Chassidic electronica: S.F. native, Chabad rabbi make music during Safed trip

Taos, N.M., isn’t exactly a hotbed of Jewish culture, and yet that’s where flamenco guitarist Dan Fries found the inspiration to travel to Israel.

The decision resulted in the rekindling of his Jewish identity and recording an album with a Chabad rabbi.

Not bad for what Fries thought would be only a brief visit to the Holy Land.

Taos has a small Jewish center, a minyan and a chavurah. It also has a café owned by Israelis, which is where Fries, a San Francisco native and U.C. Berkeley grad, went to unwind and play guitar after long days wielding a hammer constructing his brother’s house.

When the brothers finished the home, Fries, now 32, had no more reason to stay in the Southwest. The Israeli café owner convinced him to consider a short trip to Israel.

A few weeks after arriving, Fries got back in touch with an old college friend who had since moved to Safed. Rachel invited him for Shabbat dinner. He showed up with his guitar, and after dinner ended up strumming along as her friend, a rabbi, sang a niggun (a Chassidic melody that is usually a lyric-free chant).

The rabbi, Shalom Pasternak, asked Fries to turn their jam session into something real.

“He’s a very persuasive man, and he talked me into staying in Safed and making a record,” Fries said.

The pair worked for nine months to create “Kabbalah Dream Orchestra.” The album features classic nigguns laid atop rhythms almost never associated with Jewish music — Brazilian, Caribbean, reggae, jazz, house, flamenco, funk.

The album is nearly unclassifiable and totally enjoyable. Fries sometimes wonders where he’d file the CD at a record store, and the only place he can think of is probably not a section in either Amoeba Records or Best Buy: “Chassidic electronica.”

“It was my idea to make niggunim come alive in modern song, but the flavor of the actual songs is really Dan’s genius,” Pasternak said during a telephone interview while visiting his wife’s family in Los Angeles. The 30-year-old rabbi is a trained jazz pianist.

The album’s sounds come mostly from Fries and Pasternak, who recorded some of the album in a small, dilapidated motel in Safed. A few tracks feature other singers or instrumentalists. Sometimes the guest appearances were spontaneous (Matisyahu stopped by and recorded a track, though he does not appear on the album), and sometimes deliberate, like when Pasternak overheard another man praying on Saturday morning, and felt his tenor would be perfect for the CD. He recorded a track with Fries and Pasternak a week later.

There is even a hidden track on the album, which comes 613 seconds of silence after the previous song. It features Fries playing the flamenco guitar while the slowed-down sound of chickens squawking is audible in the background. He recorded the animals on Yom Kippur, during kaparot, an ancient and mystical ritual that involves taking a chicken and swinging it over your head while reciting a prayer.

“The Orthodox way of life was so alien to me — it was a personal challenge to figure out what motivates people to connect to Judaism,” he said.

Fries grew up in a fairly nonreligious interfaith family. He quit attending religious school when he was 12, and up until he went to Israel, did very little Jewish learning.

Safed took Fries out of his comfort zone and forced him to reexamine his faith and culture. He spent his days playing music in the kikar (main square) and occasionally studying Torah; at night he figured out how to mix Pasternak’s chanting with his own flamenco guitar playing and various electronic tracks. Observant Jews told him nighttime is also the best time to study Torah.

Since he’s returned from Israel, Fries’ musical focus has turned to private flamenco performances and collaborations with local musicians ranging from Persian to Afghan to Spanish to the blues.

He and his wife, Lauren live in Berkeley. They are “flirting with observance,” trying to figure out what level feels most natural to them. He feels a much greater sense of and appreciation for Judaism, and so he and his wife keep Shabbat as much as they can.

“It’s a beautiful thing to just stop and make space for a connection to God and each other,” he said.

For information about upcoming tour dates and to sample the CD, visit . Or, check Dan Fries’ Web site .

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.