Concert Review: Tafillalt

Jerusalem-based ensemble combines ancient and modern, East and West in a musical expedition from and to the heart of Jewish liturgical music.

February 12, 2010 04:53
2 minute read.

Tafillalt. (photo credit: courtesy)


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The first chord that wafted gently through the melodica into the Confederation House auditorium last Thursday marked the onset of a musical journey through time and space, skillfully led by the Tafillalt ensemble in the launch concert for a new CD released under John Zorn’s prestigious Tzadik label.

Yair Harel (vocals, percussion, tar), Nori Jacoby (viola, vocals, melodica) and Yonatan Niv (cello, vocals) make up Tafillalt, established in 2000, and use traditional Jewish liturgical poetry, piyutim, as revered infrastructure for contemporary orchestration and personal expression. The three young musicians, who also penned some of the compositions, were joined by Eitan Kirsch (acoustic bass) and Yarden Erez (accordion, fiddle, keyboard, percussion) in the Jerusalem performance. 

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Texts and melodies primarily from the corpus of North African and Iraqi synagogue traditions, sacred and modern poetry, as well as Hassidic pieces – all received equally attentive arrangements and were executed flawlessly by the highly capable and versatile musicians. Harel’s sincere and accurate singing, as well as his pleasant and modest stage presence, not only enabled the audience to enjoy the ensemble in its entirety, but also served as a reminder of the original liturgical function of the piyut.

This reviewer found the song “Hatikun” (The Rectification) especially moving. The text is based on a crumpled note Niv found “drifting in the streets of Jerusalem,” in which a junkie bears his soul to God and makes a thought-provoking analogy between destructive addictive substances and religious devotion.

Another concert highlight was the rendition of what Harel introduced as the oldest known piece of Jewish music, the 12th century piyut “Moshe.” The 800-year-old Jewish melody seemed so at home with the large windows behind the musicians framing the backdrop of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Much remains to be said about contemporary renditions and recordings of music that was once primarily performed within the confines of synagogues. It should, however, be pointed out that in past years synagogues have served as true centers for communal get-togethers, with worship as the focal point but not the exclusive activity. Projects such as Tafillalt do justice to what used to be almost popular forms of music and expression by returning them to the public with a smile and an openness to contemporary musical forms and personal expression.

The ensemble’s music is not always easy to listen to, perhaps particularly for those whose occidental ears are less familiar with the scales, beats and musical phrasings employed. But a further listening to the group’s elegant CD allows a deeper exploration of the ensemble’s rich musical and cultural world in a project of forward-looking preservation.


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