‘People often ask me what Andalusian music is,” says Yaakov Ben Simon, “to which I have two very different explanations: one short, one long. In short, it is like the Philharmonic Orchestra, except happier.”
His long explanation dates back to 8th-century Spain during the Muslim regime (otherwise known as the Andalus era). It was a period of cultural prosperity that profited from many talented artists, one of which was an exceptional musician who composed 24 classical works (‘noubas’) – one for every hour of the day.
Not only did Andalusian music emerge from a period of cultural prosperity, Ben Simon explains, “more importantly, this music was established by a community focused on the values of tolerance, of dialogue and of coexistence.”
These are the values that Ben Simon works daily to translate to the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra – Ashdod when carrying out his role as artistic director. For instance, he promotes dialogue through the composition of musicians within his orchestra; a mix of aurally trained North African musicians and classically trained local musicians accustomed to a more Westernized sight-reading approach learn to work side by side to achieve harmony. North African influence has dominated Andalusian music ever since the expulsion of Jews from Spain, when the original noubas were carried by immigrants to Europe, the Balkans, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and especially Morocco. The Muslim migration was not far behind.
Enter coexistence, a growing concern for Ben Simon, especially of recent.
“Over the past years, our demography of musicians has changed. As older musicians retire, we’re seeing a wealth of younger academics interested in ‘world music.’ We also have Muslim musicians sit with us, mainly from Morocco.”
Furthermore, Ben Simon occasionally brings in local Arabic musicians who have proven very beneficial to the orchestra’s DNA when tackling repertoire dealing with classical Arabic music from Egypt, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern areas.
The third and final value, tolerance, played a fascinating role in the orchestra’s development during a highly anticipated trip to Morocco, one of the most well-versed countries in Andalusian music, this past December.
The State of Israel has long been caught in the crossfires of BDS advocates – on the one hand, using scare tactics to force international artists to revoke scheduled performances in Israel, and on the other, protesting the participation of Israeli artists at festivals worldwide.
Hence, after years of meeting with the King of Morocco’s senior adviser André Azoulay in an effort to improve the cultural dialogue between Jews and Moroccans and to continue the heritage of Judaism in North Africa that was once quite strong, although Ben Simon finally realized his dream of bringing the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra – Ashdod to Casablanca for one of the greatest festivals of its kind, it was carried out as a somewhat clandestine operation.
“It wasn’t only a performance; we were invited to open the festival!” Ben Simon boasts about the historic event.
Overjoyed by the invitation, the seasoned veteran made a judgment call to keep the orchestra’s attendance under wraps – hiding it from the media entirely in order to “avoid groups that might cause problems beforehand or place pressure on the producers of the festival like they do in Europe.”
A vivacious director, Ben Simon never views the glass as half-empty, rather fills it to the brim with sweet-tasting wine: “This was pure Andalusian success, politics aside. Sometimes you don’t need to wave the Israeli flag on stage. Everyone in the audience knew where we were from, and they still respected us. It was incredible. There was live broadcasting on the festival’s Facebook page; many Arabic countries saw it, and a few days before the performance, we even had a candle lighting for the last night of Hanukkah, which was broadcast on Moroccan television.
“Honestly, where else can a group of Israelis stay up until three in the morning rehearsing in a hotel lobby with musicians from Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya in a politics-free zone?”
It is obvious that for this passionate role model, the orchestra extends far beyond notes written on a page or acquired by ear.
“As the main Andalusian orchestra in Israel, we don’t want only to preserve the music, we want to bridge cultural and religious gaps.”
This “great bridge” to which Ben Simon refers forms the foundation for the orchestra’s current concert series, aptly named: Bridge of Strings.
On an eternal journey to shed light on different cultures, Ben Simon has invited the soulful Ester Rada to join the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra – Ashdod this month. Eager to expose her Ethiopian roots on stage, he claims that while Ethiopia may be on the other side of Africa, these influences are borderless in history.
So far, the collaboration has been nothing but positive.
“Not only is Ester a wonderfully talented musician,” Ben Simon shares, “she is the kind of musician that knows how to adjust and isn’t afraid to delve deeper into the material. She doesn’t just read the Arabic words aloud; she sings like someone who was born on the streets of Casablanca.”
He was equally surprised by the efforts of another group of special guests, the Moran Choir, who studied hard and rehearsed ceaselessly to perfect the new language.
“These are the kinds of projects that I love – the ones that challenge us to draw outside the lines. Sometimes the final pictures don’t translate to the stage, even with the best musicians, but I’m not afraid to be daring, to challenge our orchestra and myself. It’s a thousand times harder than playing it safe, but when the stars align, the results are magical.
The Israeli Andalusian Orchestra – Ashdod performs on January 14 and 15 in their hometown of Ashdod before moving onto Modi’in on January 16. They finish their series off with two performances in Tel Aviv on January 24 and 27. For more information: andalusit.co.il
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