Reaching for the sky

French-born Jerusalemite guitarist Yoel Taieb proves his skills as a songwriter on his latest album, which, he says, encapsulates his spiritual take on music and, indeed, the whole of life.

Taieb 311 (photo credit: David Jakoubovbitch)
Taieb 311
(photo credit: David Jakoubovbitch)
French-born Jerusalemite guitarist Yoel Taieb has just released his fourth CD Did You Look at the Sky Today?, together with his Techelet Ensemble, which, he says, encapsulates his outlook on everyday life.
“There is a story about Rabbi Nachman of Breslav when he went with a disciple to visit an impoverished relative,” the 48-year-old Taieb explains.
“As they were leaving, the relative asked Rabbi Nachman for a blessing but he refused. In the end the disciple blessed the poor man that he should become rich. Sometime later Rabbi Nachman and the disciple came across the relative again, who had started making a good living, and Rabbi Nachman asked him if he’d looked up at the sky that day, but the relative said he didn’t have time for that. ‘You see what you did?’ said Rabbi Nachman to the disciple, ‘now he doesn’t have time for a breather, to look up at the sky.’ I liked that story. I never did not have the time to look up at the sky,” notes Taieb somewhat cryptically.
The new CD is certainly full of good breathing as it wends its way through eight melodies written and arranged by Taieb. There is a strong hassidic feel to the whole package, with some lively jazzy and bluesy seasoning en route. The album features a rich slew of leading members of the Israeli ethnic, classical and jazz music communities, including pianist Avi Adrian, percussionist Oren Fried, bass player Eyal Ganor and celebrated wind instrument player Michael Meltzer.
Taieb, who is of Tunisian origin, says he was drawn to jazz as a teenager living in Paris. He began playing guitar at the age of 12, after initially trying his hand at recorder. He was enchanted by the work of gypsy jazz icons Belgian-born guitarist Django Reinhardt and French master violinist Stephane Grappelli.
His artistic vision expanded incrementally in the late Seventies when he came across the ethnic-oriented explorations of British-born French resident guitarist John McLaughlin.
“As a kid I listened to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and some Frank Zappa and I used to borrow records from a local library, including classical works by composers like Stravinsky. But when I heard [1975 record with the Mahavishnu Orchestra Vision of the Emerald Beyond], that really moved me, and opened up a new world for me,” Taieb recalls.
“I was blown away by one of the tunes and that sensation has remained with me all my life.”
INSPIRED BY McLaughlin, Taieb set about exploring musical domains outside the occidental arena.
“That was actually before world music happened,” reflects Taieb, adding that he recruited additional budding talent for the job in hand.
“I was in the same class at high school as [stellar double bass player] Renaud Garcia-Fons. Back then Renaud was a guitarist and we sort of competed with each other. We got together and added a table player called Jean Francois Roger. It was an interesting time.”
As befitting their age, the teenaged Taieb and Garcia- Fons were also on a voyage of spiritual and self-discovery and Taieb began practicing yoga, a discipline he maintains to this day.
“I was also getting more into Judaism and Jewish philosophy,” Taieb adds.
“Some evenings I’d read something by an Indian philosopher and I’d follow that with reading the weekly Torah portion.”
In the years that followed he began to trawl the wonders of Jewish music even though, at the time, it was hard to get hold of sheet music in France. Later he discovered the teachings of Rabbi Nachman and his unique approach to music, particularly feeding off the mindset of singing and eventually writing melodies, or niggunim.
“Every day after morning prayers a niggun comes to me, every single day,” says Taieb.
“I get home from the synagogue and write the melody down in rough form. Sometimes it will develop into something more substantial, and other times the melody stays in skeletal form. I’ve got thousands of niggunim written down or in my head. I sing some of them on Shabbat, and teach them to my kids. And some I record.”
That ability to latch onto some ephemeral tune is not always a blessing.
“Actually, sometimes it gets to be too much and I have shut the melody out of my head,” Taieb continues.
“Sometimes I just want to have some quiet.”
For now, the niggunim continue to find their way to Taieb so, presumably, we can expect to a lot more where Did You Look at the Sky Today? came from.

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