Music, my word

“There is something pretty exceptional in Israeli culture, of composing music to poems,” he notes. “It happens with other cultures, but it is especially prevalent here.”

By
September 18, 2019 22:04
Music, my word

SINGER-SONGWRITER Riff Cohen will lend her cultured vocals to some poetic material.. (photo credit: TRUE TWINS)

Anyone who has ever trained an ear on what is rather quaintly termed “songs of beautiful old Israel” may be aware that the textual base often comes from words that were written for a different purpose.

The Hebrew poetry-popular song synergy will be front and center at Beit Avi Chai on September 25-27 at the Jerusalem to the Sea event, which the institution calls a “festival to celebrate the closing of the old year and the beginning of the new year.”

In technical Jewish calendar terms, the festival straddles two years, with a second round of lectures, writing workshops and, naturally, concerts based on the symbiotic connection between text and melody lined up at Hapisga Garden in Jaffa on October 3-4.

Festival artistic director Amichai Hasson has put together a top-notch array of speakers and artists, including venerated educator Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau and celebrity performers such as Shlomi Shaban, Shlomo Gronich, Ninet, Alon Eder, Ester Rada and Riff Cohen.
Relative tenderness of years notwithstanding, 32-year-old Hasson has already cemented his place in the very highest echelons of the national cultural hierarchy. Thus far he has picked up the Minister of Culture Prize for New Poets, in 2015, and last year he published a volume of poetry titled Bli Ma – loosely translated as Without What – which won him the Gardner Simon Prize for Hebrew Poetry in memory of the president of Israel’s wife, Nechama Rivlin.

Hasson is also a journalist, scriptwriter and filmmaker, all of which makes him something of an authority on Israeli culture in general and, in particular, on poetry works in this country. He has also had some of his poems put to music. That also makes him a pretty good choice as artistic director of an event that marries written and vocalized words.

The linchpin of the Jerusalem to the Sea lineup is a coproduction in partnership with Army Radio, and presents musical compositions written to the words of famous Israeli poets. The program also doffs its derby to Army Radio, as the station closes on its 70th anniversary.

“There is something pretty exceptional in Israeli culture, of composing music to poems,” he notes. “It happens with other cultures, but it is especially prevalent here.”

Hasson is keen to celebrate the sterling creative efforts of our men and women of letters, and the people that put them to music and performed them, over the years at the forthcoming festival. It is, he says, also a matter of digging into a seam of bygone times. “That happened here naturally for years – particularly in the 1950s and 1960s.”

SHLOMI SHABAN is one our most respected performers of rock-and-pop material. (Credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

That interdisciplinary confluence began to wane toward the end of the 1960s. That was until Yitzhak Livni, legendary Army Radio chief – who revolutionized the radio station and, in fact, radio programming in general in Israel – got in on the act. “He took the bull by the horns,” Hasson notes. “He said that if it [setting poetry to music] is disappearing, we’ll make sure we bring it back.”

In the early ’70s Livni instigated a number of “poet songs evenings,” getting popular musicians to score works by some of our most celebrated wordsmiths across several generations, including the likes of Bialik, Nathan Zach and Yehuda Amichai.

“Livni organized events, first at Tzavta and then at Heichal Hatarbut,” Hasson continues. It was a roaring success on all fronts. The public responded by packing the auditoriums, and the country’s top commercial sector musicians were more than happy to jump on the Livni bandwagon and feed off some timeworn – and fresher - silky poetic gems.

“You can call those songs ‘the best of,’” says Hasson. “You had songwriters like Matti Caspi and Yoni Rechter and Shlomo Gronich and Yehudit Ravitz. The quantity of classic songs that came out of that initiative is incredible.”

Hasson puts the gradual decline in poet-musician collaborations down to the old fiscal reality. “It costs a lot of money to engage in that sort of production.”

Even so, the poetry-pop song flame did flicker brightly from time to time. “There was [record label] Nana Disc, which did a project with the work of [feted poet] Avot Yeshurun and put that to music. There weren’t any musical hits from that, but I appreciate the effort.”

THE JERUSALEM-TEL AVIV two parter comprises three major sections. “The first third is classics, which include many poet songs which were performed in those original evenings in the ’70s, which will receive fresh renditions,” Hasson explains. “The second third of the concert will feature songs that were not part of those shows back then, but they are classics nonetheless.”

The idea is to offer a new cultural and sonic perspective on the base material. “We want to present the songs in a different way,” Hasson continues. “The Mizrahi musical style, for instance, was not even around when the original evenings took place. We want to interface that with the poetry texts.”

The accent is also very much on the here and now and the younger crowd, and offering a springboard for new poetic ventures.
“We are also going to have new songs that were specially written for our evening,” says Hasson, following neatly on the heels of his observation about Eastern-leaning offerings. “There is [actress and singer] Ester Rada. I think she is fantastic. She will take a poem by Adi Keissar.”

The latter is a 38-year-old poet, of Yemenite descent, who initiated a new wave of Mizrahi poetry for the masses in the form of readings combined with Middle Eastern music and dancing, as part of her well received Ars Poetica project.

“I don’t see any reason why the [Rada] song shouldn’t become a hit on the radio,” Hasson exclaims. “It’s a superb song.”
There’s more in the way of youthful endeavor on the Jerusalem to the Sea agenda. “There’s a young poet called Yoel Tayeb, whom almost no one knows. He’s excellent,” Hasson says. The artistic director did his homework. “I looked for 100 poems which I thought had the potential to be set to music, and which could provide a good basis for the next generation of scored poems.”

Hasson not only wants to introduce the public to worthy literary efforts, he would also like songwriters to sit up and take note. “[Rocker] Alon Eder has put Tayeb’s poem to music. What chance would there be, normally, of Alon finding Yoel Tayeb’s poems?”

Yoram Rotem is also fully on board the poetry-melody venture. As a veteran broadcaster, and presenter of the long-running iconic Four in the Afternoon daily show, Rotem has been a driving force behind Army Radio’s continued efforts to keep the flag of Israeli music flying high and proud.

“Army Radio, with the poetry evenings, was one of the first to promote having poems set to music,” he notes. “Yitzhak Livni’s initiative, I think, was a salute to the written word, too.”

Rotem feels that spirit is sorely needed these days, too. “Yes, you see quite a few young musicians taking poetry and putting [poems] to music, but, sadly, they don’t become hits. You don’t hear a lot of them on the radio.”

Perhaps the year closer-new year opener event will help in that regard. “I am a firm believer in the power of live performances to bring people in,” Rotem observes. “I hope that happens with the festival, too.”
Hearing, and seeing, is believing.

For tickets and more information: www.bac.org.il


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