Classical Sephardi conquers the world

The Andalusian Orchestra: No secret that most of its members hail from the former Soviet Union.

andalusian orchestra 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
andalusian orchestra 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Andalusian Orchestra opens its season Sunday at the Jerusalem Theater with a concert dedicated to religious songs (mizmorim) of the Andalusian and Northern African Jewish musical traditions. Andalusian (Jewish Spain and its diaspora) music, piyutim (liturgical songs of the oriental Jewish communities) and the whole range of oriental classical music is no longer a curiosity; for more than a decade, it has been a part of the musical repertoire around the country. The first version of an Israeli Andalusian orchestra was formed in December 1987 in Ashdod, a joint initiative of the paitan (liturgical singer) and classical conductor Moti Malka and then-mayor Arieh Azulay, who himself originated from Morocco and was a lover of Andalusian culture. What began as a modest project to honor the heritage of immigrants from the Magreb - Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - soon became a fascinating institution. It has gained its place in the musical life of Israel, and - a fact not many are aware of - an important place in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities of North America and Europe. In April 2005, the orchestra's main soloist, contratenor Emil Zrihan, appeared at the Disney Hall in Los Angeles, accompanied by the prestigious Chronos Quartet and a French Andalusian ensemble, for an audience of 2,000. The Los Angeles Times review was ecstatic: "For a short moment, listening to Zrihan and the musicians accompanying him, it seemed as if everything was fine in the whole world." The fact that the Ashdod-based orchestra has reached the mainstream of musical life in Israel, and can count among its subscribers many non-Sephardi Israelis, is no longer a scoop. Nor is it a secret that most of its musicians are in fact olim from the former USSR, who have mastered the silsulim (trills) of Andalusian music as they had previously mastered Beethoven and Brahms. Beside these Ashkenazi musicians, the orchestra appears always with a typical Andalusian ensemble using authentic instruments. These play in the traditional manner - without written music. The orchestra was started just in time to save the centuries-old legacy of Andalusian music from oblivion. The orchestra has an educational department that exhibits the oriental Jewish musical legacy in schools and youth departments. This year, a related conservatory opened in Ashdod; other projects include the first-ever international Andalusian festival in 2008 in Ashdod, and in 2009 the orchestra will host the first contest for local compositions created in the tradition of the Andalusian and classical oriental music heritage. In 2012 official representatives from Spain will arrive in Israel for the inauguration of a center for the research and propagation of Andalusian music and culture. Touring countries in halls as grand as the Tel Aviv Opera House and as unpretentious as the cultural centers in periphery towns such as Dimona, season highlights this year will feature, besides the opening mizmorim concert, one of shirat ha-bakashot - a mystical tradition within the corpus of oriental liturgy, sung at synagogues from Morocco to Persia on Shabbats after midnight, and a concert dedicated to love songs. All the andalusian concerts are held in the largest halls across the country - from Jerusalem, through tel aviv ( the opera house), beer sheva, besides the modest halls in peripheral places like dimona, beyt shemesh and of course, ashdod, the home of the orchestra.One of the orchestra's proudest achievements is highlighting classical mizrahi artists who immigrated in the early years, when oriental classical music did not even exist in the official musical landscape. Just a month ago the orchestra dedicated a special concert to the legacy of Rabbi David Buzaglo, considered one the most important poets and composers of the Moroccan liturgical tradition. Buzaglo, blind and cut off from his community while he lived in the tiny immigrant town of Kiryat Haim near Haifa, remained unknown to non-Moroccan Israelis until his death in 1975. His students and followers never forgot him, however, and presented a large selection of his works sung by the greatest of paytanim. On that occasion his son, philosopher Dr. Meir Buzaglo of the Hebrew University, talked publicly for the first time about his father and his legacy. While audience members hailed mainly from North Africa, it wasn't difficult to see Israelis with no family ties to the tradition appreciate the concert for the good and moving music it is.