Saturday, May 22, 2010

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

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