Israeli music goes medieval

Traditional Jewish texts draw audiences across the spectrum.

eran tzur 88 (photo credit: )
eran tzur 88
(photo credit: )
A sea change has been underway over the past few years in Israeli music as it rediscovers the poetry of the Jews of the Golden Age of Spain. In 2004, a small production called Yehuda HaLevi, Corner of Ibn Gvirol opened the eyes of sell-out crowds to the literary achievements of its namesakes. Now the From Baghdad to Spain series, hosted at Tel Aviv's Brodt Center, is set to expand on the theme of showcasing the words of the medieval Orient's Jews, with each night focusing on a different thinker (Tuesday's focus is Yehuda HaLevi, Wednesday's is Maimonides, Thursday's is Saadya Gaon and the following Saturday's is Shlomo Ibn Gvirol). While all of the men in question are known for their canon of intellectual-spiritual works, it is their aesthetic value which will take center stage at the Brodt Center. Each program includes a short lecture by a university professor, providing background information about the life and work of the relevant personality, as well as a video art presentation of the artist Rafram Haddad. The opening show, Women Sing Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, is spearheaded by pop artist Eti Ankari, whose own personal spiritual journey has led to a series of collaborations with Neshama Carlebach in recent years. Wednesday's Maimonidean foray is headlined by Eran Tsur, along with the Adama dance troupe and others. Ovadia Hammama's recent hit version of "Ana B'Koach" makes him the natural choice for Thursday's exploration of that composition's author, 10th-century Babylonian sage Saadya Gaon. At the closing event, pioneer ethnic musician Shlomo Bar headlines an evening devoted to Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol, featuring brand new settings to exquisite poems, together with Ensemble Hayona and others. This roster of contemporary artists represents only the tip of an iceberg that includes some of the most popular performers in the country - Ehud Banai, Micha Shitrit and rocker Berry Sakharoff, whose own double-disc set of original Ibn Gvirol arrangements threatens to hit record stores later this winter. Several trends can be cited as possible reasons for our country's pop having gone medieval: Non-Ashkenazic Jewry is becoming increasingly acceptable in the mainstream, world music with all of its ethnic inspirations as a genre has been gaining momentum, and both secular and religious Israelis are likely to feel at home on this common, noncoercive ground. The Golden Age of Spain is certainly a prime place to look for such material. This was a culture which, while making lasting contributions to all areas of Jewish theological learning, was also open to influences from surrounding cultures. The sacred, para-liturgical verse of the piyut is a clear example of that interaction, combining Jewish traditions with the technical devices and literary influences of the Muslim world. Cosmopolitan sensuality, lyrical metered structures, and heady thought all come together here to create a natural retro-inspiration for current pop. The From Baghdad to Spain series takes place at 8:30 p.m. at The Brodt Center, 22 Zeitlin St. in Tel Aviv. Tickets, priced at NIS 50, can be ordered by calling (03) 695-4522.