Over the years, the YMCA in Jerusalem has hosted a wide array of musical events, from different strands of classical music to jazz, and ethnic sounds of various strains. Thursday (8 p.m.) sees the curtain raiser of the new Shtayim (Two) series at the venerable venue. The gender of the series moniker in Hebrew is female, as are the main players in each of the concerts, which will take place monthly for the next four months.
This week’s stars are vocalist-instrumentalists Netta Elkayam and Luna Abu Nassar. It is an intriguing synergy which suggests a broad offering of genre and stylistic offerings, and vocal delivery. While Abu Nassar feeds off Christian Arab roots, Elkayam’s parents were both born in Morocco. It is a seemingly incongruous pairing. Over the past five or six years Abu Nassar has made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter with a clear tendency toward the indie side of the rock tracks, while Elkayam delves ever deeper into her Moroccan roots.
She says her confluence with Abu Nassar has been a slow, but fervent, burner.
“We have been working on this show for quite a while. You know, sometimes, you fall into a sort of rut and you lose a little of the excitement of performing. But I am really excited about this show. It has sent me back to my early days as a performing artist, and how moved I was back then.”
It is, says Elkayam, a combination of the venue and her onstage partner.
“The auditorium at the YMCA is really special, and Luna and I started out around the same time. We kept saying we should meet up and work on something together, and it just didn’t happen. Now it is. I’m really happy about it.”
It’s odds on that the YMCA audience will also be suitably enthused by the Abu Nassar-Elkayam pairing, and by the instrumentalists they have lined up for the occasion. The band includes keyboardist-husband Amit Hai Cohen, bassist Adi Gigi and drummer Stav Lipitz, with both singers also chipping in with some guitar accompaniment.
Despite the pretty expansive, and delightfully decorative, surroundings of the YMCA hall, Elkayam says patrons can expect to enjoy a cozy evening’s entertainment. Elkayam is a most emotive performer, and she says the band-induced ambiance follows the same line of artistic and personal expression.
“It is an intimate-sounding group and, with their playing, the songs sound more open and moving. It is as if you clear away everything and just leave the nerve ends exposed. You really hear the voices. Everything suddenly comes out. It makes the source material more accessible to everyone.”
There are, Elkayam notes, some subtle subtexts to be gleaned from the show.
“Luna sings in Palestinian Arabic and I sing in Moroccan Arabic, and we switch roles a bit – I’ll sing a little in Palestinian Arabic and she will sing in Moroccan Arabic. We make a genuine connection together. We come together as women and as musicians, without any posturing. It’s great fun.”
The mere mention of a woman-oriented cultural event can, in politically-inclined quarters – basically, the whole country – conjure up ideas of an overt feminist statement. However, YMCA cultural director Anya Shani is having nothing of that.
“This project presents new women’s singing, without feminist statements and without excluding anyone, rather this is built on the premise of expanding your identity, and accepting others.” she says. “We believe the series will encourage original creation, and will enable all of the participants to write and score new material.”
Elkayam goes along with that innovative line of thought but, as is her wont, digs into her North African Jewish heritage and will offer the YMCA audience a blast from the past.
“I will sing something originally performed by Simone Tamar, who was a Jewish Algerian singer who died at the age of 47, in 1983,” Elkayam explains. “She brought out only two records, but they are among the most important albums ever made in Constantine,” she adds, referencing a city in northeast Algeria which was home to several thousand Jews before WWII.
Tamar was one of the leading proponents of the local hybrid musical genre.
“It is a special region because it lies at the interface between Algiers and Tunis, and the music from there is called maalouf music,” notes Elkayam. “It is heavily influenced by Tunisian music, which has quarter tones, and which you don’t have in Algeria. The music in Algeria is very Western.”
Elkayam is very much looking forward to getting the word out about Tamar.
“She is not very well known but she had a very special voice. She sang with her heart.”
The same can be said of Elkayam.
For her part, Abu Nassar is thrilled to finally get together with Elkayam, and to revel in the dynamic between them.
“For me, sharing the stage with an artist who will sign with me in Arabic and Hebrew is not something I take for granted. To mix our roots, to break through them, to stretch them, to move closer to each and to move away. Netta and I share this search, each in her own way, and it will be fascinating to fuse our work in one show, in one of the most beautiful and appropriate venues around.”
Other artists in the diverse Shtayim lineup include stellar cellist-vocalist Maya Belsitzman, Hadas Klein- man, Nasrin Kadri, Zehava Ben, Liora Yizhak and Yasmin Levy.For more information: http://ymca.org.il.