The San Francisco Yiddish Combo is a brainchild of opportunity, necessity and coincidence. Before Rebecca Roudman (vocals, cello) and her husband, Jason Eckl (guitar), created SFYC in 2017, along with Alex Farrell (bass) and Josh Mellinger (percussion), they were known – and still are – as Dirty Cello, a “pure excitement” band specializing in blues and bluegrass. But when the group was booked for a string of fancy concert halls in Austria and Hungary, they realized this is not what the European audience wanted.
“They didn’t want drums on stage and they didn’t want singing,” Roudman says. “And it’s hard to do blues music like that. So, since me and my husband are Jewish, we suggested some klezmer music. We could do it acoustic and without singing.” That hit the spot, it seemed, and they found a great appetite for the musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews in the exact places where those traditions were born and from where they were abruptly removed by the Holocaust.
Upon returning to the U.S., the group decided to really make it their own – to say yes to singing, and double yes to dancing. “We are not like any other klezmer band,” Roudman says. “We put our spin on it. We are klezmers for the 21st century.”
What to expect? In terms of instruments, the traditional clarinet is replaced by cello and Roudman sings a lot. Also, the klezmer accordion is replaced by a guitar, and Mellinger plays cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru.
The sound and the fun is largely the same, Roudman says. Overall it’s “a unique blend of everything that is klezmer, mixed with years of experience in jazz, blues, folk, and even hip-hop.”
The pandemic did not help these klezmers for the 21st century conquer the world. Right after they recorded an album, Covid put a ban on live music for many months. Now, as venues reopen, they are concentrating on their home state of California and spreading some Hanukkah joy through the region.
“We are always looking for unique venues, especially those where every seat is a good seat,” Roudman says of SandBox, a new venue in the heart of Sand City. They will play two sets of 45 minutes; organizers advise attendees to wear “dancing shoes.”
THE SAN FRANCISCO YIDDISH COMBO performs at 3pm Sunday, Nov. 28. SandBox, 440 Ortiz Ave., Sand City. $35. sandboxsandcity.com, sfyiddishcombo.com.