Life & Culture

Lansky unlocked my secret history


When jazz composer Roland Perrin discovered his parents had hidden his Jewish heritage from him, a journey to his roots resulted in a musical epiphany.

Roland and I meet at the café in Southwark Cathedral, not too far from the Southbank Centre, the venue for his latest composition about notorious Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky.

He tells me as a child growing up in New York and later England that his parents were very secretive. One of seven siblings, he found he made friends most easily with Jewish schoolchildren, who would naturally assume he was Jewish too.

"Although it didn't come as a great surprise to me, I didn't find out I was 100 per cent Jewish until both my parents died. They were very secretive and did their best to hide it.

"I had no idea when I was a child that my family was Jewish, but as I grew up I found my best friends were always Jewish and they assumed I was too. They would ask where I had my barmitzvah," says Roland.

I had to find out what my father did

The siblings discovered their father was Jewish when, as adults, an uncle they had never met got in touch with one of Roland's sisters. However, when questioned, their mother stubbornly insisted he was an "atheist".

Roland's father died just over 10 years ago, but it was the death of his mother, a few years later, which brought the most astounding discovery: she had been raised in a Jewish children's home and her father had been a rabbi.

On having his Jewish suspicions confirmed Roland embarked on a personal mission to discover as much as possible about his hidden heritage through books and music – Wanderings by Chaim Potok being a particular favourite. Based in south Norwood, he occasionally attends Streatham synagogue, where he says he feels "completely comfortable".

I ask him why he thinks his parents hid their Jewishness.

He says: "I've reached a stage where I've stopped asking why. I need to think positive things about them and I'm not going to dwell on it any more. I recently became a father and I am trying to learn and be as honest as possible."

Roland studied music at the University of York and then trained as a teacher in London. He is head of piano at the London Centre of Contemporary Music and while his career and compositions are based around jazz and world music, he cites Bach and Mahler as two of his greatest musical influences.

He came across Meyer Lansky's story when he began researching Jewish history.

Known as the "Mob's accountant", Meyer Lansky was a child when his family fled pogroms in Eastern Europe for New York in 1911. A member of the Jewish mob, he developed a gambling empire and had close ties with the Mafia. Despite his comprehensive dealings in the underworld of Prohibition-era New York, he only went to prison once, for two months.

Choosing to focus on the story of a Jewish gangster, one who tried to make Aliyah at the end of his life no less, is no coincidence, says Roland. "I have been on a journey ever since finding out about my past. This is another aspect of me getting very inspired by my Jewish roots.

"I was exploring Jewish history and what it was like for my grandparents at the beginning of the 20th century."

Roland's patriarchal grandparents were born in Odessa, while on his mother's side his roots are in Hungary.

"Lansky resonates with Jewish history and the kind of choices that young Jewish men could make in the early 20th century, and what you do if you are a smart kid and willing to do anything to make a lot of money," he says.

While Lansky and Roland's origins will be a familiar tale for any Ashkenazi families, Roland's ties to the Jewish gangster's past run even deeper. As a child his family spent 10 years on the run from the FBI due to some shady activities his father was involved in.

"Lansky interested me because he was a lot like my father – very hidden," says the 56-year-old musician. "It wasn't just a case of being a violent criminal. He was a brilliant mathematician. He became known as the 'mafia's accountant'.

"My father was also good at maths. One of my uncles said he tried to get rich too quickly.

"He went on the run for fraud. I don't know the extent of the criminal activity but I'm pretty sure he was involved in money laundering. But trying to find out what he did is like chasing shadows."

During that period the family moved from New York to Mexico, to Florida, then Scotland and finally England.

Hoping to shed some light on his father's dealings, Roland obtained the FBI file through a Freedom of Information request, but says so much information had been Tipp-Ex-ed out that the entire affair remains a mystery.

This element of enigma is central to Roland's Lansky composition. In the choral jazz drama a 12-piece jazz band – Roland plays piano – Crouch End Festival Chorus, and a narrator tell Lansky's story, yet the actual character of Lansky never makes an appearance.

"A big part of the idea was he was never caught. They never found his money and there was no evidence of wrong-doing."

Though Lansky himself is absent, his Jewish heritage is woven through the show, from his constantly worried Jewish mother, to a song titled The Boys Need Barmitzvahs, and another about Lansky's failed attempts to get to Israel towards the end of his life.

So has the discovery of his own Jewish roots been a turning point in his music? "Absolutely, totally," he says.

"Sometimes when your parents die, especially your mother, you think 'OK, I'm next. This is where I stop and I am going to be totally myself'.

"I did a lot of different types of music before but never ever felt it was me. Now I can't wait to get up onstage in April and have people hear my music because every single note is an expression of myself. It is 100 per cent me."

Roland Perrin's Lansky: The Mob's Money Man will be performed by Crouch End Festival Chorus at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre on April 27 at 7:30pm

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