Toeing the line

The Desert Song show opens this year’s Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival in Jerusalem.

The Desert Song (photo credit: Ariel Ben Rei)
The Desert Song
(photo credit: Ariel Ben Rei)
There are many schools of thought and mindsets across the vast terrain of music exploration. While in the Western world the mixing and melding of sounds to achieve rich harmonies are paramount, in indigenous music from this part of the world unilateral melody rules the roost.
Drummer Alon Yoffe says he and his cohorts in the opening slot of the upcoming third annual Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Arts Festival prefer the latter approach.
“If you listen to Abate [Barihun] playing saxophone, you will hear beautiful melody lines,” he says.
“And the same goes for [singer, percussionist] Din Din [Aviv].”
Yoffe, Barihun and Aviv form half the lineup for the Desert Song show, which will take place at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem on December 20 at 9 p.m. The rest of the ensemble includes oud player-guitarist Yaniv Rabah, bassist Avri Borohov and keyboardist Shaul Besser.
The festival, which will run from December 20–27, is the brainchild of Confederation House director Effie Benaya and is based at the venerable Jerusalem venue.
Since its inception two years ago, the event has grown. The festival has provided artists from the Ethiopian community with a vehicle for developing and displaying their skills and for collaborating with their Israeliborn colleagues.
In fact, Yoffe and saxophonistvocalist Abate Barihun have been playing together for around 10 years. “When I heard Abate play, and then I heard him sing, that really blew me away,” says Yoffe.
“It was at a concert of the East- West Ensemble, and he only sang one song. After the show I hugged him. I really connected with his inner world right from the start. I feel blessed to work with him.”
Yoffe and Aviv also have a rich shared musical track record. At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be too much in the way of common musical ground among Yoffe, Barihun and Aviv. Aviv first made her name in the commercial climes of Israeli pop, while Yoffe feeds of rock and blues, with some jazz; and Barihun came on aliya with a rich musical portmanteau that spans straightahead jazz, Ethiopian liturgical music and heady African blues. But over the years, Yoffe and Aviv have gravitated closer to the ethnic side of things.
The 39-year-old Yoffe began his musical odyssey quite late in life.
“After the army I spent a year in England, and I had quite a few experiences there – and not all of the healthy kind,” he says. “When I came back to Israel at 24, I was at a bit of a loose end.”
Luckily, some paternal inspiration helped him move along in a positive, musical, direction. “My dad was a street drummer, and I began to get into that,” he recounts.
Once bitten, Yoffe immersed himself in mastering his drum set, and before long he began to widen his percussive palette. “I was into rock, and then I got into jazz and avant-garde jazz, and then I began listening to music from West Africa when all sorts of masters came over here. I also got into the West African music scene here.”
Yoffe took his drumming seriously from the outset, enrolling at the Rimon School of Music, and he went to Denmark to get a better handle on Cuban music from a master of the trade there.
Yoffe’s Danish sojourn opened up all sorts of musical avenues for him.
“I saw an amazing show with four people using laptop computers,” he recalls. “There were four speakers, sort of surround sound, and it was like open computer warfare. There is also a great free jazz scene in Denmark, and I got into some of that, too.”
The latter experience led to a berth in the avant-garde Tel Aviv Art Ensemble alongside the likes of veteran reedmen Harold Rubin and Steve Horenstein. The band was actually founded by Zvi Yoffe, the drummer’s uncle.
“African music, jazz and Cuban music – that line all interests me,” he says. “I also lived in Cuba for a year after Denmark. I was in Cuba just went things were opening up to the West, around the time of the Buena Vista Social Club and all that.”
Interestingly, Yoffe also says he channels much of his drumming through piano playing. “I don’t really call myself a drummer because I got into piano long before drumming. I play a lot of piano, and I use it to compose. I wrote the music for Din Din’s second album, Free between the Worlds.”
The piano is also a basically percussive instrument but is primarily used to produce melodic work. Yoffe says those two worlds meet naturally in his ethos. “I play drums in a melodic sort of way. I always look for textures and colors. I don’t really drum. There are drummers, and there are drum players. I take everything I get from different drums and channel it into my drum set.
That allows me to generate different melodic sounds.”
Yoffe says that next week’s Desert Song show naturally feeds off the open spaces of the desert in more senses than one. “It’s like a caravan of camels, or people, walking in single file across the desert,” he observes.
“That’s where you get the melody rather than the harmony. If you think about African music that comes from wide open spaces – there’s no echo there, so you only get melody. And there’s the urban music you get from Western cities, with all those tall and crowded buildings, where the sounds bounce off them, so you get sounds that mix in harmony.”
Yoffe, Barihun and Aviv certainly play and sing harmoniously, in spirit if not pure musical terms.
For more information about the Desert Song show and the Hullegeb Festival: (02) 624-5206 and