Sharon Eliashar carries the desert with her. On stage with her band Rubi Ate the Fig, she sings about suffering and love and a friend who dealt with addiction, but also about experiences in the arid Sinai Peninsula that she can only describe as mystical. It’s a heady mix musically as well as lyrically. Rubi’s sound can be described as jazz-rock fusion with a heavy Middle Eastern vibe and vocals that can recall Grace Slick in her prime. “She’s my archetype hero, in the sense that I resonate with her the most as a singer, in her approach to the song,” Eliashar said of Slick. “I feel like I’m her granddaughter or her daughter or the next generation. I just adore her.” The groundbreaking 1970s fusion bands Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report were also huge influences, as was The Police, she said.
Rubi Ate the Fig performs at the Scottish Rite Center on Friday, Sept. 9.It’s a CD-release celebration for the group’s Live album, which was recorded in concert at The Lodge. The gig is the last stop on a short tour that includes Denver, Boulder, and Salida, Colorado.
Eliashar performs with a six-member band. Electric guitarist Mark Mann has played with Oingo Boingo and Electric Light Orchestra, and he played George Harrison’s part on several songs in the Concert for George, a 2002 Royal Albert Hall gig that marked the first anniversary of the death of the former Beatle. Rubi’s Middle Eastern quality is solidly stated by Polly Tapia Ferber on doumbek (hand drum); Souren Baronian on duduk (a double-reed instrument of apricot wood), clarinet, kaval (wood flute), and riqq (Middle Eastern tambourine); and Adam Good on oud. Dynamic rhythms are provided by drummer Danny Montgomery and electric bassist Kenny Blye. On at least one song, the band will be joined by dancer Travis Jarrell.
Eliashar likes opening some space for instrumental work in the center of a song. “My song structures are very simple in their big form; however, the details within them are complex, and I like to open it up in the middle for taqsim, or improvisation.” There, everyone is able to stretch, but the most obvious voices are Mann’s heavy guitar and Baronian’s fabulous solos. “Souren is such a master. He can take out 30,000 people with one note. When I first asked him to be in the band, he said, ‘I’m not really a rock ’n’ roll person,’ because he plays a lot of jazz. I told him to just come out and be a guest, and he ended up doing the whole show. He fell in love with it.
“We’ll have this smoking thing going, simmering, pulsating, and Souren comes in just like the wind over the desert mountains when a little bird lands on the one bush in 50 miles and eats the one seed on the bush. The desert is so delicate and simple, and that’s how he sounds.”
Eliashar was born in Jerusalem and was raised in Palm Springs, California, although she spent several months every year in Jerusalem with her family. “The Eliashar family is one of the oldest Jewish families in Israel. We left Spain 500 years ago, from Híjar in Aragon. I’m Sephardic Israeli American.” She loved music as a child but ended up getting a degree in mathematics from the University ofCalifornia, Berkeley.
In New Mexico, she taught math at Santa Fe Community College, learned and taught gamelan music, and studied classical music and composition with Joseph Weber. “Joe told me, ‘Write who you are. If you’re from the farm, write about the farm. If you’re from the city, write about the city.’ And Rubi Ate the Fig is who I am. For me, Joni Mitchell is the queen, and it’s the perfect example because I don’t sound anything like her. Nothing. I’m not trying to imitate anybody.”
Rubi’s music is all written by Eliashar, and the melody always comes before the lyrics. The songs are typically conceived on the guitar, although she did some composing on the doumbek after studying with Tapia Ferber. Her music strongly relates to the time she has spent in the high mountains of the Sinai desert, including living with the Bedouin people. And she has a predilection for odd time signatures.
“Middle Eastern music is the ultimate math rock,” she said. “But math just helped me with structure in music. I don’t like an intellectual point of view. I’ll just play five measures of five, and I’ll throw a measure of six in there, and the guys go crazy, but that’s what I want. The players in Rubi are so advanced. We can have such complex time signatures, and you won’t notice it because they make a groove. Danny and Polly approach this like they are one player. She’ll lay down the bedrock for the camels walking on the sand, and he’s right there with her.”
Her songs are all about emotion and cultural experience. The chorus of “Breathe With Me Slowly,” which opens the Live album, is “All alone at last/Eyes touching eyes on the grass,” and it speaks volumes about the “entirely different game” in the Middle East. As an American woman, Eliashar considers herself lucky to be able to experience both the female life and the male life in the Sinai. “There are strict separations, but I’m an outsider. The girls will come up with their goats into the high mountains, and they’ll take them to the final watering hole. And it just so happens that at the end of the day the boys have to go to the final watering hole, too. There will be like 30 girls and 30 boys, and they’re apart, and the goats are doing their thing, and all the girls and boys are looking at each other, going like, ‘Oh’ and ‘Aha.’
“My lyrics are of the desert, and they’re of the Middle East, which we don’t know about anymore because right now the Middle East is getting so blasted. Yes, there are problems, but people don’t see the beauty. There’s a beauty to this culture." ◀