It can’t be easy representing an entire culture. That task becomes even more daunting when the sector you are championing has, by and large, been kept under wraps for a large part of this still-young country’s history.
Many of us have learned of the way music and other areas of the arts brought here by olim from the Sephardic countries were sidelined by the ruling Ashkenazi establishment in the early years of the state. That continued, more or less unabated, for at least the first four decades following independence. The walls of the established order were initially rocked by the advent of the Black Panther movement, in the 1970s, when first-generation Israelis from families who made aliyah from Arab countries began to voice their frustration at what they saw as uneven distribution of rights and wealth.
On the musical front, it was the so-called “cassette singers,” such as Zohar Argov, Jacke Mekaiten and Shimmy Tavori, who began getting their work out there to a wider public via the aforementioned taped audio format, and bypassing the mainstream music industry captains.But roots music from Sephardic countries had always been there in the sociodemographic mix, even if the opportunities to proffer their sonic and visual heritage on a wider, more prestigious, stage were few and far between. It is a measure of how far we have come in terms of social-cultural and sociopolitical equilibrium, with the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra Ashdod finally being officially sanctioned with “national orchestra status” just over two years ago. At the time, the ensemble’s general manager and artistic director, Jacob Ben Simon, welcomed the award, which comes with annual state support of NIS 5 million. “We have lots and lots of ideas for projects,” he said. “This enables us to realize some of them.”BEN SIMON and his cohorts have been gratefully putting the additional monetary influx to good use, and the ensemble’s recent concert run in January saw it perform to packed auditoria in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Ra’anana, Modi’in and Kiryat Motzkin, in addition to its hometown. The musicians are keeping up the pace with the new Kolot Nodedim (Wandering Voices) program beginning last week at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and due to take in nine more appearances, nationwide, through to March 26.But the general manager/artistic director and the rest of the Andalusian team are not looking just to provide their audiences with quality entertainment. There are bigger and better things afoot, and not only in these here parts. Just over a year ago, the orchestra gained a whopping feather in its collective professional cap when it gave a series of performances in Morocco. Considering that the ensemble’s base culture and music come from that part of the world, that was an emotive, formative and enriching experience for everyone concerned. The orchestra clearly left a good impression on the festival management and the local patrons; the debut Moroccan tour was followed by an unprecedented second invitation to the December 2019 edition of the Andalussyat Festival.Ben Simon says the memory of the latest trip is still fresh, and that he and everyone connected with the orchestra are still keenly aware of the enormity of the venture, on several fronts. “We definitely don’t take things like that for granted. Yes, people go there on vacation, and Israeli artists take part in shows there, at festivals and such like, but they do that as individuals, as professionals.” The orchestra tour was of a very different magnitude in all respects. “This wasn’t just another concert in Brussels or Paris. Yes, there are all sorts of events in Morocco [featuring Israelis], but that is generally an invitation from the [Jewish] community, or an event when you are not specifically mentioned. This was an international festival of classical Andalusian music,” he says, referencing the Andalussyat Festival held annually in Casablanca. It is a major item on the national and international cultural calendar, with generous coverage by the media, and is attended by local dignitaries and senior government officials.The musicians had to be on their toes throughout the onstage proceedings. “The audience at the festival knows the ropes,” Ben Simon notes. “If you make a mistake in the music they really feel that. They know the repertoire well.” They also had to do the business with some high-caliber sparring partners. “There were some excellent local musicians, and a choir with us. There were close to 100 people on the stage.”The Andalussyat organizers were also more than happy to have the Israeli ensemble as a headliner act. “The whole concert is a dialogue, and it was the opening show of the festival,” explains Ben Simon. “That is not something you take for granted.”While the ensemble was invited over there as an Israeli outfit, the general manager says that politics were not front and center at the festival, nor were they an issue. “We didn’t go there to wave the [Israeli] flag and make a big deal of that. We went there to perform good music. That was the point of it all.”The historic visit, of course, was not just the result of some happy capricious departure. The seeds were sown, and gradually and organically nurtured, over time. “For me personally, and for the orchestra, this was a sort of climax of long-term dialogue over the years, between us and North African musicians, and specifically with Moroccan musicians. There has been dialogue with producers and with musicians. They come to us for a concert and we go there. And there are occasional master classes. Even if that doesn’t happen openly, that’s fine by me. Even during the tough times, when politics come into play, we continue this dialogue because it is important to us, on a professional level, too. We gain a lot from this professional connection.” Ideology is a factor as well. “We also see this is as a mission. We are ambassadors of our country, in the best sense possible. Whether that is done openly or otherwise, I don’t think that is relevant.”Ben Simon and the orchestra members may be intent on circumnavigating political minefields, focusing on spiritually uplifting creative output and communicating with people on healthier and more accepting artistic ground, but they are not blind to the murky negative strata just waiting to emerge.“Look, producers all over the world balk at inviting Israeli artists, because of BDS and all that. I see that as a purely financial consideration. That makes life difficult for them. I can fully understand and appreciate that.”All of which makes the warm welcome from the Morocco authorities, including the sovereign, not to mention the repeat invitation, all the more laudable. “Putting us as the opening act of the festival is a strong statement. That connects with ‘the spirit of the commander,’ the spirit of the royal family in Morocco. The King of Morocco was recently interviewed, and he talked about how Morocco respects and preserves the country’s minority groups, and he talked about the values of the Andalusian culture. The values of the Andalusian culture, like in Spain, relate to tolerance and dialogue and mutual inclusion.”Last month, King Mohammed VI also issued instructions to restore the original Jewish names to streets in the Essalam quarter of Marrakesh, which was formerly a Jewish quarter. “That is wonderful,” says Ben Simon, also mentioning the recent opening of the Bayt Dakira (House of Remembrance) Jewish heritage center in Essaouira, where in the 18th century, Jews comprised 40% of the population. The event was attended by the king.MEANWHILE, BACK home, Ben Simon and the other members of the orchestra’s backroom personnel have been doing their best to spread the word of Andalusian music across the country’s social strata and age groups. That, says the general manager, involves disseminating the art form and culture far beyond the confines of the concert hall. Ben Simon proudly goes through an impressive list of achievements spread over a quarter of a century of sustained endeavor. “The orchestra is the largest and leading body in the field of Andalusian music. The orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, and it was awarded the Israel Prize [in 2006]. And it has been recognized as a national orchestra. I think we have a responsibility that goes beyond playing concerts.”It is sometimes tough going. “Behind the scenes, we do a lot of work that people don’t always know about. People want to check out who is due to perform on the stage with us. But we have lectures, morning sessions with people who come to hear about music and culture and cinema, and various [artistic] interfaces.” That includes introducing audiences of tender age to the wonders of Andalusian music. “All of that connects with what we call Andalusit Leyeladim (Andalusian for Children), which is run by Iris Halifa, the director of the Children’s Programs Department.”There is, he declares, a need for entry-level enlightenment. “Andalusian music is not just about piyutim (liturgical music). People don’t know what an oud [lyre-like stringed instrument] is. We need to relate to basic-level information, about the various instruments. We talk about texts, and use singing and play.” That also involves going to schools around the country to talk about Andalusian culture and play the music.The orchestra also provides age-appropriate entertainment for younger patrons, with a children’s subscription season that takes in music, theater and even circus elements.Like jazz, Andalusian music has evolved over the years, reaching out to cultural and stylistic climes that earlier generations would have considered beyond the pale. The likes of rock star Beri Sacharoff, rising singer songwriter Benaya Barabi and internationally renowned soul, funk, jazz and R&B singer Ester Rada have all appeared with the orchestra over the years. Ben Simon says that he, musical adviser Yoram Azulay and the ensemble’s various conductors, such as Sivan Albo Ben-Hur and musical director Rafael Biton, are happy to tread into uncharted waters. “We have children from all ethnic backgrounds singing piyutim. We present our music as a part of Israeli tradition. We are not talking about some niche [music] from Casablanca. It is important for us to offer them another musical shade within this complex Israeli [cultural] reality. We influence and are influenced by everything else around us.”The order of the day seems to be very much a matter of pushing the boat out. ”I believe in daring, exploring,” Ben Simon states. “I believe that is the essence of art, of culture.”That necessarily entails stepping out of one’s comfort zone and flying in the face of accepted stylistic wisdom. “It is not interesting to stay within the mainstream, not taking risks. It is not about ticking boxes, say performing with stars like Benaya. It is about what we do with him. It is about how he comes to us, and how we go to him. It is a type of dialogue. I am not interesting in being a support group for some artist, however famous they may be. We don’t always make a success of it, but the search, the experience, that is important. That shows us the way forward. Finding the dialogue, that is the musical path we need to follow. We are not interested in doing more of the same.”Relevance is also a recurring theme in Ben Simon’s observations. “In a global, Internet era of influences of all kinds from all over the world, that is challenge for everyone. We have to make sure we remain relevant.” There are, however, red lines. “We always have our Northern Star. That is Andalusian music, the tradition of the piyut, which we want to preserve, even with different influences.” Considering that Andalusian music is, by definition, an amalgam of Muslim and Jewish cultural baggage, the accommodating nature of the discipline is a given. “We want to lead the way forward,” says Ben Simon, “but we never forget our roots.”For tickets and more information about the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra Ashdod: (073) 759-9931 and www.andalusit.co.il