Sephardi music pioneer Jo Amar dies in New York

North African composer, cantor and popular singer paved way for performers like Boaz Sharabi, Ofra Haza, and Kobi Oz.

Jo Amar 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jo Amar 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Although he was born in Morocco and spent a major part of his life in the United States, singer Jo Amar, who died in New York on Friday at age 79, always considered himself an Israeli. Initially a Hebrew teacher who dabbled in liturgical and Andalusian music in his native Morocco and continued to work as a teacher after his arrival in Israel in 1956, Amar showed up in the Israel Radio studios in the late 1950s with a tape of his music. At that time, Ashkenazi singers and musicians ruled Israel's music world, and the music of the Edot Hamizrah (people of the East) was all but taboo. Amar's unusual voice appealed to the people who listened to the tape, and they decided to record him in the studio. Since not all the soundproofing features that exist today were available at the time, radio employees outside the studio could hear him. They were so entranced by his singing that the studio began to fill up with admirers. It did not take long for Amar to make a career change and to become a full-time singer and composer. His popularity soared not only in Israel, but also among America's Sephardi population. Notwithstanding the adulation and icon status that he received in Israel, Amar often felt like a second-class citizen and spoke out strongly against the discrimination to which North African and Asian Jews were subjected. In 1970 he moved to New York, where he felt his talents were more appreciated than they were in Israel. He also branched out from the spiritual to the spirited, composing and singing many songs that became folk tunes. In constant demand as both a cantor and a popular singer, he toured the US and Europe, and returned to Israel from time to time to record with the Andalusian Orchestra. There is no doubt that he paved the way for other singers of North African and Asian background, such as Avihu Medina, Avi Toledano, Boaz Sharabi, Ofra Haza, Shlomo Bar, Kobi Oz, Zahava Ben, Kobi Peretz and a host of others. Just under a year ago, Amar was honored with a tribute concert at the Jerusalem Theater where both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi performers sang some of the songs that he made famous. At that time, he was no longer capable of singing; illness had bound him to a wheelchair and robbed his voice of its power. Amar produced more than 20 albums and taught many students in the cantorial workshops he conducted. He also published an anthology of Moroccan liturgical music. Among the most popular of his songs are "Yismah Moshe," "Shalom LeVen Dodi," "Barcelona," "Song of the Drunkard," and "Ani Havatzelet Hasharon." In recent years, following the death of his wife Raymonde, he returned to live permanently in Israel, settling in Moshav Yad Rambam, where he was buried on Sunday after his body was flown home. While radio stations in Israel and around the world were playing recordings of pop icon Michael Jackson, who also died at the end of last week, Israel Radio's Keren Noibach announced on her early morning program Seder Yom (Agenda) that she had no intention of playing Jackson, but would play Amar. Other program hosts on the station followed Noibach's example and interviewed folk music experts and students of Amar's, who reminisced fondly about his influence on them personally and on Israeli music in general - how he fused the traditions of Spain and Morocco with modernity.