Sounds of the synagogue

The ninth annual Piyut Festival kicks off at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem on October 6 and will run for four days.

Yagel Haroush (fourth from left) will front a band of 12 instrumentalists and vocalists (photo credit: HAI AFIK)
Yagel Haroush (fourth from left) will front a band of 12 instrumentalists and vocalists
(photo credit: HAI AFIK)
Music, at its finest, is designed to induce some kind of spiritual feelings in the listener. That is doubly the case when it comes to sounds that feed off a religious background, such as liturgical music.
The ninth annual Piyut Festival kicks off at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem on October 6 and will run for four days. There is plenty on the roster that should stir the heart and soul and provide delightful entertainment to boot.
The concert scheduled for October 8 (9:30 p.m.) should certainly do the business in that respect.
The after-dark Aira Shahar (I Will Awake the Dawn) show will be spearheaded by 30-something kamanche (spike violin) player and nay (Arab flute) player Yagel Haroush. He will front a band of 12 instrumentalists and vocalists, with venerated septuagenarian liturgical singer, or paytan, Rabbi Haim Louk guesting.
The group goes by the name of Shir Yedidot.
“Dod means “beloved” in Hebrew,” explains Haroush.
It appears that one of our best-known royals received a moniker that reflects just that positive ethos.
“King David [the name comes from the same Hebrew root] was a beloved character. He is the only person in the Bible who is called beloved,” continues Haroush. “So ‘Shir Yedidot’ means love songs,” he explains.
That sounds like a fitting title for an outfit led by a musician of such a gentle and sunny demeanor. Haroush exudes nothing but positive vibes as we talk about his music and his background and about the custom of singing bakashot – supplications and prayers – in synagogues on Friday nights, from around midnight until after daybreak on Saturday morning. If you happen to stroll through the Nahlaot neighborhood in the wee hours of many Friday nights, you are likely to hear choruses of male voices wafting through the heady Jerusalem air.
That particular strain of bakashot is more than likely to derive from the custom as practiced by the Aleppo community, which traces its roots to Syrian Jewry.
Haroush, on the other hand, hails from the Moroccan community and is keen for the Jerusalem audience to get a taste of the liturgical singing style that provided the soundtrack of his burgeoning musical career back in his hometown of Dimona.
“It is interesting that you can hear Moroccan bakashot only in the periphery regions of the country,” he notes.
Ten or so years ago, Haroush was a secular philosophy student at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. On a weekend R&R back home, the youngster found his way to the local synagogue to hear a bunch of men indulge in their weekly nocturnal bakashot thing.
“Let’s says that going to synagogue wasn’t exactly my favored form of leisure time activity back then,” he says, tongue in cheek.
But Haroush had been playing clarinet for a while, and his musical curiosity got the better of him.
“I knew about the bakashot singing, so one Friday night I went along to hear it. I thought I’d check it out from a sort of academic angle.”
It was love at first earful, as his heart got the better of his cerebral interest.
“I was simply drawn into it,” he recalls.
The ambience and the gradually evolving vibes tugged at his heartstrings.
“It was so different from prayer services, which are so much more organized. At bakashot sessions, the men sit around a table, and they have some tea, and later the whisky comes out. There’s no hierarchy.
You all sit around and sing as equals,” he explains.
It was a point of no return event in Haroush’s life.
“The first time I went to bakashot, I had tears in my eyes. It was so deep.”
The philosophy student began attending the Friday midnight gatherings whenever he spent a weekend with his family.
“I began learning the piyutim, and I gradually got into it. I used to sit to one side and listen to the men singing. I was enchanted with the whole thing,” he recounts.
Although he was a keen clarinetist, Haroush still hadn’t given too much thought to taking music too seriously, but over time, the accumulative liturgical experience got the better of him.
“After a while, I saw I was the youngest there. I thought that if I ever started taking music seriously, the first thing I’d do is get this music out into the world; I’d introduce the world to this wonderful thing,” he says.
The years went by, life and stuff got in the way, but the dream lingered in the recesses of Haroush’s mind.
“I finished my degree, I went to India, I got married,” he continues.
It was finally time to get down and dirty with music.
“I studied at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem,” says Haroush. “I studied Eastern music with [celebrated oud player and violinist] Taiseer Elias.”
By the time he came under Elias’s experienced wing, Haroush had honed his disciple teeth with some of the leading lights of the country’s ethnic music scene, such as acclaimed educator, musicologist and tar (long-necked string instrument) player Piris Eliyahu and his kamanche- playing son Mark.
Elias was key to Haroush’s eventual choice of musical direction.
“He really encouraged me. He said that people don’t know about this treasure [of Moroccan bakashot] and said that I should try to get it out there. He told me that it came out naturally in my playing and that I shouldn’t run away from it,” he relates.
Haroush had to overcome some reservations, but Elias urged him to stick to his genetic guns.
“He’d teach me Arab music, and I’d ask him if it wasn’t coming out too Moroccan.
But Taiseer said that it was great and that I should go for it,” he says.
It took Haroush a few more years to get around to preserving some of the Moroccan bakashot repertoire for posterity on a CD, which will be officially launched at the Piyut Festival concert. It all came together for Haroush.
“When we starting working on the album, I suddenly understood that this tradition of singing bakashot references all these Middle Eastern mystical traditions – Sufi traditions and others. We didn’t stop that. We let everything float to the surface,” he says.
That naturally led to an eclectic take on the traditional raw material and the Aira Shahar show – as the CD – feeds the liturgical material through a plethora of sensibilities and styles.
The Beit Avi Chai lineup includes Erez Lev Ari, who will play acoustic and electric guitar, alongside the traditional Eastern instruments.
“Originally I made sort of sketches with a guitar. I didn’t really think about a whole production and an actual album. When I played to my wife, back then, she said it sounded like [late English singer-songwriter] Nick Drake singing bakashot,” he says.
Haroush’s natural cultural habitat eventually kicked in.
“I realized that we live at a very interesting cultural crossroads. I grew up on American folk and rock music and some classical music, Sufi music and a bit of Arabic music. All that flows through me and finds its way into this too,” he remarks.
For tickets and more information about the Piyut Festival: (02) 621-5900 and