“Soldiers march like centipedes / It’s a hundred and ten degrees. / Is it written in the Koran/to take a hundred for every stolen one? // I go through the passport ritual. / Yes I’m leaving, it’s habitual. / You say, “Buckle up for safety’s sake.” / Though bombs are falling / I’m eating frozen ice-cream cake.”
A woman’s lilting voice — direct, brave and gentle — is backed by acoustic guitar and the swell of strings. It slips from English to Hebrew, the transition seamless and beautiful.
The voice is Sonia Rutstein’s and the track, Mica Moca from her 2008 album, Tango. She’s referring to the Israel-Palestine conflict, an issue that is close to her heart as a Jewish lesbian.
Sonia (or, in her promotional capitalization, SONiA) has experienced tremendous success touring internationally with her world music and her personable message-based acoustic songs.
You can catch Sonia at Eastern Ontario’s new lesbian music weekend, Red Roof Women’s Festival Jul 19.
Not all of Rutstein’s lyrics cover such serious topics. The rest of Tango is spicy and varied. There’s Hebrew, Arabic, English and Spanish throughout the heartfelt acoustic ballads and Spanish dance tracks.
Tango, Rutstein’s 12th album, shows an unusually deep musical evolution since her first album, Echo My Call, was released in 1988.
Like many artists, Rutstein’s passion can be traced back to her earliest childhood days. In her case, it’s an endearing memory of singing in the bathroom with her sister. But the experience was more than just a playful childhood game — singing in the tub was serious stuff for the aspiring musician. This became evident in a pivotal moment mid-song, which turned into a sisterly tiff.
“Cindy claims I told her to get off my note! I don’t really remember that but Cindy says that she remembers,” says Rutstein. “We continued to sing but Cindy had to figure out how to sing the harmony. I guess that was the first time.”
From her home in Baltimore, Maryland, Rutstein chats comfortably over the phone, laughing as she tries to recall that moment of possessiveness over “her note.”
Already this year, Rutstein has toured her music as far as Australia, but it’s a concert a bit closer to home that she is particularly excited to talk about: Red Roof, held for the first time this year near the tiny town of Marlbank (near Napanee, Ontario.)
Rutstein has been a solo artist for the past decade, her only frequent partner being Laura Cerulli on percussion and back-up vocals. But this set promises serious musical chemistry as Rutstein is joined by her earliest singing partner — her sister, Cindy Frank.
“We were so little when we first started singing together. And it was our parent’s music that we sang — James Taylor, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel,” Rutstein says. “I’ve always loved singing with my sister.”
Back then, Rutstein and Frank did perform professionally together for the first ten years of Rutstein’s career. It started with family weddings and bar mitzvahs, but they graduated from the event circuit when they were still young.
“I was always kicking her to sing with me. We officially launched our first band in high school and started performing a weekly gig at a bar. She was fifteen, I was sixteen. It was an Irish pub and our parents had to drive us down and pick us up afterwards. We were totally underage. They must have given the cops beer to go away!”
Back then, Rutstein and Frank called themselves, “Disappear Fear.” It was a name that occurred to Rutstein when she was working at a sexual assault recovery centre. The centre needed a new name and Disappear Fear was Rutstein’s suggestion. They didn’t take it, so Rutstein nabbed it instead. Considering current world issues, Rutstein found the name to be increasingly apt over time.
“When we first said the name people would say, ‘What?’ I don’t know if we were mumbling it or if there was no space in the universe for that concept yet. But it became the underlining meaning in every one of my songs and in everything I do. It’s become my mantra and my approach to life.”
Rutstein pauses, adding sagely, “When you disappear fear what you have left is love.”
When Frank left the band to be with her husband and children, Rutstein continued in her music, but left the name Disappear Fear behind — its legacy continuing onlyin her songs.
Rutstein became SONiA and, while there had always been a political edge to her songs, her songs now forthrightly address both lesbian and world issues. She learned to speak and read languages that were close to her heart, singing about her struggles with the Israel-Palestine conflict, her experiences in love and relationships and reconciling being both lesbian and Jewish.
“What matters to me is my relationship with God. We’re both real good with it,” says Rutstein and chuckles before continuing thoughtfully.
“Truthfully, I would contest that it’s all about the interpretation of the words of the Torah. I sang about it in the song, Laws of Nature. My interpretation is that it’s perfectly acceptable to make love with another woman.”
At this point that Rutstein is interrupted, her lover handing her a yellow rose from their garden. A smile warms her voice as Rutstein gathers her thoughts.
“It’s funny, years ago I never thought I’d still be making music and travelling the world at this point. I had no idea I’d be as successful as I have been blessed to be. If I really think about it, it’s Cindy that encouraged me to do this. She was the one who suggested it first, and planted the seed. I’m not sure I’d be doing this if it wasn’t for her.”