The Israeli Andalusian Orchestra hosts Moroccan musicians around the country

The Israeli Andalusian Orchestra is in the middle of a nationwide tour.

 THE ISRAELI Andalusian Orchestra in concert. (photo credit: RAFI DELUYA)
THE ISRAELI Andalusian Orchestra in concert.
(photo credit: RAFI DELUYA)

These days getting any offshore artists over here is a monumental challenge and bureaucratic nightmare. So, the fact that the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra currently has a bunch of Moroccan musicians gainfully employed in its ranks is nothing short of miraculous.

The orchestra is in the middle of a nationwide tour, with slots in Kiryat Motzkin (January 19), Beersheba (January 20), Tel Aviv (January 24) and Ra’anana (January 25) still to come.

The program focuses on the various liturgical traditions that evolved in Spanish Jewry, and which eventually formed the basis for the Jerusalem take on the genre. The concerts feature vocalists Itzik Kala and Rabbi David Menachem alongside members of the Piyut Ensemble of the Ben Zvi Institute, with Sivan Albo Ben-Hur conducting.

The 40-odd players include Moroccan multi-instrumentalists Abdellah Amli, Hisham Ayar, Hisham Morjane, Mohamed Shafari and Abdelfettah Otmani who, according to orchestra general manager Yaakov Ben Simon, are the real deal. 

“It has been a dream of mine for some time, to bring musicians here, musicians who are well versed in classical Andalusian music. Here we don’t have any real training in the field. There is the generation [of musicians] that came on aliyah [from Morocco and Algeria] and is now old, or many have already passed on. But that’s it.” The idea was for Amli and co. to impart some of their homegrown musical education to the members of the Ashdod-based ensemble.

 MOROCCAN MUSICIANS Abdekkah Amli, Abdelfettah Otmani and Hisham Ayar. (credit: RAFI DELUYA) MOROCCAN MUSICIANS Abdekkah Amli, Abdelfettah Otmani and Hisham Ayar. (credit: RAFI DELUYA)

It was surprising to hear that we don’t have folks here who play the Real McCoy. You only have to trot over to, say, the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music or the School for Music and Silence, in Jerusalem, to catch all kinds of youngsters learning the craft. And, judging by some of the concerts held at places like Confederation House and the Jerusalem Theatre, as well as elsewhere around the country, they aren’t doing a bad job at it.

I was in for an awakener on that score. “That’s wonderful, but these are people learning and playing music from different traditions,” Ben Simon explains. “Yes, you do have all sorts of young people playing oud and kemancha (spiked violin) and qanun. That’s nice, but they are very much part of the fusion we have here in Israel.” Indeed we are a true cultural melting pot, and produce some of the most innovative and creative sounds in the world. But that isn’t what Ben Simon and the orchestra are looking for.

It isn’t just about his chosen cultural domain. “It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Andalusian music, or Turkish or Persian. That is where you discern the differences in the playing styles, in the rhythms, the weights and complexities. 

“In Morocco, for example, all big towns have conservatories for Andalusian music. They study the vocal and instrumental music from infancy. They choose an instrument like they do at Western classical music schools, and they learn all the intricacies of Andalusian music.”

Hence the “import” of the aforementioned fivesome who are spending a whole year here, corona shenanigans notwithstanding, to lend their homespun expertise to the orchestra and enrich the musical education of the members, particularly the younger crowd, in the process.

The Moroccans learned of the orchestra’s existence by various means. “I first heard of the orchestra in Essaouira [on Morocco’s Atlantic coast] in 2017,” says Amli. “The orchestra was there for the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques d’Essaouira.” Morjane came across the Israeli ensemble in similar fashion, and the others heard about it through social media, TV or friends.

For some the current run is not their first taste of working with the Israelis. Amli, Morjane, Shafari and Otmani all appeared with the orchestra at the 2019 Festival Andalussyat in Casablanca, while Ayar bolstered the Israeli ranks in a couple of concert series here in 2018-19.

While appreciating the quality of the Israeli orchestra’s output, the Moroccans were immediately keenly aware of the differences between the artistic credos. 

“The Andalusian music has the same soul but with different vibes,” Amli notes. “It is a wonderful combination between the official way, how they play it, and our traditional way.” 

“The music is the same but the schools are different,” says Ayar. “Our one is very traditional.”

Shafari says it is very much a mutually beneficial experience for all concerned here. “In Morocco, Andalusian music is taught using only memory and practice. The orchestra of Ashdod is very sophisticated and plays more types of music. So, sure, it’s not the same. We learn from each other.”

Looking in from the outside the Moroccan reinforcements have a fresh eye, and ear, on what they bring to the Israeli fray. 

“Andalusian music is heritage. It is in our Moroccan culture. It’s part of us,” Amli states. 

The sentiment resonates with Ayar too. “Andalusian music is very specific and unique in the world. It’s very different from all the other types of music and also it’s in our Moroccan DNA,” notes Ayar. 

Shafari takes a more academic view of the genre. “Andalusian music is science and history. It’s very special and we are glad to have it as part of our culture,” he exclaims, while Otmani opts for a cerebral-emotional route to convey the core of his craft. “For me Andalusian music is science, vibes and has a soul. It is not music to write and play simply. You need to have it in you, to share it with the audience and they will receive your feeling.”

All the guest players are appreciative of the way their hosts go about their business, and of the Jewish backdrop to the genre. 

“The specificity is the rich repertoire that they are playing all the year, and different ones every year. Different types of music and from different cultures and origins. It’s very important,” says Ayar.

Otmani feels there is added value in the offing too. “The orchestra of Ashdod is doing special work and using music as a bridge between people from different cultures. The repertoire is infinitely rich and we can learn a lot from them, and also teach them our traditional Andalusian music and more.”

Shafari says he and his compatriots are well versed in the contribution Jews made to the style he now plays. “From our young age we learned from many Jewish musicians and singers. We had Jewish musicians in Morocco and they did a big work to build the musical patrimony that we enjoy now.”

And now we are enjoying that too.

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