When he was a child growing up in Israel, Yaron Hanoka would sit in the back of the family car with his brother and sister, and when their father would play Greek songs on the radio or tape deck they would bristle.
“We would say, ‘Ewwww, what’s that stuff?’” the 43-year-old Hanoka recalls, laughing. “It was old and in a different language that we didn’t understand.”
He understands it now. He sings in Greek, as well as Ladino, Hebrew and Arabic, as the audience will find out on Aug. 13 when Hanoka and the Kol Dodi Orchestra perform at the Museum at Eldridge Street.
“Today, all three of us admit that we love this music,” Hanoka says. “It took charge of us.”
The family came to the United States when he was 9 and settled in Queens, where he still lives. Even as a child he was constantly singing, an avid participant in the choir at the Solomon Schechter school he attended, even appearing on a nationally televised talk show. He continued long after, performing regularly at local synagogues, and working as a wedding singer. But his dream was to have his own band and to perform the Greek music of his father and grandfather, both of whom were from Salonika.
Rebetica was at the heart of the music he learned growing up. A powerful indigenous folk music that came out of the slums and underworld of Greek cities between the wars, rebetica numbered among its most famous proponents many Jews. Perhaps the greatest of these was Rosa Ezkenazi, whose nephew, bouzuki virtuoso and singer Avram Pengas, is a member of Kol Dodi.
“I had a book full of Greek melodies, songs I’d been hearing all my life, and I wrote different lyrics to these tunes,” Hanoka explains. He was trying to make secular Greek and Greek-Jewish music kosher, so to speak, by drawing on traditional texts. He met Steve Schwab, a giant-sized bass player — “he’s 6-foot-10, he’s huge,” Hanoka says with a laugh — through friends from his synagogue and Schwab liked his singing. They added Pengas to the mix and suddenly they had the beginnings of a band.
“Avram had played at my wedding,” Hanoka recalls. “He knew me as soon as he saw me, and he knew my whole family. He had played with my grand-uncle, he loved my singing and the whole project.”
That was three years ago and although progress has been painstakingly slow, the Kol Dodi Orchestra has persevered.
“We’ve done shows in all the five boroughs except the Bronx,” Hanoka says. “We have done Purim parties, Chanukah [gigs], a few weddings even. We’d like to put out a CD but there just doesn’t seem to be a market for recordings anymore. It would serve as a sort of business card for the band.”
Hanoka brings a certain intensity to discussions of the music itself.
“I’m trying to respect the heritage of my family; they were Jews and they were from Greece,” he says. “I knew Holocaust survivors from Auschwitz, people from Salonika who grew up with my father, who knew my grandfather. They said that in the camps they waited for the day that they could turn on a radio or a phonograph and hear rebetica.”
Those people and their longing affect Hanoka’s musical mission powerfully, he readily acknowledges.
“I try to look through the eyes of the people that were behind those barbed-wire fences during World War II,” he says.
The Kol Dodi Orchestra will perform “Rebetica Sings the Blues,” a concert of traditional Greek and Middle Eastern music at the Museum at Eldridge Street (12 Eldridge St., between Canal and Division St.) on Wednesday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m. For information call (212) 219-0888 or go to www.eldridgestreet.org.