Meet the Rabbinical School Dropouts

November 16, 2011, admin

The snare drum rattles, the mandolin evokes a mystic, pulsing rhythm, the clarinet squeaks an Eastern European riff that makes the flesh rise with goose bumps. Add to this sound an experimental dose of hypnotic and chaotic, yet structured noise. Picture Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye acting in a Felini movie. Meet the musicians who would be on this hypothetical soundtrack: the Rabbinical School Dropouts.

A ten-piece outfit from Long Beach and San Diego, the Rabbinical School Dropouts play Jewish soul music (klezmer) combined with an avant-garde jazz twist. Music critics have described them as: an “esoteric space klezmer ensemble,” “psycho klez,” “Frank Zappa and Dr. Seuss intersect[ing] … [with] Woody Allen and Howard Stern”, and “[avant-garde pioneer] Sun Ra and Frank Zappa at Woody Harrelson’s backyard BBQ.”

The Dropouts’ unique sound now beams internationally with their latest release, Cosmic Tree, an instrumental blend of eclectic songs with titles such as “Semitic Slam,” “Yanatan Hakatan” and “Mosquito from Megiddo.” The band, which consists of USCD alumni and students, was recently signed to the New York City-based Tzadik label, run by the experimental music and genre-blending maven John Zorn.

With ten people in the band, somebody needs to choreograph the end of an improvisational run, arrange the compositions and make sure the group plays in time. That somebody is Michael Friedmann. Towering over his band mates at 6’3”, Friedmann describes his attraction to klezmer music in between sets at a quarterly barbeque held by UCSD’s Hillel.

“I loved klezmer even before I knew what it was called,” says Friedmann, the band’s clarinetist and tenor saxophonist. “The scales, the embellishments and the rhythms just seemed right to me.”

As a young boy, Friedmann would come home from weddings and go straight to his mom’s Steinway [piano] and teach himself tunes like ‘Hava Nagilah’ and ‘Niggun Atik.’ “Picking up the clarinet and writing my own tunes just seemed like a logical progression,” says Friedmann, who has composed most of the band’s 80 compositions.

The band’s name suggests that the members aren’t all-star Torah scholars. That’s not to say, however, that the band doesn’t have Jewish pride, it’s just that for most of the band, including Friedmann, the connection to Judaism is through musical heritage. “You can’t make up for a religion by playing that religion’s party music,” says Friedmann, “but with klezmer I feel far more connected to Judaism than I ever have in religious services. Sitting in shul and Michael Friedmann don’t mix. I need to create, and making music with the Rabbinical School Dropouts is about as creative as it gets.”

Michael’s brother Jon-Jon (who plays autoharp, cello, guitar and mandolin), 22, says that when hearing and playing klezmer, “it’s a quasi-ecstatic experience.” Jon-Jon writes many of the compositions’ inserts, which are choreographed solos, and is heavily influenced by the zany arrangements of Frank Zappa. He has an avant-garde flair for music and a sense of humor to match: “Klezmer is the closest I’ve ever come to attaining spiritual contact with my ancestors from the Zeta Riticuli Star System,” says Jon-Jon.

According to the eldest Friedmann (the youngest Friedmann brother, Hank, 17, plays bass clarinet in the Dropouts), all of the Dropouts are Jews or Honorary Jews. The ensemble’s conguero (conga player), Ze’ev Mahar, was born a Presbyterian and “has become one of the most devout Orthodox Jews I’ve ever known.” Trombonist Jonathan Rotter is a conservative Jew and a scholar; the Wellers, Bob (piano) and Danny (violin) are Humanist Jews; tenor saxophonist Jesse Bluelake Barkin is a member of the same temple that the Friedmanns frequent; the double reed player elects to use his honorary Jewish name, Scott Paul Levine, when performing with the band; and the tabla player Ravi Deo, a Hindu, grew up across the street from the Friedmann brothers and is “practically a fourth brother.” Finally, there is drummer Nicolas Carvajal, who Michael thinks is descended from the famous Spanish-Jewish Carvajal family.

The band members bring with them backgrounds in big band, jazz, chamber orchestra, garage jam band, and traditional klezmer outfits. To the untrained ear, klezmer songs often sound the same. The Dropouts avoid aural redundancy by combining different styles. Friedmann divulges the band’s ingredients: 25% Klezmer; 15% Jazz; 11.5% rock; 10.5% classical; 10% Middle Eastern; 9% Indian, 7% Free Improvisation’ 5% Afro-Latin; 2% Asian, 2% Spanish, 2% Circus and 1% Native American.

“If you mix the right elements you can get an innovative outcome,” says Michael, who is also in a side project called Newton Gimmick and his Warp Zone Band, which plays arcade game theme songs. “This is a new fusion. The modern revival of klezmer has only been around for 20 or so years.”

So what makes the Rabbinical School Dropouts a radical Jewish subculture? It’s a mixture of old-world tradition and Southern California living. “Klezmer music is much like Yiddish as a language,” says Michael. “While being bumped around Eastern Europe, Jews picked up regional musical styles and tongues and synthesized them with thousands of years of Jewish tradition and created something unique. We, the Rabbinical School Dropouts are trying to replicate this formula in the postmodern Southern California world.”

On a recent trip to Taiwan, a friend of the Friedmanns picked up a copy of Cosmic Tree at a Tower Records in Taipei. Being signed to the Tzadik label has guaranteed the band instant international distribution. And although the band hasn’t quit their day jobs yet, they have become well known in Kabbalah-like inner circles of experimental music. The Dropouts have been featured on BBC World Service Radio.

In case you’re wondering, the Dropouts do bar mitzvahs; they have even done a Filipino wedding. They are performing New Year’s Eve at the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort in Death Valley.

The Rabbinical School Dropouts are progenitors of postmodern klezmer, a sound that to brother Jon-Jon resembles “Jewish Sci-Fi.” The band is backed by the Friedmann matriarch, Nancy Bubar Friedmann, who says, “I’m not just talking like a proud mother, but Cosmic Tree made me so proud that I couldn’t stop kvelling [Micah: please check on this word] to my hair dresser.” Momma Friedmann has Cosmic Tree and the group’s previous release, Counterfeit Gelt, rotating in her minivan’s CD changer. “They’re so good that the police officer who pulled me over last week on the way to Jazzercise class tore up the ticket he was writing me when I played him a cut.”

Sample the intergalactic sounds of the Rabbinical School Dropouts at, and check out their website at You will be certain to come up with your own excited conclusions about the Dropouts, such as the one offered by this writer’s roommate: “The music of the Rabbinical School Dropouts makes me want to dance naked with my uncle Shlomo.”