Contemporary interest in the ever-growing canon of piyutim is currently reaching a fever pitch.
By BEN JACOBSONShaharit
Jewish holy para-liturgical poetry is called piyut, and contemporary interest in the ever-growing canon of piyutim is currently reaching a fever pitch. Active weekly Kehillot Sharot piyut study workshops are creeping up all over Israel, the new comprehensive "Hazamanah L'Piyut" Web site at www.piyut.org.il is drawing thousands of users every week, and piyut-oriented bands are selling out auditoriums all over the world.
Fronted by Roni Ishran, who also serves as one of the leaders of Kehillot Sharot, the Jerusalem-based Shaharit ensemble has recently released their debut album, Shaharit, to much fanfare, including a soldout CD release performance at Jerusalem's Beit Shmuel.
The disc is an elegant and mesmerizing journey into the world of piyutim through the prism of the Oriental Diaspora (although there is a major connection between piyut and Ashkenazi culture, it's primary vibrancy has always been carried out by Jews from Arab lands). Shaharit therefore draws from the style of classical Judeo-Arab ethnic folk instrumentations and structures, and the few texts sung here are from the Psalms and old-time piyutim - yet almost all of the album's compositions are originals. A meeting place between the ancient classics and contemporary pop culture, Shaharit is a very promising debut album.
Speaking about her own piyut group, the Hayona Ensemble, Ben Gurion University professor of music Haviva Pedaya says, "In today's culture, many incorporate the West into their love of the East. That's legitimate, but I think that the West is represented enough." Pedaya's sentiments are certainly justified, and the importance of purist endeavors like Hayona's recent Yonat Rehokim (and its slightly less purist, yet beautiful cousin Shaharit) is undeniable. But of arguably equal significance is the fusion of flavors heard on New York-based Asefa's new eponymous recording.
Mixing a load of piyut-style motifs with a pinch of shtetl seasoning (plenty of clarinet) and some hints of contemporary Western jazz and even hard rock, Asefa is new-school Jewish poly-ethnic fusion at its best. The house band of the Jewish Awareness Through Music organization, Asefa and frontman/founder Samuel Thomas lead educational cultural workshops, with the goal of connecting all elements of the Diaspora; the coming to light of this recording takes Thomas's goals a long way.