(photo credit: Courtesy)
The forthcoming bi-annual Abu Ghosh Festival is almost upon us and, as usual, there is plenty of quality classical music to be had during the five-day event (October 2-6). Besides the high standard of the artistic fare, festival producer Gershon Cohen also proudly totes the ethnic mix offered by both the musical and demographic milieus.
"This is a totally pluralistic event," he declares. "You have Jewish audiences coming to hear concerts performed in churches located in a Muslim village. How much more pluralistic can you get?"
That cross-cultural meld is taken a step further by the Shani Choir which will appear at the Kiryat Ye'arim Church on the fourth day of the festival (October 5, 4 p.m.) in a performance of Ramirez's Missa Criolla, based on a reading by Argentinean diva Mercedes Sosa.
Shani, based at the Jezreel Valley Center for the Arts at Kibbutz Mizra, comprises 18 girls aged 13-18 - nine Jewish, five Muslim and four Christian - and has been performing across the country and the world for over five years.
However, it hasn't all been plain sailing. "When I took the choir over in 2003, it was in bad shape," recalls choir director Pnina Inbar. "I started off with eight Jewish girls and it gradually took off."
The initiative to incorporate Arab singers came from Leah Zayit who contacted the El Mutran school in Nazareth to ask if any girls there would be interested in joining the choir. The response was enthusiastic. "They have quite a lot of music at the school," Inbar continues, "so they had a good grounding."
But wasn't it difficult for the Nazarenes to make the transition from Arabic music to European classical material?
Apparently there was no cultural leap to be made. "For quite a while all the students at the school used to start off their study day by listening to classical music," Inbar explains. "They knew what they were getting into before they joined the choir."
Still, listening to classical music and actually performing it are not exactly one and the same.
"The girls from Nazareth had never sung European classical music before," says the conductor, "even though they'd heard a lot of it. We had to work on voice training and vocal expression. That took a bit of time."
But Inbar is quick to point out that it wasn't only the Arab choristers who had to learn some cultural ropes. "We also perform songs in Arabic so the Jewish singers also had to work on their pronunciation, and to handle aspects of Arabic music with which they were not familiar - like quarter tones and Arabic scales and modi."
The choir rehearses at Kibbutz Mizra twice a week and the 18 choristers turn up faithfully on time and suitably enthused. "The Arab girls have a straight bus from Nazareth, so that isn't a problem," says Inbar. "And their parents pick them up and take them home after rehearsals. There's another Arab girl who comes from further away but she always turns up. Sometimes the Jewish girls have more problems getting to the center than the Arabs."
Although the choir maintains a reasonably busy concert schedule, surprisingly they appear abroad about as much as they do here. "We have performed several times in the States, Italy and Germany," says Inbar. "It is always a wonderful experience to perform abroad and to bring to people outside Israel a message of peace, a message of cooperation between religions and ethnic groups. That is an added value to our music."
The Shani Choir will perform at the Kiryat Ye'arim Church in Abu Ghosh on October 5 at 4 p.m. For more information about the Abu Ghosh Festival, go to: www.agfestival.co.il