Four years ago, local musician Brian Kruman started his own boutique label, Extant Music, and has since issued six wide-ranging CDs. The Look of Love is dedicated to the music of Burt Bacharach, but delivered from the psych-pop angle of George Martin-produced Beatles albums. The Great Game collects polyglot songs (Russian, Spanish, Hebrew, Afrikaans, etc.) in a worldly, roots-meets-tango vibe, while Dark Lonesome is his bluegrass effort. Both Summation of Oranges and Terezin Suite (with lyrics taken from the Holocaust classic I Never Saw Another Butterfly) incorporate Kruman's involvement with local performer/playwright Avi Wenger.
With chops on banjo, pedal steel and keyboards, Kruman, 50, was in a David Grisman-esque fusiongrass band that played the Electric Banana around the same time in the early 1980s, as Carsickness and ATS. In the late '80s, he toured with R&B artist Floyd Beck, after studying jazz at Pitt with Nathan Davis and with James Johnson, founder of the Afro-American Music Institute.
Kruman's latest release is La Mano de Fatima, a collection of ghazals (Arabic-style poems of unrequited love). Under the alter-ego of "Berish Bin Yankil Bin Naftali Bin Yakub Bin Zicia Krumani," Kruman reinterprets the milieu of the first Golden Age of Spain (Al-Andalus), when Jews and Christians flourished culturally under the relatively tolerant rule of the Islamic Almoravid dynasty. He sings in both Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and Arabic from traditional sources, along with recitations by Leehee Kanne of English lyrics that he wrote, translated into Hebrew.
There's nothing unusual about this approach for Kruman, who considers himself a modern Benjamin of Tudela (a medieval Jewish rabbi/explorer who preceded Marco Polo by a century). Visiting locales as far-flung as Lisbon, Istanbul and Zanzibar, Kruman once stopped into a synagogue in Thessaloniki, Greece, around Hanukkah and heard prayers with melodies almost identical to the Sephardic chestnut "Los Bilbilicos," which leads off the CD.
But Kruman's journey toward La Mano de Fatima actually began at Montreal's Fringe Festival. "There was a group of three guys of Moroccan origin who performed Sephardic tunes with vocals and hand drums," Kruman says. "I thought that'd be something I'd like to do. So I worked on this for 10 years, then decided I'd like to finish it, and took it into Mr. Small's [recording studio] and started laying tracks."
Kruman definitely prefers to follow his own path, but one thing he may never do is perform his compositions live. ("I never had the urge to be onstage," he says.) Instead, he's working on his next studio project, which may turn out to be, of all things, a hip-hop album. For more information and mp3s, visit www.extantmusic.com.