There is something delightful, and definitively inviting, about Sukkot. It is a lovely time of year when, hopefully, the fierce summer heat is behind us and the promise of cooler weather and, possibly, even rain hovers in the air. It is also a time when, traditionally, we eat outdoors, in our temporary sukkah dwellings, in the fashion of the Children of Israel shortly after the Exodus and their release from centuries of bondage. Tradition also has it, that we have guests – or, in Aramaic, ushpizin - over to our sukkah. The official visitors are seven biblical characters, in chronological order, from Abraham through King David.
There will be plenty of stellar guests at the five day Ushpizin Festival, which kicks off today at Ashdod. While none of the artists were around in biblical times, at least Sofi Tsedaka can claim to have deeper roots in this part of the world than almost anyone else.
Tsedaka is a singer and instrumentalist who hails from the tiny Samaritan community which, it is said, has been living here for 125 generations. “That is part of the community’s faith, never to leave Israel,” she says.
Tsedaka, who also earns a crust from acting, tells the story of her cultural background through her music and, particularly, in the company of her Baladis band with which she has been doing the rounds of the country, with the odd foray abroad, for the past five years. She and her four instrumentalists – oud player Yaniv Taicman, qanoun player Ariel Qassis, flutist Yogev Levi and seasoned percussionist Gadi Seri – will take the stage later today (8 p.m.) at the Monart Auditorium, the festival’s opening night.
This is about far more than just the music. Tsedaka grew up speaking Arabic and Hebrew, and not just any Hebrew. The Samaritans still use the Hebrew of the Bible. But all was not well as the young girl grew up and, eventually, around the age of 20 she felt compelled to leave the community’s enclave in Holon and move out, to Tel Aviv. That experience, and her earlier life within the fold, are also part of her creative arsenal, and inform the way she performs on stage. “In art, at the end of the day, the best things you can bring to you work are the things you bring from home,” she posits. “When I left the community my father said to me: ‘How can you just cast off a tradition of 125 generations? For 125 generations people lived in order to preserve this thing, this way of life.’ That was very difficult for me.
Until his dying day I don’t think my father fully accepted that decision I made.”
TSEDAKA’S FATHER felt that his daughter was committing the unthinkable, and severing a link in the community’s tenacious hold on their heritage and their physical place in this part of the world. Indeed, the Samaritans have survived here against all the odds, through geopolitical thick and thin, including the First Intifada in the late 1980s, when the community was forced to abandon its longtime berth in Nablus, at the foothills of Mount Gerizim, and move to the settlement of Har Brakha.
But, in truth, rather than turning her back on three millennia of unbroken history, Tsedaka was actually doing her bit to keep it going. “I found my own way of preserving it, through the music. There is no one besides me who does that.”
Tsedaka and her merry band of Baladis have put out one album to date, with a second on the way. Over the past two or three decades event the Ashkenazim among us have, to a greater or lesser degree, become accustomed to hearing Arabic music with Arabic lyrics on the airwaves and, possibly, have attended any of the many concerts in the discipline held around the country and across the calendar. She has performed at the Mekudeshet Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, in Haifa and Omer near Beersheba, besides working trips to the States, Romania, Spain and Uzbekistan.
But when Tsedaka opens her mouth to sing you immediately get the impression that this is something else. There are numerous strands to the expansive genre of Arabic music, with each country and region offering its own unique seasoning to the sonic textures and rhythmic underpinning. Tsedaka sings in Arabic, with seemingly a perfect natural accent, but it is when she delivers material such as “Moses Peace Prayer” that you feel an eyebrow rising. Is it Arabic? The music certainly sounds like it is. But there are discernible words in Hebrew in there too. “That’s ancient Hebrew, it’s not Arabic,” Tsedaka explains.
The music also draws on deep historical seams. “This is music that is 3,500 years old,” she says, adding that she had to make some effort to bring the music into the here and now, and make it palatable for 21st-century audiences. “These are songs that were never sung together with musical instruments. There were trills and transitions, and vocal music, and that’s that. I can’t just pick up the oud and play a Samaritan song.”
That’s where the Baladis came in. “You can’t listen to a cappella music for too long. Maybe one or two songs, and then you’ve had enough.” Tsedaka felt something had to be done in order to make the music with which she’d grown up in Holon, and which had sustained her ancestors across the centuries, consumer friendly.
“I TOOK musicians who arranged the songs in such a way that it became possible to play them. We did our best to preserve the original character of the songs, but we moved things around. That enabled us to preserve the material.”
I wondered how Tsedaka’s here-and-now take on the ancient music went over with the members of the community. It seems she got a mixed response. “Some said it is amazing, and that I did good work, and others said I had no right to take the material and change it.”
But Tsedaka appears to be made of sterner stuff. “Yeah, I certainly want for hard-core music,” she chuckles. “One of my friends called it really tough fringe music.” There were therapeutic benefits to be had from the venture too. “I found a way to assuage my conscience over my father. For me, if only for that reason, it has all been worth it.”
Indeed, Tsedaka’s musical explorations helped not only to bridge the father-daughter gap after she upped and left the community, it offered a vehicle for the two to actually work together, to keep the Samaritan musical torch burning brightly. “I brought out the first disc in 2007, and my father helped me a lot with that,” she recalls. “He even sings on the record.” Clearly the familial wound had been healed. “My mother sings on the record too,” Tsedaka adds.
This evening’s show in Ashdod is a relatively rare opportunity for Tsedaka and the guys to share her traditional music with a local audience. She says that she sometimes gets the feeling that non-Israelis appreciate what she has to offer more than people from here, whence the songs came. “We performed all over the United States – I think we did 90 shows in three tours – and we did workshops with locals, and sang for them, including people who have very little idea of the big wide world and other cultures. They loved what we did.”
In addition to the emotional familial stuff, Tsedaka has been through the mill a few times on her way to achieving recognition of her musical baggage. When she first went to a classical music teacher in Tel Aviv, she was told she was singing off key. In fact Tsedaka was only singing the quartertones of the Arabic music she heard and sang in her childhood, and which do not exist in western classical works. “I almost lost the ability to sing quartertones,” she says.
Luckily, she managed to hang on to that, and plow ahead, seamlessly fusing the sounds that nourished her childhood with some of the more contemporary energies, sounds and rhythms of the world around her.
For tickets and more information: 08-956-8111 and ushpizinfestival.co.il