Hu’s for music?

A life-changing melding of Sephardi music and Western classical works, as Rali Margalit takes the Hamazkeka stage.

Double-bass player Dafna Sadeh. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Double-bass player Dafna Sadeh.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Initially, Rali Margalit was perfectly happy to earn her keep playing classical music. She had gained a good education at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, and was beginning to build up a reputation as an up-and-coming cellist.
Her musical mindset took a dramatic and irrevocable turn in 1990 when the ensemble in which she played at the time enjoyed a fruitful confluence with an ethnically inclined counterpart at the Israel Festival, the country’s preeminent cultural event.
“I had just completed my bachelor’s degree; Dafna had just finished a bachelor’s degree at Mannes School of Music in New York,” says Margalit.
The “Dafna” in question is double bass player Dafna Sadeh, who now lives in England but was then a member of the groundbreaking cross-cultural group East-West Ensemble led by Yisrael Borochov.
The two quickly became friends, both on and off the stage.
On October 31, Margalit and Sadeh will be joined by percussionist Avi Agababa for a gig at Hamazkeka, a venue for contemporary, cross-cultural art located near City Hall in Jerusalem.
Agababa was also in the East-West Ensemble lineup for the 1990 Israel Festival concert, which was based on a project called “Nedudei Hashushan” (Rose Roaming).
“It was a Ladino concert, with two ensembles on the stage at the same time,” continues Margalit.
“The ensemble I was in was not just any old classical group; we played baroque music. Baroque!” says the cellist, stressing the seeming chasm between the two outfits on the stage a quarter of a century ago.
“There were recorders and a harp as well,” she adds, referring to her ensemble.
Then again, perhaps the divide between Sephardi music and Western classical works is not that wide after all.
“The basic premise of the [Israel Festival] show was that, in fact, Ladino is not only central to Jewish music, in which, for a while, Arabic culture and European culture meshed in complete harmony – you can also approach Ladino from a completely Western angle,” she states. “Just last week, the counter tenor Yaniv D’or released a new CD which takes that exact line, that combines Ladino music with ancient Western music.
It worked out really well. You can hear Ladino melodies in European folk songs as well.”
For Margalit, the Israel Festival was not only a lot of fun and a chance to strut her developing stuff on a major stage – it turned out to be a life-changer.
“It was the first time I’d played alongside percussion instruments,” she recalls. “That was a point of no return for me. As soon as I heard Avi playing percussion, there was no way back for me. I simply stopped developing into a classical musician.”
It wasn’t a matter of someone keeping time behind Margalit so that she could focus solely on her melodic lines; it was down to the essence of ethnic music, which, she found, differed so starkly from the classical approach.
“There was a sense of rhythm, and the physicality of this music, the power of it all, which I think was partly down to the arrangements which Yisrael Borochov wrote for the show,” she says.
Borochov’s thing was bass and rhythm lines which, says Margalit, was just right for her.
“That was exactly what was missing from the music I’d played up to that point, so, for me, that power of the rhythm and the bass lines in the music we played at that concert were like a flash of light for me. It really opened my eyes, and ears.”
Another, seemingly extraneous, occurrence at the time also helped to push Margalit away from classical music and into the arms of the ethnic ilk.
“In 1990, the mass wave of Russian immigration started, and loads of Russian musicians began arriving,” she explains. “The Ministry of Absorption undertook to pay their salaries for five years. Orchestras began to speak in Russian. There were some excellent musicians among them.”
It was clearly time for Margalit to move on, and the Israel Festival crossover date pointed the way forward.
“The solution transpired straightaway,” she remembers.
“I was a bit desperate before the concert with Dafna. The Russian aliya was the beginning of my transition to ethnic music.”
Even so, Margalit’s newfound artistic departure started out on tried and trusted lines.
“Dafna and I formed a cello-double bass duo and we played classical pieces, and we included in our repertoire a couple of works we had composed ourselves which were of a more ethnic-jazzy flavor,” she says.
The latter proved to be unexpected hits.
“Neither of us really thought much of the scores we’d written, but they were very popular with our audiences,” she says wryly.
Life moved on for Margalit and Sadeh, and their musical endeavor followed suit.
“We became mothers and we created shows for children, which did quite well,” Margalit recalls.
However, regional developments put an end to the ongoing synergy when Sadeh relocated with her family to England, the second intifada bringing her to fear for the safety of her children. Yet the two remained firmed friends and partners in music, and they continued to perform together over the years during Sadeh’s forays here.
Margalit continued to participate in all manners of ethnic venture, and wrote and recorded her own music, with “Soosim” (Horses) her latest release.
In addition to her fine musicianship and intriguing charts, she has also become known for the unique instrument she uses, called the chel-hu. It was built for her by Australian instrument maker Peter Biffin as a development of his tarhu line of spiked fiddles, and which Margalit first encountered when she heard Irish-born, Cretan-based musician Ross Daly playing one in 2006.
“He has several tarhus of different sizes, and he played one which has exactly the same range as the cello,” Margalit says of Daly. “I was very impressed with the sound, and later I thought it would be wonderful to have a cello version of the instrument.”
It took over a year and plenty of blood, sweat and tears for Biffin to come up with the goods, but the chelhu and Margalit have been constant performing companions ever since.
The chel-hu combines the properties of the traditional instrument with advanced technology. It consists of an acoustic cone made of carbon fibers that is placed inside the traditional instrument body, and has a set of sympathetic strings that run beneath the strings that are played. Together, the strings produce a unique sound effect.
Margalit certainly makes the most of her one-of-akind creation, as will be evident at Hamazkeka next weekend.
The gig marks Agababa’s first return to the Margalit- Sadeh fold since that initial confluence 25 years ago.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” says Margalit, “and I hope the three of us get to play together again, and sooner.”