Holy harmonies

While the Jerusalem Season of Culture draws to a close, the Piyut Festival kicks off.

Omer Avital, The New Jerusalem Orchestra 521 (photo credit: Yishai Levron)
Omer Avital, The New Jerusalem Orchestra 521
(photo credit: Yishai Levron)
On Thursday and Saturday, the concluding event of the Jerusalem Season of Culture presents a kind of challenge, according to artistic co-director and producer, musician Yair Harel. While some internationally famous names in various fields of art participated in this year’s season, the time has come for something conceived, written and performed by high-quality, yet exclusively local artists and performers.
Maqam Jerusalem features, for the second time since its creation a year ago, the New Jerusalem Orchestra, in a program that brings together the various Diaspora musical traditions, and brings Jewish and Arabic flavors, both local and more exotic, to the forefront, presented in a blend of Israeli tunes.
“It’s time for a typical Israeli sound,” Harel says enthusiastically. “One that has deep roots in Arabic, Jewish, North African, Amharic, Caucasian and European traditions. It’s a multi-voice sound, not only Jewish-Arabic, but much wider, richer, with the orchestra and the choir [of the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute] constantly on the stage, very present, as various soloists get on and off the stage. Hence these two [Jewish and Arabic music] constitute the backbone of the whole concept.”
The New Jerusalem Orchestra was established two years ago, and debuted at the opening of the Israel Festival 2010. The orchestra, the brainchild of musicians Omer Avital of “Third World Love” fame and Harel, is an attempt to create a framework for the diverse musical expressions of the city’s many cultures, while enabling cultural dialogue through contemporary forms.
The first part of the program integrates elements of poetic and musical traditions expressing longing for a rebuilt Jerusalem. The second part is a new piece by Avital, meant as a correspondence with the lands of the Middle East, using artistic language that vacillates between classical western and eastern jazz and improvisation.
“This program is the fruit of years of dreams, yearnings – both artistic and personal – that are slowly but surely coming true,” says Harel, who together with Avital spent almost the entire year transforming this shared dream into words and sounds, and now hopes for an encouraging response from the public.
“We could just play classical Arabic music mixed with Jewish traditions and present the result to the public – it would certainly have been a success, since there are such beautiful materials in this area,” Harel continues, “but we wanted to say more. We wanted to say: listen – there is something that goes beyond, that brings together all these traditions and, through these blends, gives birth to something new, something deeply rooted in traditions, but that is created here and now.”
Harel and Avital hope that the audience will be led by them – and the many performers taking part in this project – to open their hearts to something both new and ancient. They both wish to reach, though the music they arrange (Harel) or compose (Avital), new frontiers of a musical heritage and culture.
“It comes from many places and times,” says Harel, “but at the same time, it couldn’t have been created anywhere other than Jerusalem. This is the place, there is no other place like Jerusalem, and I really hope people will be touched by what we’re offering them with this very special work.”
BARELY 48 hours after the second performance of Maqam Jerusalem, another highly acclaimed musical event will kick off in the city. The fourth Piyut Festival will be held from Monday to Thursday, offering a rich variety of concerts focused on various Jewish liturgical traditions.
Beyond the impressive richness of ethnic traditions, this year’s program is reminiscent of a long-shared love for this kind of music felt by both Arabs and Jews in Islamic countries for many centuries. For the first time in this festival, Arab performers – who have preserved traditions from North Africa and the Iraqi and Persian world – will perform on the same stage as Jewish performers.
To highlight this, Harel, the artistic director of the festival, has chosen to open it with the Arab Orchestra of Nazareth, and Cantor David Menahem together with Arab singer Maamun Zayud. The theme for this opening evening will be famous classical Arab performers such as Abdel Wahab and Oum Kalthoum in the traditions of the piyut (Jewish liturgical poem).
“This is a homage to this wonderful tradition, which has lasted for centuries among classical Arab performers and traditional Jewish liturgists, and which seems to have more aficionados among Israeli Jews than the young generation of Israeli Arabs,” says Harel.
Asked if this could also be interpreted as a message of peace, Harel replies that art in general and music – and liturgical music in particular – has a wider message that transcends current reality.
“It is a very natural thing,” says Harel.
“It goes beyond the Israeli-Zionist narrative, or the emblematic slogans about peace in the region and such. It has a much deeper meaning: that this culture has always been a shared one and that it has survived all the obstacles. In my eyes, this is the best and most important message of peace, this is a true dialogue, held in respect of each other.”
On the opening evening, traditional liturgical Jewish songs, arranged to classical Arabic melodies, will be performed in both Hebrew and Arabic by Menahem and Zayud, followed by 11 additional programs at Beit Avi Chai and other venues in the city. Later that night in the courtyard of Beit Avi Chai, kanun player and music director Elad Gabai will present, together with the Musrara Ensemble of the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music, a program of piyutim and classical Arab music.
Tuesday will be the day for Psalms performed according to ancient traditions from Indian and Afghani Jewish communities, held in the Beit Avi Chai courtyard. This will be followed by a program of liturgical traditions from the Mediterranean communities of eastern Turkey, Kurdistan and Crete.
The festival also includes two programs featuring more contemporary music attached to the liturgical traditions, with popular singers Kobi Aflalo and Shay Gabso, who will perform in two separate concerts, respectively: Rock Brings Peace and Songs for You in the Libyan tradition. Two concerts will feature the Ashkenazi traditions for liturgical songs, with Nitzan-Chen Raz’el and Jeremy Lockwood from the USA, and saxophonist Daniel Zamir as special guest.
The Piyut Festival takes place at Beit Avi Chai from September 10-13. For more details: www.piyut-festival.co.il