish music when I grew up, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Leader says. His vision of a music career was definitely in rock-star mode but there came a day when he realized, “I wasn’t going to be the next Billy Joel.”
He’d been playing Jewish music since his teens and a light bulb turned on for him at a Jewish music gig with Sam Glazer and Noah Budin.
“I realized while I was on stage with these guys, ‘I like being Jewish, why not do this Jewish music thing?’ “
That decision represented “a sort of practical approach,” he says.
“As an artist, what do I want from people? I want them to listen to music I created and have it mean something to them,” Leader says. Unlike the audiences for secular music at a club, for instance, Jewish music audiences “inherently listen. They tell themselves, ‘I want to hear what this guy has to say.’ That began to speak to me.”
The whole point is to connect with people who aren’t reached by traditional Jewish services and music, he says.
“The beauty of Jewish music is that everybody sort of connects to it in their own way.”