Singing a different tune

Shifting away from more traditional liturgical traditions, this year’s Piyut Festival focuses the more esoteric forms of this ancient and evolving art form.

Shem Tov Levy 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shem Tov Levy 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish liturgical music (piyutim) comes in all shapes and forms, as evidenced by the program of the forthcoming annual Piyut Festival.
The four-day festival, which runs from September 13 to 16 at Beit Avi Chai, includes concerts that offer a taste of liturgical music from a wide swath of cultural hinterlands, including the Yemenite tradition, featuring popular singer Avner Gadasi; Balkan piyutim with veteran ethnic-pop singer-flutist Shem Tov Levy and Belgrade-based Cantor Stefan Sablic; a show dedicated to the liturgical music of the Jewish Libyan community, spearheaded by singer Eli Louzon; Kurdish piyutim; Jerusalem-style selihot; and some full-blown symphonic slots. It is a surprisingly varied lineup, which festival artistic director Yair Harel is keen to present to the public.
Harel also wants to convey the vibrancy of Jewish liturgical music which, he says, is a living, breathing and still evolving art form.
“There are so many different strands of this genre that are still practiced in many synagogues in Jerusalem,” he says. “I want this festival to demonstrate at least some of them but in a contemporary way. Piyut are performed and practiced on a regular basis across Jerusalem and elsewhere.”
Harel is also a strong believer in cross-fertilization.
“I am very excited, for example, about the Daltei Marom [Heaven’s Doors] concert, which opens the festival. I feel it is very important to move with the times and to take in current influences from across the board, but it is equally important to feed directly off the roots of the tradition and the music.”
The Daltei Marom slot appears to do that, and then some. The show is touted as a tribute to cantor, researcher and poet Aharon Amram who, over the years, has done much not only to perform an abundance of Yemenite material but has also helped to sustain songs and nuances that would probably otherwise have been lost to the world.
Seventy-one-year-old Amram will be front and center on September 13, alongside his sons Shahar and Elram. Their efforts will be supported and embellished by a powerful vocal roster that includes Gadasi, Gila Bashari, Lea Avraham and 31-year-old singer Ravid Kahalani.
Daltei Marom is the perfect showcase for Harel’s eclectic ethos. Earlier this year, for example, Kahalani performed at the Givatayim Theater with a program that fed off African blues, soul and jazz as much as his own Yemenite liturgical roots.
Jazz will certainly be an important ingredient in the concert, too, with the likes of trombonist Avi Lebovich, pianist Yonatan Avishai and oud player and bassist Omer Avital contributing much to the mix. Avital also serves as musical director of Daltei Marom.
And if that weren’t a rich enough offering, the music will be enhanced by some surprising traditional visual entertainment courtesy of the Kiryat Ono Dance and Piyut Ensemble. “People generally think of Yemenite dance as a uniform format, but there is a very important traditional dance style that emphasizes hand movement, and that’s what we’ll see in Daltei Marom.”
Harel says he sees his role as making sure the public gets as wide a taste of piyut traditions as possible. “This year I intentionally shifted the spotlight away from the better-known traditions and paytanim [liturgical singers], and I went for the more esoteric forms and the liturgical styles that people don’t necessarily know much about.”
That certainly applies to the piyutim of the Balkans show that will take place at 8 p.m. on September 14. The concert brings together veteran pop-rock-ethnic music artist Shem Tov Levy, Serbian-based Cantor Stefan Sablic and singer Ruth Ya’acov with a program of the rare piyut tradition of the Jews of the Balkans – communities from Sarajevo, Bulgaria and Salonika – that blends East and West and was almost completely eradicated in the Holocaust.
Harel says that for him, the festival is also a vehicle for redressing some of Israel’s cultural misdemeanors. “I am not looking to lay the blame at the door of anyone in particular but the establishment and development of the State of Israel. The Jewish culture evolved over 2,000 years of the Diaspora, but much of that was ignored in an effort to cultivate a new Israeli culture and mind-set. That refers equally to the musical traditions of the East and the West.”
That is an intriguing point, considering the way that, in the early years of the state, music from Arabic countries was generally swept aside in favor of European classical music. “Somehow, Jews from Eastern countries managed to preserve their liturgical traditions within their own community bubble,” Harel continues, “and often hassidic liturgical music suffered more.”
Elsewhere in the program, the From Afghanistan to Here concert on the opening day of the festival features an interesting mix of piyutim from Afghanistan and original songs inspired by Sufi music from India, Pakistan and Iran. Then, on September 15, From Desert and Sea will offer a rare glimpse of the piyut tradition of Libyan Jewry, which feeds off 2,500 years of Jewish life in Libya, which is at the crossroads of Arab, African and desert cultures and colored by Turkish and Italian influences.
Perhaps the grandest item on the festival roster is The Eternal Topic concert at the Jerusalem Theater, which includes original works for a symphonic orchestra based on piyutim from diverse Jewish traditions.
Harel is particularly happy about the festival’s taking place in Jerusalem, as a focal point of a unique synthesis of piyut styles and liturgical endeavor in the capital will be highlighted in the Hear Our Voice concert in Kiryat Hayovel at which cantors of synagogues in Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menahem will perform selihot based on Jerusalem Moroccan and other Sephardi traditions.
“There is an amazing force in this music, which was practiced for millennia, with so many facets and layers to it,” Harel observes. “And there is something very special about piyutim performed in the synagogues of Jerusalem. I hope the festival brings some of that to the public and helps to keep the traditions alive.”
The Piyut Festival takes place at Beit Avi Chai on September 13 – 16. For more information about the Piyutim Festival, visit or call 621-5300.