Music without borders

American-Israeli cantor Idan Irelander is trying to bring together different cultures through the power of music.

Idan Irelander (photo credit: Courtesy Idan Irelander)
Idan Irelander
(photo credit: Courtesy Idan Irelander)
Idan Irelander believes music can be used as an instrument of peace. The cantor of Temple Emanuel, a reform synagogue in Andover, Massachusetts, says he didn’t originally set out to use his musical talents for this purpose, but it’s nevertheless been an effect of his project, “Shabbat Olam.”
The native of Netanya, Israel began the project as a way of “bringing Jewish music cultures back to life.”
“My recent project was to investigate and research the music of Sephardic Jewry,” Irelander said. “I had in mind a couple of years ago to have a Friday night service at my temple with the experience of a Sephardic Shabbat.”
Irelander began putting together musical arrangements for the performance, which would entail using traditional Middle Eastern instruments such as the Oud, Qanun, Tanbur, and Kamanache, he says.
The next step was finding musicians that could play them. Through his musical connections, Irelander was put in touch with a combination of Jordanian, Syrian, Iranian, Palestinian, Israeli, American, and Armenian musicians.
Together, they formed an ensemble group that performed at Irelander’s synagogue two years ago for a Friday night Shabbat service.
“We were seven musicians on the stage in a synagogue on a Friday night; Jews, Muslims and Christians from different parts of the world – and some of them are the biggest enemies of Israel – and we basically were performing together traditional Jewish music that came from the Arab countries,” Irelander said.
“Only in America.”
About 350 people attended the service to listen to the performances, which Irelander says is a high number even for Shabbat.
“They were very, very excited, including the Rabbi and the congregation too,” Irelander said. “We are a very peaceful congregation and I think the people were so anxious to listen to this tradition and to see all these people together on the bimah on Friday night.”
The evening was such a success that the group, coined the “Ahavat Olam” ensemble, recorded a CD featuring their performances of these Sephardic songs, called, Shabbat Olam – Sephardic Shabbat Unplugged, which was just released a few months ago.
They also performed again at Temple Emanuel at the end of this past May, once more drawing a 300+ crowd, according to Irelander.
Irelander says the group’s diversity has helped it form a message of peace through its music, although that wasn’t the original goal.
“I never had any relationship before with Palestinian musicians or anything like that,” he said, recalling that he had checked to make sure some of the musicians would be comfortable performing in a synagogue two years ago.
“Not only did they want to do that, but they were actually excited because they’ve never been in a synagogue before,” Irelander said.
Irelander says he plans to build upon the Shabbat Olam series by doing some more research on Jewish communities across the globe and then bring musicians from various countries across the world to come perform at his synagogue.
He feels this project is a colorful way to provide members of the congregation with a glimpse into different Jewish cultures that exist worldwide.
“Basically I’m trying to bring together cultures through music,” Irelander said.
He described music as a “universal language,” which makes it the perfect medium for connecting to other cultures, and even performing with musicians from Middle Eastern countries not known for their friendliness toward Israel.
“We speak a language of peace and across borders we have no hatred, Irelander said. “We just love making music together.”
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