Andalusian music is a mystery to many, but a beguiling one. The genre comes, essentially, from northwest Africa, gleaning its inflections and colors from the people who have populated Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Libya for centuries.
Its origins are the subject of learned debate. Some attribute its inception to a ninth-century musician called Ziryâb, who may have been an Arab, Kurd or Persian, a court musician of Abd al-Rahman II, Emir of Cordoba. Around a century and a half later, Andalusian music began to spread its wings when early 12th century poet, composer and philosopher Ibn Bajjah, of Saragossa in northwest Spain, is said to have combined the original format with Western elements, to produce a wholly new style that spread across Iberia and North Africa. The latter geographical transition was largely down to the mass exodus of Muslims and Jews, due to the Spanish Inquisition.
Given the genre’s multi-stratified evolution, combining Andalusian music with contemporary Israeli material is probably not too revolutionary an idea. The seamless interface between the two art forms is currently being proffered for public consumption in the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra Ashdod’s ongoing five-date tour of the country, which kicked off last week (August 21). Other shows are lined up for Ashkelon (August 30), Rishon Lezion (September 3), Petah Tikva (September 4) and Beersheba (September 13).
The national circuit was timed to coincide with the selihot prayer season, with the series appropriately named “Selihot Vesheer” (Selihot and Song). The performance agenda incorporates synergies with several top vocalists from different fields of musical exploration, such as top liturgical singers Moshe Louk and Maimon Cohen, and Mediterranean pop singer Haim Yisrael.
Iris Halifa, who oversees the Ashdod-based ensemble’s education department, says the seasonal spiritual setting offers added value to the orchestra’s output.
“I love this time of the year. It’s something special. Listening to piyutim (liturgical song) is something I find so exciting and moving.” Halifa says it is a two-way emotional street. “This music reminds us of the importance of looking inward now. Of intimacy.”
She also notes the pan-Jewish appeal, and cross-cultural core of sacred song.
“It is amazing that the piyutim of the various communities have been preserved over the centuries.”
The current series, she says, is a matter of feeding off the traditional texts and tunes, and intertwining them with works of a more contemporary nature.
“For this concert, we bring a lot of selihot with melodies from different communities, that come from the various synagogues, alongside songs from the spirit of today.”
It is something, Halifa feels, that we all tap into, especially now.
“These songs evoke a deep sense of pining.”
The all-inclusive stretch is supported on the ground too, in a voluminous fashion.
“You have, on stage, Western instruments and Eastern instruments – there are close to 40 instruments – and these ancient words that take on the scores, and which have been preserved over the years and absorb the concert-oriented arrangements. All that fuses into something that is not only musical, it borders on the mystical. When you go to a concert based on selihot, you have a sublime experience that takes you to higher planes. This is more than cerebral. This is something for the heart, too. It is a powerful experience.”
The popular appeal element resonates far and wide.
“At our selihot concerts, you see people from all walks of Israeli life – young and old, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular, haredi and traditional. This is something that unifies everyone. We all have a sense of longing for something.”
The orchestra helps to nurture that family feel by references to as many strands of liturgical content as possible.
“When we do the selihot concerts, we don’t just take piyutim from Morocco and Algeria,” Halifa explains. “If you take the piyut “Adon Haselichot,” we perform it based on a number of scores. We take a Turkish melody, a Moroccan melody, and also music that originates from Jerusalem; some concerts include the same piyut based on different music. That helps to show the breadth of what we do, together with the Israeli songs we do.”
Halifa says the added emotional and spiritual value comes from the fact that the orchestra and conductor Sivan Albo-Ben Hur manage to bring the original close-knit ambiance to the venue in which they perform.
“Our mission in the Andalusian Orchestra is to take this music and the texts from cozy confines of the synagogue and to transpose all of that to the stage. We manage to present this glorious culture, and celebrate it on the stage.”
Albo-Ben Hur is living, baton wielding, proof of the genre’s expansive appeal.
“I came to the orchestra six years ago, very much as an alien element,” she says, although noting she does have the requisite genetic baggage. “My mother came here from Morocco and my father from Algiers, but I didn’t hear this music at home. Before I came to the orchestra, for me, it was all Mozart and Beethoven and that sort of thing.”
Albo-Ben Hur says she had no designs on taking up her current post.
“I had just come home from hospital after giving birth to my daughter and out of the blue I got a phone call from the orchestra’s then-musical director Shimon Elbaz. He said, ‘Come to the orchestra, we have lots of work to do.’”
Elbaz’s marketing tack was based on the ensemble’s eclectic artistic line of attack.
“He said he needed me and that they did lots of different kinds of music, not just hard-core Andalusian material,” Albo Ben-Hur recalls. “I said I’d try.”
So soon after becoming a mother, it still took the conductor a while to get up to speed.
“I didn’t dive into Andalusian music and start researching it,” she laughs. “I went to Ashdod, about a couple of months or so after the birth, when I could leave the baby with my husband for a while, and I started looking at the scores. I really couldn’t make head nor tail of it.”
Mind you, there was a little in the way of previous requisite insight.
“[Haredi singer-songwriter] Yonatan Razael was my teacher at the Israel Arts and Science Academy [in Jerusalem] and he took us on a tour of synagogues in Nahlaot to hear piyutim. That was a wonderful experience.”
Six years and dozens of concerts later, Albo-Ben Hur says she is still on a learning curve.
“There is so much to this music. I’m fascinated by it. I want to see how far it will take me.”
A magical musical mystery tour is in the offing for one and all.
For tickets and more information: 1-800-693-693, www.andalusit.co.il
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