A new look into Yemenite Jewish music with all-woman quintet

The all-woman vocal quintet is taking its last boy at the National Library in Jerusalem on February 1-2.

THE BANAT el Yemen vocal quintet will appear at this week’s Besod Kolot Rabim Festival at the National Library, in Jerusalem (photo credit: ZOHAR RON)
THE BANAT el Yemen vocal quintet will appear at this week’s Besod Kolot Rabim Festival at the National Library, in Jerusalem
(photo credit: ZOHAR RON)

There are few artists in this neck of the woods better acquainted with the world music sector than Talya G.A. Solan. Her scope of musical activity to date is just about as broad as it gets and takes in such ventures as Bechol Lashon (In Every Language), which seeks to raise awareness of “the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience.” And there is the 12Tribes YouTube channel which offers snapshots of some of the many styles and subgenres that feature in the eclectic, multifarious sphere of Israeli music.

Now Solan is coming home as a member of the all-female Banat el Yemen vocal quintet, which takes a bow in the finale performance of this week’s Besod Kolot Rabim Festival at the National Library in Jerusalem, February 1-2. The festival moniker translates roughly as “Secret of Many Voices” and the lineup is a suitably, stylistically and historically varied affair, kicking off with celebrated singer-songwriter Shlomi Shaban, with internationally renowned vocalist Ninet Tayeb and acclaimed jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen guesting in the Personal Prayer show. The second day opens with kamancheh (spike violin) player Mark Eliyahu hosting ethnically inclined rocker Dudu Tassa and vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Maayan Linik, before Banat el Yemen brings the program to a close.

Banat el Yemen (Women of Yemen) is the brainchild of Gil Ron Shama, a storyteller extraordinaire who came to notice back in the 1990s as a member of the Sheva band, which achieved cult status from its base in the Galilee, starring in the plethora of New Agey festivals that were all the rage at the time and touring the world.

The pentagonal project offers Solan an opportunity to return to her own Yemenite roots, as she joins forces with four other female singers from similar cultural-familial backdrops: Tohar Gadasi, Shiran Tzfira, Niva Harel and Kinara Sharabi. All the band members have solo careers of their own and the new synergy represents something of a Yemenite music supergroup.

Solan says the band follows an all-embracing approach to the music of the members’ forebears, taking in liturgical traditional and more contemporary fare alike. That, she notes, is largely a result of the vocalists’ individual points of personal and artistic reference. “The content is women’s songs from Yemen and there are five women who perform the material,” she explains. That sounds like a pretty potent outfit that, it transpires, feeds off numerous musical strands and philosophies.

Israeli pop superstar Ofra Haza who passed away 20 years ago (credit: YAKI HALPERIN/COURTESY HOT 8)Israeli pop superstar Ofra Haza who passed away 20 years ago (credit: YAKI HALPERIN/COURTESY HOT 8)

Who is in the band?

“Each of us comes from a different source, a different direction, with different influences. This is something very special. Shiran Tzfira is a bona fide roots Yemenite. She was really born into it, in the neighborhood with all the warmth.” In vocal terms, that comes seasoned with some external coloring. “She has a sort of blues-soul style,” Solan notes. “There is something very black in her singing. That also takes her into a kind of jazzy area. She has a lot of freedom and improvisation in her voice.”

That’s not a bad start for the five-pronged enterprise, which covers all kinds of vocal takes, textures and energy output. “Kinara Sharabi is very delicate and her singing is minimalistic and simple and emotional.” It sounds like a good counterweight for Tzfira. “There is a sense of tranquility about her. I’m crazy about that,” Solan adds. “There is something fresh and pure in her music.”

WHICH BRINGS us neatly to Tohar Gadasi. With a given name that translates as “Purity,” Gadasi brings hefty genetic baggage to the musical fray. “She is the daughter of [singer] Yair Gadasi and Yair is the brother of [well-known singer-songwriter] Avner Gadasi. Tohar writes really cool songs.”

Then there is Niva Harel, who got in on the relevant ethnic act at a relative late stage of the play. “In the last two years, Niva came back to her own Yemenite background,” Solan says, adding that Harel had some help with her cultural homecoming. “She is supported by Tema - The Association for the Cultivation of Society and Cultural Heritage of Yemenite Jews.” As is the Banat el Yemen troupe, courtesy of Tema honchos Dr. Yigal Ben Shalom and Adial Ben Shalom, who do their bit to promote Yemenite Jewish culture here and around the world.

Solan was delighted when the opportunity came along to join in the new Yemenite project. 

“For me, it is a miracle,” she laughs. “I have my band and my materials, and I have always said that, one day, I will undertake a homage to my Yemenite roots but I always set them to one side.” Banat el Yemen popped up and put an end to Solan’s procrastination. “Then, out of the blue, you get invited to take part in this. The project is funded, and it’s just too good to be true.”

Solan et al were determined to make the most of the golden opportunity and spread their artistic net far and wide. Yemenite music has periodically filtered through into wider Israeli consciousness, initially through late diva Shoshana Damari and internationally acclaimed pop singer Ofra Haza. More recently, the A-Wa sibling trio have picked up the Yemenite baton, and Solan, with plenty of globetrotting in her own bio to date, hopes the new quintet will bring Yemenite songs of all ilks to more expansive consumer sectors.

The idea is to offer the public different viewpoints on the music that emanates from Yemen, from liturgical songs recited in synagogues to ritual material taken from weddings and other ceremonies, right up to numbers infused with here-and-now subject matter and vibes.

The singers are backed by a culturally-mixed instrumental quartet of musical director Guy Tiram on oud and guitar, Yair Tzabari on drums and percussion, Sahar David on ney and Yaron Mitelman on bass guitar. That is clearly a little beyond the strict confines of traditional instrumentation but not too far. “We don’t have computers and that sort of thing on stage,” Solan says. She believes the intent is more important than the means. “I feel that, if you have the music in your soul, people will connect with it. It doesn’t matter what color you are, the audience gets the depth of the artist’s feelings and where it all comes from.”

And in case you are new to the ethnic field or want to get a more immersive handle on Yemenite Jewish culture and music, the festival program also features a slew of workshops and master classes with celebrated performers of liturgical and secular material, such as David Menachem, Yair Harel and Gila Beshari, as well as Tair Haim from the aforementioned A-Wa threesome.

The non-performance side of the festival also incorporates broader tracts of cultural creation, including a tribute to late Hungarian-born composer and educator Andre Hajdu and a look at the spiritual side of the work of Nobel Prize Laureate singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

For tickets and more information, visit: https://besodkolot.nli.org.il/#top.