Sounds like Jerusalem

Start with piyutim and paytanim, add oud, kanun, ney and kamanche, with ethnically inclined percussion instruments and Western vibes, too, and you get Elad Gabbay’s rich and eclectic new album.

Elad Gabbay (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Elad Gabbay
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Elad Gabbay is a larger-than-life character. For starters he stands around 1.90 meters tall and appears to be just as broad-shouldered. He also comes across as an ebullient type, totally enthralled with his chosen musical craft.
We met up at the Hibba Center on Herzog Street, in the environs of Nayot, where he spends much of his waking hours overseeing the activities of the Hibba Orchestra.
The center has been around since 1982. It was created by Baghdad-born Eliyahu Gabbay – no relation – based on a three-pronged ethos that includes “nurturing allegiance to Jerusalem and Jewish tradition across all sectors of the people, and strengthening Jewish identity and the common denominator between the different sectors of the population.” That sounds like a heartwarming, worthy social and cultural goal. The center’s credo also talks of “preserving Jewish music and the unique piyutim [liturgical songs] of the different communities.”
The latter is certainly something with which the musician strongly identifies. You might even say it is part of his DNA.
“My father was a musician, a paytan [liturgical singer],” explains Gabbay. “I used to go with him to gigs and to the area of the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk. My father used to meet up with other people who played and sang piyutim from all sorts of communities, and they’d discuss the different versions and compare notes. None of my brothers were interested, but I was. I was fascinated by the things they talked about, and about the songs they played and sang.”
That gave the then-11-year-old Gabbay invaluable insight into the way paytanim went about their business, and into the subtleties of the takes of the different communities from across the Mizrahi musical subgenres. Besides getting the youngster to sit up and take enthused note, that early firsthand education instilled Gabbay with an all-embracing eclectic approach to music, which lies at the core of his new album Nagen Ba’oud (Play the Oud), which he will showcase at his upcoming concert at the Jerusalem branch of the Zappa club, on February 15 (8:30 p.m.).
The 42-year-old musician has been a fixture on the ethnic music scene for over 20 years now, performing and recording all over the world and all around the country.
I first caught his act around 15 years ago, when he performed with the Kedem Trio at Confederation House. Gabbay impressed with his quicksilver dexterity on kanun, although he started out on oud. The latter fact is front and center on the new release, with the lyrics of the title track referencing how Gabbay’s father took him to an oud class, to begin his path through the intricacies and hidden treasures of the world of music.
“We lived in Gilo and my father would take the bus – he didn’t own a car – to a synagogue near the shuk, which I later discovered was the Minhat Yehuda Synagogue [on Navon Street, off Jaffa Road] which belonged to the Pedaya family. It was an Iraqi community synagogue,” Gabbay recalls. “He would sit there with a bunch of other Iraqi paytanim, and they’d teach each other songs and sing them together, to preserve the traditions and to calibrate the different renditions.”
Those forays were magical mystery adventures for the young Gabbay, and transfixed him to his Iraqiborn parents’ cultural and musical heritage. He eagerly lapped up everything his youthful ears could catch.
“Besides me, there were only adults at these gatherings. I took in all the melodies they sang. I thought it was all so beautiful.”
GROWING UP in the Nineties, Gabbay also heard the pop and rock of the day, local and American and British sounds, Shlomo Artzi and Nirvana included, but it didn’t quite grab him to the same extent.
There was also the not insignificant matter of the youngster’s natural southpaw dexterity. It was a source of some embarrassment at a sensitive age, but also helped to point Gabbay in the direction of a more ethnically inclined musical instrument.
“I am left-handed,” he notes. “When we went on school trips, and such like, and people brought along guitars to strum some songs, I’d take a guitar and turn it upside down. People looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing? That’s not the way to play the guitar.’ So I realized the guitar wasn’t for me.”
Luckily, Gabbay received some much-needed affirmation from some of the veterans of the field. “When I saw Nissim Salman, the Iraqi, play oud upside down, I thought, Hang on, he’s left-handed. Then I saw Moshe Habousha, the paytan, my first oud teacher, also playing oud the other way round, left-handed. I realized that the guitar and all that rock and roll wasn’t for me, because I played with my left hand. But the oud was OK, because I was left-handed and there were others like me.”
At the time, Gabbay was unaware that iconic rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix was also left-handed, as is Paul McCartney.
But the die was cast. Even if he had known of the celebrated southpaw musicians, who also included Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, he would not have been drawn to Western commercial music, Gabbay says.
“Rock music and the guitar didn’t give me the flavor and the melodies I was looking for,” he states. “At home I grew up on this [liturgical] music. My father used to sing these piyutim.”
Even so, Gabbay was not entirely deaf to the contemporary commercial sounds he heard on the radio. “Pop and rock music were an important part of my formative years, but it wasn’t the same part as the music I heard from my father and others.”
FOR SOME, 42 is a pretty grand old age for bringing out a debut solo album, but Gabbay is clearly a firm believer in going with the flow and allowing things to happen when the time is ripe. Apparently, it is all down to serendipity.
“I got to this music at the right time, and I was in the right place,” he states. “When people in Israel started getting into ethnic music and roots music and Eastern music, I was just getting into the picture. I was around 20 years old.” Things really began taking off on the ethnic music scene. “Suddenly, The Center for Middle Eastern [Classical] Music opened [in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood], then Beit Avi Chai started. It was that sort of time.”
And Gabbay was just swept along with the building musical tide. “I found myself working with all sorts of people. I was invited to participate in all kinds of projects, and I was happy to get involved.”
That brought him into direct, professional contact with some of the doyens of the artistic fraternity, including Iraqi-born musicians who came on aliya in the early 1950s.
One of the few Sabra musicians on the scene at the time was now-62-year-old oud player and violinist Yair Dalal, also of Iraqi extract. “I was, really, ‘the Israeli,’ because there were no other Israeli-born musicians except for Yair, who was like a lighthouse for me. He was the torchbearer.”
Gabbay was basically thrown in at the deep end, and found himself weaving his way from gig to gig, playing almost exclusively kanun.
“There were lots of oud players, so I played kanun,” he explains.
Being so gainfully employed was a boon for the young musician, and helped him right along his professional learning curve, but also precluded more individual pursuits. “I had a show at Confederation House and a show of Libyan piyutim, and then there was a Mediterranean music workshop at Shoresh [in the Jerusalem Hills], and there was the Kedem Trio. I was just so busy.”
Mind you, here and there, he did find the odd quiet hour to jot down a few ideas, and the 10 tracks on Nagen Ba’oud include some charts created back in the day. “The album has some songs I got down roughly between all the projects I did. Some of them were written 15 years ago. I collected them – not all of them, because I have written a lot over the years. I compiled songs I thought would go together well in an album.”
Getting the raw material down for posterity was also something of a protracted process. “From the moment I went into Ilan Keinan’s room (recording studio) until now, it took two-and-a-half years.” Keinan also plays acoustic and bass guitar on the record and, together with Gabbay, was responsible for some of the arrangements.
Nagen Ba’oud is a rich and eclectic offering. While Gabbay’s Iraqi roots come through loud and clear, both in his playing and rich vocals, there are plenty of more contemporary Western vibes in there, too. Electric guitarists Gil Shapira and Eliyahu Dagmi contribute to the rougher and readier side of the proceedings, with Asaf Zamir pounding the skins on a drum set, in addition to playing a range of more ethnically inclined percussion instruments. Add to that, cellist Rali Margalit, Iranian-born ney (Persian flute) and clarinet player Amir Shahasar and kamanche (spike violin) player Yigal Haroush, as well as a five-strong vocal lineup, and you have yourself a powerful cast of players.
GABBAY DOES not feel he has in any way compromised his ethnic roots; rather, he is doing his and his generation’s thing.
“This is totally Jerusalem music,” he declares. “This culture of connecting the end points, to the point of becoming a genre, still hasn’t reached other parts of the country. Jerusalem has an advantage on several grounds. The first advantage is a technical thing. Here you had several institutions that put this music on their agenda and got the platform in place, to enable this music to work.”
There’s more. “And you had The Center for Middle Eastern Music, in Musrara, and Confederation House and [director] Effie Benaya. They were the first. And then you had the Arabic music department of the Academy of Music. That’s part of the reason why Jerusalem became the center for this music.”
While Gabbay feels that Tel Aviv, for example, is more rock-oriented, there is certainly something of that raw, here-and-now seasoning in the new CD.
“There are lots of influences here, but it is happening in Jerusalem. It is because of Jerusalem.” And, he might have added, the musicians he has been mixing with in recent years. “I have been working with people like Ilan Keinan and Eliyahu Dagmi. You could say their [musical] color is Eastern, Jerusalem rock.”
That, and much more. The album, which is currently available only in a digital format, makes for entertaining, variegated, emotive and exciting listening. The show promises to up the studio ante even further.
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, *6226 and, (02) 624-5206 ext. 4 and