Jewish liturgical music (piyutim) comes in all shapes and forms, as evidenced by the program of the forthcoming annual Piyut Festival.
The four-day festival, which runs from September 13 to 16 at Beit Avi Chai, includes concerts that offer a taste of liturgical music from a wide swath of cultural hinterlands, including the Yemenite tradition, featuring popular singer Avner Gadasi; Balkan piyutim with veteran ethnic-pop singer-flutist Shem Tov Levy and Belgrade-based Cantor Stefan Sablic; a show dedicated to the liturgical music of the Jewish Libyan community, spearheaded by singer Eli Louzon; Kurdish piyutim; Jerusalem-style selihot; and some full-blown symphonic slots. It is a surprisingly varied lineup, which festival artistic director Yair Harel is keen to present to the public.
Harel also wants to convey the vibrancy of Jewish liturgical music
which, he says, is a living, breathing and still evolving art form.
“There are so many different strands of this genre that are still
practiced in many synagogues in Jerusalem,” he says. “I want this
festival to demonstrate at least some of them but in a contemporary way.
Piyut are performed and practiced on a regular basis across Jerusalem
Harel is also a strong believer in cross-fertilization.
“I am very excited, for example, about the Daltei Marom [Heaven’s Doors]
concert, which opens the festival. I feel it is very important to move
with the times and to take in current influences from across the board,
but it is equally important to feed directly off the roots of the
tradition and the music.”
The Daltei Marom slot appears to do that, and then some. The show is
touted as a tribute to cantor, researcher and poet Aharon Amram who,
over the years, has done much not only to perform an abundance of
Yemenite material but has also helped to sustain songs and nuances that
would probably otherwise have been lost to the world.
Seventy-one-year-old Amram will be front and center on September 13,
alongside his sons Shahar and Elram. Their efforts will be supported and
embellished by a powerful vocal roster that includes Gadasi, Gila
Bashari, Lea Avraham and 31-year-old singer Ravid Kahalani.
Daltei Marom is the perfect showcase for Harel’s eclectic ethos. Earlier
this year, for example, Kahalani performed at the Givatayim Theater
with a program that fed off African blues, soul and jazz as much as his
own Yemenite liturgical roots.
Jazz will certainly be an important ingredient in the concert, too, with
the likes of trombonist Avi Lebovich, pianist Yonatan Avishai and oud
player and bassist Omer Avital contributing much to the mix. Avital also
serves as musical director of Daltei Marom.
And if that weren’t a rich enough offering, the music will be enhanced
by some surprising traditional visual entertainment courtesy of the
Kiryat Ono Dance and Piyut Ensemble. “People generally think of Yemenite
dance as a uniform format, but there is a very important traditional
dance style that emphasizes hand movement, and that’s what we’ll see in
Harel says he sees his role as making sure the public gets as wide a
taste of piyut traditions as possible. “This year I intentionally
shifted the spotlight away from the better-known traditions and paytanim
[liturgical singers], and I went for the more esoteric forms and the
liturgical styles that people don’t necessarily know much about.”
That certainly applies to the piyutim of the Balkans show that will take
place at 8 p.m. on September 14. The concert brings together veteran
pop-rock-ethnic music artist Shem Tov Levy, Serbian-based Cantor Stefan
Sablic and singer Ruth Ya’acov with a program of the rare piyut
tradition of the Jews of the Balkans – communities from Sarajevo,
Bulgaria and Salonika – that blends East and West and was almost
completely eradicated in the Holocaust.
Harel says that for him, the festival is also a vehicle for redressing
some of Israel’s cultural misdemeanors. “I am not looking to lay the
blame at the door of anyone in particular but the establishment and
development of the State of Israel. The Jewish culture evolved over
2,000 years of the Diaspora, but much of that was ignored in an effort
to cultivate a new Israeli culture and mind-set. That refers equally to
the musical traditions of the East and the West.”
That is an intriguing point, considering the way that, in the early
years of the state, music from Arabic countries was generally swept
aside in favor of European classical music. “Somehow, Jews from Eastern
countries managed to preserve their liturgical traditions within their
own community bubble,” Harel continues, “and often hassidic liturgical
music suffered more.”
Elsewhere in the program, the From Afghanistan to Here concert on the
opening day of the festival features an interesting mix of piyutim from
Afghanistan and original songs inspired by Sufi music from India,
Pakistan and Iran. Then, on September 15, From Desert and Sea will offer
a rare glimpse of the piyut tradition of Libyan Jewry, which feeds off
2,500 years of Jewish life in Libya, which is at the crossroads of Arab,
African and desert cultures and colored by Turkish and Italian
Perhaps the grandest item on the festival roster is The Eternal Topic
concert at the Jerusalem Theater, which includes original works for a
symphonic orchestra based on piyutim from diverse Jewish traditions.
Harel is particularly happy about the festival’s taking place in
Jerusalem, as a focal point of a unique synthesis of piyut styles and
liturgical endeavor in the capital will be highlighted in the Hear Our
Voice concert in Kiryat Hayovel at which cantors of synagogues in Kiryat
Hayovel and Kiryat Menahem will perform selihot based on Jerusalem
Moroccan and other Sephardi traditions.
“There is an amazing force in this music, which was practiced for
millennia, with so many facets and layers to it,” Harel observes. “And
there is something very special about piyutim performed in the
synagogues of Jerusalem. I hope the festival brings some of that to the
public and helps to keep the traditions alive.”The Piyut Festival takes place at Beit
Avi Chai on September 13 – 16. For more information about the Piyutim
Festival, visit www.bac.org.il or call 621-5300.