Libyan love-in

Oud player Yaniv Raba (right) and bass player Yankele Segal are the driving force behind the Luvim project (photo credit: ZOHAR SHAPIRA)
Oud player Yaniv Raba (right) and bass player Yankele Segal are the driving force behind the Luvim project
(photo credit: ZOHAR SHAPIRA)
They say you can never go back. Then again, if you initially reject your roots, as an artist it can help to dig into your genetic treasure chest and embrace the familial and cultural backdrop to what you are up to in real time.
The local ethnic music scene is littered with musicians who kicked at the sounds and cultural sensibilities they imbibed with their mother’s milk, and sought to channel their artistic gifts through very different, more contemporary and commercial – a.k.a. Western – channels of expression. The names of internationally renowned violinist and oud player Yair Dalal, whose parents hailed from Iraq, and Turkish-born guitarist- vocalist Berry Sakharof spring to mind.
Yaniv Raba slots into that category, too. The fortysomething oud player will show just how far he has taken his parental baggage when he fronts the Luvim (“Libyans”) band at Beit Avi Chai on Tuesday, as part of the annual “Story.
People” project, which this year focuses on the culture of the Maghreb region, which takes in the Jewish communities of Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.
The four-day program (March 27-30) covers varied artistic and cultural ground, taking in concerts, literary slots, culinary workshops and movies.
As a youngster Raba was more into the sounds and grooves of late Sixties American rock outfit The Doors, its charismatic front man, Jim Morrison, and Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave.
But at some stage, the oud player found his way back home to the traditional music that had informed his initial formative years and suffused his early home life with the sounds and smells of his parental Libyan heritage.
Raba’s Libyan-born father is well and truly steeped in the nuances and subtleties to be found in the liturgical music of his native community, and as a paytan (liturgical singer) has been keeping the tradition alive in his local synagogue and other venues for many years.
Once Yaniv Raba got over his youthful rebellion, he reconnected with his musical inheritance.
“My father is a paytan and cantor, and he grew up there [in Libya],” says Raba.
“Many of the piyutim [liturgical songs] that I know from him are very rare songs which I heard him sing in our living room. I also recorded him. It is a great honor to pay tribute to this legacy, and it has brought me closer to my father. For me, this music is a journey back in time, back to my roots.”
Raba Sr.’s voice can be heard on the group’s debut release Nedudim (“Roaming”), which came out four years ago under the aegis of Or Shalom, the Bat Yam-based center dedicated to preserving the heritage of Libyan Jewry. Once bitten by the roots bug, Raba dived headlong into the material, and he and musical soul mate, longtime pal and fellow Luvim musical arranger and bass player Yankele Segal made sense and some order out of the reams of information they unearthed in Bat Yam and elsewhere.
“It took a long time to get the project off the ground,” Raba notes. “We did a lot of research. It took about two years to get off the ground. We got a lot of help from Or Shalom and the center’s head, Pedazur Benattia. There are lots of recordings you can hear there.”
But it wasn’t just a matter of making sure Raba, Segal et al. – all told, 10 musicians contributed to Nedudim, and that’s in addition to a choir – got the right notes in the right places, with the correct intonations.
“We looked at all sorts of material at Or Shalom,” Raba continues. “And they weren’t all only about the music. We wanted to get into the atmosphere [of Jewish Libyan culture].”
Segal also traversed plenty of sonic terrain before reverting to DNA type.
“I started from jazz,” says the bassman. “I studied jazz at the Rubin Academy [of Music and Dance in Jerusalem].”
He may have immersed himself in the improvisatory dynamics of the music spawned in New Orleans, but Segal was always keen to explore the gray matter to be found in the margins. “I wasn’t necessarily interested in mainstream jazz, you know, bebop and all that. I was drawn to the jazz harmonies and the spirit of jazz, and to fusing that with other things.”
The guitarist received a significant push in the requisite direction around 20 years, when a friend played him some music by Turkish guitarist Erkan Ögur.
And that was that.
Segal adds that his genre transition was not, in fact, a particularly sharp departure. “There is, of course, improvisation in jazz, and all the music of the eastern Mediterranean basin is largely built on improvisation.”
Indeed, on the fly creation is part and parcel of roots music from this part of the world. “Any player can produce a taqsim [improvisational introduction] lasting five to 10 minutes. And that’s all spontaneous.”
Raba and Segal will be joined by four other instrumentalists at Beit Avi Chai, including ney – Persian flute – player Yogev Levy, percussionists Yishai Afterman and Roi Freedman, and qanoun (zither) player Ariel Kasis, with Dvir Cohen-Iraqi and Ilan Damari responsible for the vocal input.
The show will feature material from the group’s sophomore release, which is gradually taking place.
“We will play some things we have never performed before in this kind of format,” says Segal. “We are still feeling our way with the new CD, but the concert repertoire will offer some kind of indication as to which way we are heading with the new album.”
The musicians may not be entirely sure about the wind direction of the incipient project, but when it comes to improvising in real time, it always helps to enjoy a generous comfort zone with your comrades in creative arms.
“Yaniv and I have known each other for about 15 years, and the Luvim started back in 2010,” says Segal.
Raba says that he and his colleagues and, for that matter, anyone putting out Jewish music with a Libyan slant enjoy a great deal of freedom.
“There is no clear-cut Libyan music. You can’t really point to something and say it is Libyan music. Libyan music is characterized by the wide collection of colors it incorporates. Ninety percent of Libya is made up of tribes. And, in terms of geography, it borders on Egypt, the Sahara and Sudan, and the Turks ruled the country for 400-500 years. There are many colors and styles in Libyan music,” he explains.
While that may sound intricate and even a little daunting, Raba says the eclectic derivative lines that run through his paternal musical heritage only serve to push him, Segal and the rest of the band members ever further along their musical continuum.
“There are so many motifs, and we had to differentiate each piyut, and look at the influences on each one. They could be Egyptian-Arabic influences or Turkish.
You might hear an African rhythm or something more from the desert, from the Sahara. We wanted to maintain some kind of line that characterizes the whole band,” he says.
That enriches the sonic substrata but also keeps Raba and Segal on their professional toes.
“It’s great and good fun, but it’s also very complicated,” Raba adds. “You have to find the right musicians for each work. There are different ways of playing and different forms of expression. It’s challenging, but we love it.”
Tuesday’s offering will also be enhanced by the appearance of TV personality Guy Zoaretz and megastar rocker Sakharof, who played on Nedudim and has paid his dues across various ethnic musical tracts for some years now.
For tickets and more information: (02) 621-5300 and