Until recently, there was a clear divide between Ashkenazi and Sephardi music. The former could take on all manner of guises – Israeli, largely Russian-based, folk music, rock and pop and classical music to name but a few – while the latter tends to be categorized as Mediterranean music, with various strands reaching into Moroccan, Yemenite and other Arabic and/or North African domains.
While Zohar Argov, who would have turned 60 this year, was dubbed “the king of Mediterranean music,” in the years since his tragic and untimely death he has gained recognition by artists in all walks of musical endeavor here, as well as by fans of many stripes.
Husband and wife musicians pianist Ofer and vocalist-percussionist Iris Portugaly are clearly admirers of Argov’s output, and they and their Gospel Choir will join forces with singer-songwriter Sagiv Cohen in a tribute to the late iconic star, called At Li Layla. There will be three shows: at the Givatayim Theater at 9 p.m. on October 20; Bereleh on Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva on October 22 (doors open 8 p.m.); and at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv on November 28 (9 p.m.).
The keyboardist says he first came across the iconic singer’s work a long time ago.
“I went to an agricultural boarding school and the other boys at the school played a lot of his songs, so that’s when I got to know Argov’s music,” he says.
Things got a bit more serious and professional for Portugaly in 2000, when the Reshet Gimmel radio station asked him and Iris to put together a program based around one of Argov’s most popular numbers, “Haperach Be’gani” (The Flower in My Garden).
That required a bit more investment than just catching the sounds of his neighbors’ blaring radio at the boarding school.
“I was flattered when I got the call from Reshet Gimmel, but I really needed to dig into the music and to do some research,” Portugaly recalls.
“Some people relate to his music as sort of Mediterranean pop, but I discovered there were lots of layers there, both in the lyrics and in the scores.”
While the Portugalys have made a name for themselves over the last two or so decades for putting together polished renditions of gospel and bluesy material, Portugaly says they generally endeavor to make their offering as relevant as possible to the here and now.
“We try to tie in our jazz and gospel with the local culture. I have always looked to fuse material by people like Argov and Haim Moshe [who, like Argov, hails from a Yemenite cultural background] with what we do but to make the connection as natural as possible,” he says.
Portugaly notes that in Argov’s case, he and Iris did not have to try too hard to find a comfortable sonic or ethnic interface. And you can see why. The late singer was not noted for his sunny countenance while on stage, and his songs generally had a pronounced sorrowful tinge to them, which immediately puts one in mind of things bluesy.
“Many of his songs have something tragic to them. The subject matter is very bluesy. He sings about his terrible fate, just like a blues singer. So that sits very neatly with what we do. He has that really authentic sound to the way he sings,” he says.
Then there is the spiritual side to Argov’s oeuvre.
“Many of the texts of the songs he performed come from the Yemenite book of liturgical material called Diwan,” Portugaly adds. “And if you’re talking about prayers, that’s exactly what gospel is.”
The repertoire for the upcoming show takes in the titular number, “Haperach Begani,” and a wide range of Yemenite material, as well as a song written for Argov by the late Uzi Hitman, called “Ad Matai Elohai?” (How Long, O God?). The latter is also a definitively dark effort, with the pervading mood a result of where Argov, who was a substance abuser, was at when Hitman crossed his path.
“Uzi met Argov when Zohar was really down on his luck,” explains Portugaly. “Argov was in a really bad state, which is why Hitman came out with the words ‘ad matai’ – how much longer would Argov have to suffer? It is a supplication and very gospel-like.”
The Portugalys’ star comrade in musical arms for the venture, Sagiv Cohen, knows exactly where Argov came from.
“Sagiv is very strongly connected with Zohar Argov and that world,” says Portugaly. “Sagiv and Argov both have deep Yemenite roots. They have both experienced sadness, and they feed off that.”
Cohen began to delve into Argov’s work professionally quite some time ago when he was a student at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon. He came up with an intriguing arrangement of “At Li Layla,” which was written by Boaz Sharabi, who also hails from a Yemenite family, which Argov turned into a hit. Cohen’s arrangement was entered into the Shirimon competition and won first prize.
But it won’t be all doom and gloom. There will be plenty of sunny spots, high-energy slots and lush renditions on offer through the 15-item program, which also takes in a couple of medleys. In addition to the Portugaly couple, Cohen and the Gospel Choir, there will be six additional instrumentalists on stage, all doing their utmost to offer a worthy salute to the late great singer.
For tickets and more information: Givatayim Theater (03) 732-5340 (ext.
2); Lehavot Haviva (04) 636-9993-4; Einav Center (03) 521-7763