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It all started decades ago when a young sabra, Yoni Shacham, set out to prepare himself for studies at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. "I liked jazz," Shacham recounts from his home at Kibbutz Gevim, where he's been a member for some 40 years. "I more than liked it. I loved it, especially the old jazz of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, etc. So I decided to study with Dr. Tzvi Keren, who opened a whole new world of music for me. I studied for four years - voice, piano, harmony and orchestration. I'd played piano as a child, but didn't start to study seriously until I was 26. I was especially interested in working with a cappella singing groups."
Shacham formed his first singing group 25 years ago. "It wasn't a jazz group. My style at the beginning was very Israeli. We were a typical singing troupe, one of hundreds, just like everyone else."
Since the earliest pioneer days, group singing has been a traditional part of Israeli culture. Consecutive waves of immigrants from all over the world brought their songs with them, and either the melodies were adapted to Hebrew lyrics or the song itself was translated. Singing those songs as a group - around the campfire, in kibbutz dining halls, during hikes and marches - was a way to express unity and togetherness, remember friends or past events, and keep the struggle for independence alive. In time, a standard musical repertoire came into existence - songs everyone knew, with music that was uniquely Israeli.
Then came Signon Acher. "I spent five years at Sha'ar HaNegev, then went to Beersheba to start a new group there, a jazz group," Shacham recalls. "I wanted it to be something very different from the traditional singing troupes. It would be Signon Acher - a different style. That was almost 19 years ago," recalls Shacham.
"The first song the new group sang was classic ragtime, Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. It's still a part of our repertoire - we sing all kinds of jazz, plus Beatles songs - even Israeli songs, but with a very different arrangement."
Today, only one member - tenor Reuven Segev, born in Beersheba and now a professor of engineering - remains from that original group of 12 singers. "We've remained at 12 members - six men, six women," says bass Jeff Meshel, who, according to Shacham, is mostly responsible for introducing new jazz songs to the group.
It's a mixed group of amateurs who take the stage. Five are Anglo immigrants: Sarah Pollack, a long-time member of Kibbutz Sa'ad; Jeff Meshel, a writer who made aliya in 1970 from Cincinnati; Dr. Raffi Lev-Zion, a 33-year old pediatrician who made aliya from New York 13 years ago; Hady Shimon, who came from Philadelphia in 1984 and now manages a laboratory at a psychiatric hospital; and Dr. Marc Wachspress, a dentist who came from Long Island in 1987. Lavi Ben Haim, the Israeli-born son of American parents, is a recent college graduate and commutes from Ashkelon to sing.
There are also several native-born Israelis: Elena Marks, the group's foremost 'scat' singer; Gali Shacham, daughter of the director and a student; Edit Avni, a young mother and music therapist; and Michal Keren, a teacher from Dimona. Sergio Teper, an architect originally from Argentina, sings tenor and is adept at using his hands to mimic the sound of a trumpet.
Sentimental Journey, one of the group's favorites, begins with the haunting voice of Hady Shimon who sings "Like a rolling stone, I was so aloneâ€¦" The words almost parallel Shimon's personal experience. "In the US, before aliya, I was always in a choir," she says. "Then I was in a choir in Jerusalem for a year, but then we moved to Beersheba. I went back to school, had children and there just wasn't time. Then somehow I heard about Signon Acher and decided to audition.
"Singing is crucial to my personality. Now that I've found the best outlet for my music, I'm a much happier person. I was lucky enough to find a very professional group who shares my own sense of music. That makes it fun. We're very attuned to one another, and work to bring out the best in each other. Everyone in the group is very friendly, but we don't socialize with each other outside, which is nice, actually. What we have together is our music, and that binds us even closer as singers."
Wachspress is the newest member, having joined just last September. "I come from a musical family," he says. "As a kid, I took clarinet lessons, played drums and sang. At my family's Shabbat table, there were four of us kids who harmonized, so I've always been singing. I'd been in a lot of groups, too - everything from classical to a rock band, but never jazz. When I came to the group they were all pretty established as a unit, but they were very supportive of the new guy. It actually took me awhile to adjust to that, to people being kind, warm and helpful. When I was with a band in college, the best anyone would ever get for a great performance was a grudging 'that's okay.' So this is really different. It's a very nice way to be."
Wachspress also started taking voice lessons. "I found my voice was giving out after singing for two hours, so I started lessons to help me learn techniques to control my voice better. But for me, our Monday practice night just means fun. This is something I do because I love it."
For a pediatric resident to arrange his hectic schedule to accommodate a regular weekly rehearsal and performances borders on amazing. "It's great, but it's a sacrifice in time for me," says Lev Zion. "I already spend two nights a week in the hospital, so being away from my wife and almost three-year-old son isn't easy. But I couldn't leave the group. It would be too much of a loss for me."
Lev Zion began singing in public when he was three. "It was at my brother's bar mitzvah, and I demanded that they let me sing - I don't know how good I was, but at least I was interested. I made aliya when I was 20, served in the IDF then came to Beersheba for medical school. I'd been singing with a cantorial, group, but they'd taken a summer break so I was looking around. I heard of Signon Acher and was interested. I came to listen one time, and was completely astonished at the incredibly beautiful, very complex music. I just had to try, even though I'd never sung jazz," he recounts. "I wasn't even sure I could sing this sort of thing. But now? This is for me. I sing all the time - even when I'm examining kids in the emergency room."
In performing, the group enjoys watching the audiences react to their music. "Our arrangements - by Yoni - are so unique and interesting that when we come out on the stage and start to sing, the place goes perfectly quiet every time," Lev Zion says. "People are surprised - this isn't what they expected. Then they really start to listen. That gives me a great feeling. When we perform at a jazz club where we're new, we have to prove ourselves each time - and we're competing with professionals. So when the audience claps and cheers and whistles, it's that much sweeter."
"People ask me all the time what our secret is," says Shacham. "It's easy. Our secret is surprise. I work to surprise the group all the time. With every new piece, every new part, I try to work in something that will surprise them. This has an influence on the audience - they're surprised, too, to be hearing another style of singing, not at all what they'd hear anywhere else in Israel."
Sometimes the group even surprises themselves. "One night Yoni did something different," recalls Shimon. "He started with a tune, then went to each person, from one to another, asking each to sing it in their own way. Then Yoni started to get into his own mood, doing this basic blues box, playing blues chords, and everyone was singing his own song. What was amazing was when we put it all together. It meshed - it just came together perfectly. There's incredible talent here and when you let them improvise, let them open up to the music and each other, surprising things happen."
Signon Acher's next performance will be on May 3 at the Shablul jazz club in the Tel Aviv port. For further information, contact Esther Sharon at 054-7733808.