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A typical year has him veering between Frank London's Yiddish Carnival in Brooklyn, playing with bluegrass Klezmer Andy Statman at Lincoln Center, performing at L.A.'s Joshua Nelson's Kosher Gospel review, and also at the "Jewish" stage at the Montreal Jazz Fest, the Calgary and Winnepeg Folk Festivals. But there's more, of course: rolling down the streets of New Orleans with his tuba in the Panorama Brass Band; joining the Knights of Babylon or the Krewe of Morpheus during Mardi Gras; reuniting with the Bad Livers at bluegrass festivals like the Pickathon near Portland, Oregon, and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco; singing Czech polkas at the Kolach Festival in Caldwell; and playing Polish dances each year at the Wiesczonskis' anniversary party in Tomball. I most recently saw him in a Mariachi band at Walburg's Bavarian Biergarten, in Walburg, Texas. ("The best German cuisine in the world," he insists. You tend to trust a man of Mark's stature.)
"There's a maxim among the jazz musicians I work with in New York City when deciding if they'll take a gig or not," says Rubin. "They call it the Gig Triangle. On any date offered you have three major factors: the quality of the music being made, the amount of money being paid and then what we call the hang—best described as the joy one has with being around one's friends. The theory is that you got to have at least two factors in the positive to do any gig."
Nevertheless, Rubin's primary drive is revisiting the countries of his ancestors' persecution. His great-grandfather left the Russian shtetle of Bobriusk for the slums of West Chicago in 1897. Ain't nothin' like that old-time, Old-World anti-sem. He confronts its ghosts head-on. In Poland, he encounters Ukranian Cossack street musicians seemingly from another century. He tips them a handful of Zlotys, imagining they'll spare him before the next pogrom. Shopping in the old city center of Krakow, he spots hundreds of little carved figurines of the traditional Polish depiction of a Jew: a hook-nosed Hassid counting gold. The Poles, for their part, simply explain that it's a symbol of good luck and abundance.
Rubin envisions himself in his senior years founding "America towns" across neighborhoods in Europe, akin to Chinatowns in the United States.
By that time, the vanished Americana of juke joints, diners, neon signs, and drive-in theaters should be complete. As a matter of fact, we could use some "America towns" right now, in the States.
And American Muzikant, Mark Rubin, is just the man to bring it back.