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Diamond in the Rough? Not Jenkintown's Berlin

December 21, 2011 By:
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Steven Berlin

He is el judio of Los Lobos.

It takes cheek to check out an all-Chicano band and not wonder, "Where do I belong as a Jew?"

But Steve Berlin had no such burdens; the protean music man of sax appeal and keyboard craft first heard the group perform some 30 years ago, and immediately tapped into their tapas tones and bouncing boleros so bold they would straighten the hair of Bo Derek.

The Philly-born Berlin brandished a burning, incendiary talent that made a blend of blintze and burritos a natural when he joined the band in 1984. But then, "it's always been about the music, not about cultural differences."

He's helped make a difference: Berlin's ventures and adventurous roles as musician/ producer play into the profile that is the three-time Grammy-Award-winning band, whose soundtrack for La Bamba was de bomb, exploding with excellence on the charts when released in 1987.

And now he's sparkling anew: Berlin has joined the just-formed supergroup Diamond Rugs -- with, among others, Robbie Crowell and Hardy Morris -- premiering its non-ethnic sound on Dec. 29 in Atlanta, and preparing its first CD for release early next year.

No diamond in the rough, the now 55-year-old former Jenkintown resident bared his music bones early on. Berlin's Bar Mitzvah at Beth Sholom Congregation conjured up the talent that would one day grace the stage of global theaters and feature his blasts on Paul Simon's "Graceland."

Indeed the Jewish Berliner has never lost his sense of soul music: Earlier this month, Berlin bopped over to San Francisco, where he performed live his own klezmer-inspired score to the silent film His Excellency -- made in 1928, the film focuses on Jews mistreated by fellow countrymen in their native Russia -- in a monthlong tribute to Tikva Records and its just released "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: The Tikva Records Story 1950 -- 1973."

That Beth Sholom training paid off in scores. "Being from Philly," reveals the metro music man reveling in memories, "was the training I needed to be ready for what I would do later."

But Philly was fodder for Berlin's other wall of sound as well: Steeped in the city's soul standards -- "and listening to the great stuff Jerry Blavat played" -- provided "an emotional, powerful" entree into an eclectic education of music, reinforced by local bands, such as Breakwater and Good God, as well as seeing the Skyline for what it was -- a great gig with a great band.

Berlin burnished his rep and explored new vistas with Skyline "playing two summers in a row in Somers Point, at Mother's. And it was all original music."

But how much more original could he be than still banding with Los Lobos ("The Wolves"), baying at the moods conjured up by their brand of Tex-Mex folk along with Spanish and Mexican mixes?

"To an outsider, it all may appear exotic and strange," he says of being the boy from the bimah beating Hispanic, as opposed to Hebrew, music these days. But it's no different than being part of a family "where, on occasion, the parents will speak Yiddish when they don't want the children to understand them."

And now, his new group is just another facet of a commitment to good music. After all, how far is Jenkintown from Sansom Street for a man cutting his new sound in Diamond Rugs? 

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