Saturday, May 22, 2010

UPDATED Review: Sababa – “It’s All Good”

“It’s All Good” by Sababa

Note: This review is updated from the initial version posted on 5/21/2010.

The title of Sababa’s new CD, “It’s all good” says it all. Wrapped up in a neat little musical package are a baker’s dozen of new, original song and settings. what’s clear and evident in every cut on the CD is how much fun and enjoyment that the groups members-Steve Brodsky, Robbi Sherwin, and Scott Leader-must have had putting this CD together. Their enthusiasm for the songs and each other shines through. This is a collection of songs to which you’ll enjoy listening over and over.

The album’s title song, “It’s All Good” is a fun romp. At first listen, I half expected to hear another song by Steve’s former band, ", Ma Tovu, but the song quickly blossomed into a new sound representative of the unique sound that is Sababa.  One quibble, in that I wasn’t quite sure where the steel drum sound fit in to the mix. Nevertheless, it’s a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, sing along kind of song.

“Beauty of the World” hearkens to my cry to set less frequently heard pieces of text to music, in this case, the blessing upon seeing a thing of rare beauty. It’s a great setting of the text, and quite singable.

In “I Saw God” all three members contribute their understandings. It’s a wordy song, reminiscent of the old Tom Lehrer “Folk Song Army” line “and it don’t matter if you have to squeeze a couple of extra syllables into a line.” All three do their best to wrap their diction around the fast-paced words, while maintaining a sense of melody - Steve and Robbi just a bit more successfully than Scott, in this case. Don’t get me wrong-Scott has a great voice, it just didn’t seem to express the same ease of diction with the fast-paced lyrics. Both “Beauty of the World” and “I Saw God” perhaps go on a bit longer than needed, but that’s a judgment call and a matter of personal taste.

This new “Adonai S’fatai” is a bit too “rock ballad” stylistically for me, so it’s more a listening experience. That said, I suspect it could be worked quite well into a live musical service in the right setting. (And I have now witnessed that being done – see my review of Sababa’s service at Sinai Temple.)

Robbi’s new setting of “Ani T’filati” is best summed up by the wry comment in the liner notes (which actually appear on the website, and not on the liner:)

A Zen Master once went to a hot dog vendor and said, “make me one with everything…”

It’s a song with potentially deep meaning, but this setting is more fun than philosophical. Not a criticism, just an observation – as I like the song.

“For Healing” is an absolutely gorgeous song with only one fault – an  intro and repetitive refrain on yai-lai-lai, which doesn’t really contribute anything to the song except to make the listener eager to get back to some actual words. This song, too, suffers from a few awkward syllabic/lyric moments. None of these petty concerns, however, are enough to take away from the overall beauty of  the song and the lyrics. Robbi demonstrates her sensitivity to the diversity within Judaism through the inclusion of a verse in Spanish – reminding us that, at least where she comes from (Texas) it’s not unusual to find yourself among lot of Jews speaking Spanish.

Now, we don’t need another “Mi Chamocha” but as long as we’re going to get one, why not this new setting by Brodsky? Its pseudo-middle-Eastern melody and rhythm give it an easy-to-sing, somewhat hypnotic feeling.  I only wish Steve had “sold it.” The performance seems a bit rote, and doesn’t match the celebratory spirits of the Hebrew text. I can imagine a more spirited performance of this new song, and hope to hear one some day!

We also don’t need yet another “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem.” Scott sums his new setting this way:

The words are classic and familiar. The melody is simple and repetitive, to have everyone singing along in no time. Sometimes less is more. ‘Nuf said.

In terms of my comments on this song, well…’nuf said already by Scott.

You’ll enjoy their new setting of “Barcheinu.” I liked it a lot, though I was disappointed in the choice of relying on a more “Brecker brothers” sax sound, and a musical style that leans more on Jimmy Buffet (and maybe even Springsteen.) For me, somehow the song seems better suited for a more classic 50s rock and roll sound.

“Darkest Time of Night” is Robbi’s stunning and plaintive tribute to the late Steve Meltzer. She asks “Do we ever take the time to let someone know how much they mean to us, before it's too late?” Too true, Robbi. I hope this song finds its way into the pantheon of songs used at times of memory and loss. This track has some of the finest and most tasteful accompaniment of the whole project.

Another “Hinei Mah Tov” you say? Yes! In this case, I can forgive, since it’s a cover of a fun setting by Hal Aqua of Los Lantzmun, set to a bouncy reggae-ish beat.

Robbi’s “Hu Ya’aseh” is not new, and even though Robbi sings it, you can almost think of it as a cover of her own song. Robbi decided top have a little fun with the song that she and Rich Glauber wrote some years back by adding a couple of local gospel singers to the mix. It still retains some of its reggae/rock feel, too. In fact, it’s a bit of a style mash-up. The background rhythm is, at times, almost Nashville country-rock, sometimes a little gospel, sometimes reggae-rock. It’s OK if the song has somewhat of an identity crisis, because no matter how you sing it or set it, it’s a fun time!

“Havdallah Sweet” perfectly rounds out the album. It’s a great way to transition from the spiritual space that the previous dozen songs took you and the into mundane, quotidian world that you’ll find yourslef back in after the album is over. As another setting of the Havdallah blessings it doesn’t really offer any compelling new melodies for it, but it’s pleasant enough. However, what makes it a sweet “suite” is the rockin’ version of the traditional “Eliyahu HaNavi” that completes it. Elijah himself would groove to it!

The production values on this project are high (as one can usually say about projects produced at Scott Leader’s own Southwest Studios.) while it may be a matter of personal taste and choice, I do have a quibble about the vocals on the project. For almost all of the songs, the vocals feel a little bit dry. While I appreciate the clarity this gives the voices and the lyrics, just a tad more reverb depth would have made me happier. Of the three, Brodsky’s voice is best able to stand up to the clean mix, with his full, solid, supported sound, though Robbi and Scott are no slouches. The musicianship is of high caliber all around.

Add this one to your collection. You’ll be glad you did.

“It’s All Good” is available direct from Sababa, as well as through the usual outlets like and iTunes.

Adrian A. Durlester

Review-Sababa! Live at Sinai Temple

It was with some trepidation that I went to see Sababa lead a Friday Night Shabbat Service at Sinai Temple in Springfield, MA last night – especially since I just just posted a review of their new album, “It’s All Good.” After all, they’re not only colleagues, they’re friends. Yes, it was a good review, but as readers know, I can be awfully picky. You’ll note that, after talking with Scott, Robbi, and Steve, that I did update my review. It has always been my policy to offer artists a chance to respond to my reviews, and I’ll make changes to them sometimes on the basis of those conversations, as I did in this case. But enough about the album – which I like. I want to talk about the service they lead last night.

In a word, wow! Through the years, I’ve seen many a performer or band participate in a synagogue service. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes not so well. This worked really well.

The energy in the room was palpable. Steve, Robbi, and Scott connected easily with the congregation, yet at the same time managed to show respect for them. Sometimes, local minhag and visiting artists clash. Not so, in this case. Of course, the situation was helped by the presence and participation of Sinai Temple’s Cantor Martin Levson, who knows the trio. Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro ably led the service, knowing when to step back and let the music flow. He was also an active and eager singer (as was Cantor Levson.)

The combined experience of Sababa’s members has given them the wisdom to ably craft a workable service, and not turn it into a performance. Far too often, visiting artists or groups overwhelm the service with their own music, disregarding the local minhag. Sababa’s members clearly know how to create just the right mix – giving the congregation its “cats” (some of you may have heard this famous story as told by Rabbi Hoffman-as Tom Lehrer used to say “the rest of you can look that up when you get home .)

I do have a quibble, and it’s one that I have far too often at services. Sababa used a lot of melodies not their own. In fact, there were probably more non-Sababa-created tunes. It would have been nice to hear all those settings attributed (or at least written up in a service program.)

My second quibble is the length of the service. A phenomenon I have observed at far too many congregations, and in particular Reform congregations, are Friday night services that just try to pack too much in. In this case we had Sababa’s participation, along with the congregations youth choir “Shir Fun,” a touching “adult bat mitzvah” for a very special congregation, a blessing and short speech for graduating high school seniors, and a membership pitch. It made for a very long evening. Fortunately, it was all made endurable by Sababa’s presence.

Sababa was given a short period to just sort of “perform” some of their songs, and I think the congregation found their new music as accessible and enjoyable as I did and you will when you hear it on their albums, or live.

Sababa did manage to integrate a few of their new songs into the actual service, and they all worked well. I was pleased to observe that their “Adonai S’fatai” worked well live, as I had it pegged as more of a listening song in the album review.

The participation of the youth choir “Shir Fun” was nice to see (and it gave Robbi a chance to kvell over hearing one of her songs sung by a choir for the first time) though they were not very easy to hear, even given the pretty decent sound system in use. Overall, too, the room audio was a bit on the loud side. While it did help drive the overall ruach in the room, it also left a few ears ringing.

In conclusion, allow me to saw that with Sababa, I don;t think you can lose whether you invite them to your congregation to help with a service, or simply perform a concert. With Sababa, you get three consummate, sensitive, and talented professionals who understand what it takes to connect with people, whether performing, or working to create a spiritual space.

To learn more about Sababa, and booking opportunities, visit their website at

Adrian A. Durlester