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& Sultana Ensemble
Yoel Ben-Simhon is a Moroccan Jew from Kiriyat Gat who has been living in New York for over 10 years. His Sultana band is a top-notch outfit that specializes in music in the style of Oriental Jewish ethnic folk, but mixes these traditions with Ben-Simhon's original compositions. It was after seeing the Arab violinist and oud player Simon Shaheen in concert that Ben-Simhon became interested in exploring his roots professionally. "I was knocked out" by Shaheen's performance, Ben-Simhon told the press. "When Simon played the oud, I felt something in me resonate, and I felt it was the beginning of a new musical journey."
Because it wasn't until after his arrival in the United States that Ben-Simhon began to explore his musical roots, his own melodies and structures are very much informed by his experience there. Although they're not the most prominent flavors heard on the group's eponymous debut disc, jazz and rock sounds are clearly evident alongside the Middle Eastern ones.
Echoing Ben-Simhon's comments about this project being a "musical journey," the album is more about establishing mood than it is about individual compositions, with elements of traditional Sephardic folk songs and Piyut hymns finding their way into many of the tracks. On the other hand, "Qasidat Essaouria" is primarily a jazz tune, anchored by a tinkly piano solo for several minutes in the middle section. Sultana clearly has a mixed identity and the Jewish music world is better off for it.
The Yuval Ron Ensemble
Tree of Life
While Sultana seeks to mix cultures to make higher art and perhaps change the world to some small degree, Los Angeles's Yuval Ron Ensemble does so primarily to change the world - and if some good music comes out of it, then they won't object. This is the impression conveyed by their Tree of Life album, both through its sounds and through its ideology. The liner notes assert that "The ensemble is actively involved in creating musical bridges between people of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths, and is dedicated to fostering an understanding of Middle Eastern cultures through music."
Although this music might not be the most prominent feature to the Yuval Ron concept, it is certainly ambitious. The sounds heard on this CD are at once sweeping and avant-garde, and throughout the poly-ethnic soundscapes, melody comes and goes. While powerful and flavorful elements of the compositions are credited as hailing from Armenia, Bukharia, Andalusia, Uzbekistan and Morocco, the listener comes away from the journey with little for the memory to cling to.
Ben Jacobson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.