Margalit’s new hu

Cellist and composer Rali Margalit introduces a unique instrument, finds a voice inbetween classical and ethnic music.

Rali Margalit (photo credit: Ira Ginzburg)
Rali Margalit
(photo credit: Ira Ginzburg)
Rali Margalit is a self-confessed renaissance woman. Over the last two-plus decades the 46 year old Jerusalemite cellist has traversed expansive musical domains, following a winding and interweaving classical and ethnic road.
In between the sumptuous textures and highly evocative airs her latest CD, Soosim, conjures up images and sounds from a wide range of genres. Considering her background that is only natural.
“I grew up with classical music and, after completing my studies at the [Jerusalem] Rubin Academy of Dance and Music, in 1990 I found myself in an ensemble playing ladino music at the Israel Festival,” recalls Margalit. “I have been a freelance musician for a long time now, so I have naturally ended up doing all sorts of things. It’s been an interesting ride so far.”
In addition to the heady brew of western classical and Arabic classical music, lilting jazzy motifs and haunting Middle Eastern airs, with the odd Irishoriented passage betwixt, there is a somewhat subliminal ecclesiastical substratum in Soosim, too, that conjures up a sense of high vaulted roofs and entrancing monophonic Gregorian chants. Margalit has no problems with that take, adding that her eclectic artistic stretch has a double headed feeder. “As a freelance musician, back then, it was really tough to make ends meet so I looked around for other areas that interested me. I began to teach music history, which I find fascinating. That brought me to works from ancient times, and all the way through to the modern era.”
Soosim also acknowledges the Israeli Songbook, with a couple of numbers with lyrics by iconic writers Dalia Rabikovich and Lea Goldberg.
But it wasn’t just a matter of epigonic flitting from genre to genre to keep the wolves at bay. “I encountered so many types of music, and I took them all seriously,” Margalit continues. “I never took any area of music lightly. If I came across something I didn’t know I’d study it and research it, and play it professionally. I took a course in Arabic music with Prof. Taiseer Elias, so I could play it properly, not just ape the real Arabic music artists.”
The confluence with Elias led to a typically multihued project that encompassed Renaissance and Medieval music together with ladino from the heyday of Spanish culture.
Not only has Margalit cast her artistic net far and wide she has not been in any hurry to regurgitate her rich musical nutrition. “I took my time to start composing myself,” she notes. Indeed her debut album, Five Works, only came out in 2005 when Margalit was already in her forties. Four of the eponymous pieces were composed and arranged by the cellist, with one based on a Kurdish lullaby which was arranged as a vehicle for Jerusalemite- Kurdish singer Ilana Eliya. Eliya and vocalist and kanun player Elad Gabbay feature on both of Margalit’s releases to date.
Margalit feel that the time lapse has not been to her detriment. “I never thought of myself as a composer. All these things had been cooking inside me for a long time. I suppose would have liked the material to have come out ‘cool’, free and easy and light. But, what came out was what was supposed to happen. It was totally natural, and a bit heavy.” Actually “heavy” isn’t really an epithet that readily springs to mind when listening to Soosim – well crafted would be a more accurate description.
The details on the back of the Soosim cover include a curiously named instrument, by the name of cell-hu, which Margalit uses on several tracks, including the hassidic-informed “Nigun”.
It is a unique artefact, literally. “There is only one cell-hu in the whole world,” she explains. “It was made for me by an Australian instrument builder called Peter Biffin.”
Briefly, the cell-hu is based on a membrane, a cone, which is placed inside the body of the instrument with a set of 7 sympathetic strings that run below 4 cello strings. “I had to develop a new technique in order to play it but it gives me a richer sound, a lot more flexibility, and opens open a whole new world of sound and endless varieties of shades,” Margalit explains.
Considering Margalit’s already impressive stylistic spread the addition of the cell-hu to her artistic arsenal makes for some exciting prospects.