Spreading the word

The fifth annual Piyut Festival in Jerusalem runs the gamut from Jewish liturgy and Indian classical traditions to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.

Piyut Festival (photo credit: Courtesy)
Piyut Festival
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Piyut Festival of liturgy-oriented music, based at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai, has become an important event on the local cultural calendar. Now in its fifth year, the festival attracts top artists and enthusiastic audiences from around the country, and the program spread has gradually stretched to accommodate associated genres.
This year, for example, the lineup of the four-dayer (September 10-13) includes regulars from the liturgical music beat, bolstered by some big names from rock and rock-related areas, such as Ehud Banai and Kobi Aflalo, as well as seasoned jazz saxophonist Daniel Zamir and Jewish New York blues-infused rock guitarist-vocalist Jeremiah Lockwood and his Sway Machinery band. It is a heady mix, indeed. Concerts will take place at various locations across Jerusalem, such as the Yellow Submarine, the Gerard Behar Center, the National Library, Zappa Club and Hazira, the Interdisciplinary Arena.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this year’s Piyut Festival is the marriage of liturgical sentiments from seemingly disparate cultures. One such slot is the From India to Here concert led by Yaron Pe’er (pictured left), which will take place at Beit Avi Chai at 7:30 p.m. on September 11, with Pe’er fronting an ensemble of eight instrumentalists and four vocalists. The show repertoire will feed off a rich hybrid of Psalms, original scores based on the principles of Indian classical music, an ecstatic vocal music form that hails from the Rajasthan district of northern India, and ancient Jewish liturgical works that originate in Afghanistan.
Among the thousands of Israeli backpackers that traipse around the Indian subcontinent each year are some who go there with some specific artistic intent, in addition to aiming to take in as many of the vast country’s better-known tourist attractions as possible. Many of these gravitate toward Varanasi and spend long periods of time studying the mysteries of various Indian musical instruments. Pe’er was one of those and continues to further his understanding of Indian music with his teacher there.
“I have been going to India to study with my teacher Santosh Kumar on and off for 12 years,” he says. “My teacher is the 14th generation of sarangi players – that’s around 500 years of playing music.”
Peer joined forces with Kumar in Israel earlier this year at the Indian Music Festival at Confederation House.
The From India to Here concert has been brewing for some time, and Pe’er says he didn’t work hard to put the repertoire together. “The things we will play in Jerusalem just evolved over time,” he explains. “It wasn’t that I sat down with the intent of writing music for the concert. It all came out of my studies in India and the fact that I have immersed myself in Psalms over the years. The melodies wrote themselves and just started playing themselves in my head.”
Even so, to the layman the amalgam of Indian music with Hebrew texts from Psalms does not appear to be a natural confluence.
“Indian music is based on very simple principles,” says Pe’er. “I think they had the same things in the music that was performed in our Temple, and they used many of the same scales.”
It seems there is common spiritual ground too, as well as an odyssey to be undertaken. “In the Temple, the music would capture the very soul of the listener, and then it would take him to the very essence, to the root of his soul and strip him of all his protective layers. Then the music would move into major scales and raise the listener up and give him hope and joy. They say that after hearing that music [in the Temple], people would emerge fully aware of where they came from, the essence of their soul and their destiny in life.
It is the same experience with Indian music.”
If the members of the audience at Beit Avi Chai enjoy anything like that spiritual voyage, they will get far more than their money’s worth.
“That’s the way it is with Indian music. It takes a person in a state of complete awareness on an odyssey based on only one musical note,” Peer notes, adding that the audience will enjoy a rare experience. “Indian classical music has scales and rhythms you don’t find anywhere else in the world. It is very rich music based on circular themes. We will start the concert with circles of 12 beats, which is a rhythm that comes from the dhrupad style, which is 4,000 years old. It has hardly changed at all in all that time and is almost not music. It is more like a prayer.”
That, naturally, makes it a good musical backdrop to the words Pe’er has chosen from Psalms.
The Piyut Festival will open with a salute to legendary Egyptian singer and composer Mohammed Abd el- Wahab and iconic compatriot diva Oum Kulthoum and the meeting ground with the material they made famous and texts taken from Jewish liturgy. The concert program was devised by Elad Gabai and Nizar Radwan, with the latter also conducting the Arabic Music Orchestra from Nazareth. There will also be a number of vocal soloists, such as Rabbi David Menachem and Mamoun Zaiwad.
Other festival standouts include the Sounds of the East concert, which encompasses numerous styles from around the Middle East and marries them with Jewish liturgical melodies and texts. The energy level at the festival will rise a notch or two on September 11, when top Israeli metal rock band Orphaned Land joins forces with vocalist Kobi Aflalo and an instrumental ensemble that includes Gabai on oud and kanoun, and Raba Sol on guitar, mandolin and vocals.
Lockwood’s Municipality Rock show will also put out an abundance of amps as he and his Sway Machinery band traverse such disparate musical fields as rock, blues, jazz and cantorial material.
Jazz saxophonist Daniel Zamir will add his seasoned energies to the fray.
The festival closes with another cross-cultural escapade fronted by veteran violinist-vocalist Nitzan Chen- Raziel. The Motzeh Makom concert will dip into synagogue melodies, rock ‘n’ roll and various parts of the world music domain. Chen-Raziel will be supported by a six-piece band, with Ehud Banai putting in a guest appearance.
For tickets and more information about the Piyut Festival: (02) 621- 5900, www.bac.org.il and www.piyut-festival.co.il