Galilee dreaming: Safed’s venerable Klezmer Festival turns 36 with a stellar lineup

This year’s edition is no. 36 – twice chai (life) – and takes place in the historic Galilee city between August 22-24.

 Israel old Safed (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Israel old Safed
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s nothing like music to tug on the heartstrings and caress the soul. Hanan Bar Sela has been doing his bit for that particular cause for several decades now, both as a musician and as artistic director of the annual Klezmer Festival in Safed. This year’s edition is no. 36 – twice chai (life) – and takes place in the historic Galilee city between August 22-24

By now Bar Sela is a well practiced hand at both performing klezmer music, as a clarinet and saxophone player, and putting together programs designed to delight the faithful audiences who come flocking back to Safed year after year.

With such a proven track record behind it the festival also draws some of the biggest names on the national music scene to its stages. This year’s roster features such stellar acts as singer-songwriter Ishay Ribo, veteran ethnically-leaning guitarist and vocalist Ehud Banai, and doyen of the rock-pop arena Danny Sanderson. There is also a string of A-listers from the eponymous area of the music spectrum such as preeminent accordionist Emil Aybinder, electrifying violinist Mirel Reznik, octogenarian clarinetist Musa Berlin who gets a special award at this year’s event, London-born violinist Daniel Ahaviel, Shlomo Gronich, and Bar Sela himself.

I was interested to learn how the festival has evolved over the years and, with over a decade and a half at the helm, Bar Sela was the ideal person to consult. Unlike his counterparts in such musical sectors as jazz and western classical music, the 59 year old artistic director says he is not looking to break too much new ground or flex the rules. His standpoint on programmatic diversification runs along the lines of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” “My approach is that if something is wonderful why play around with it?” he declares. “People ask me what new stuff I have brought in. But why do that? We have the alleyways of Safed, the klezmer music, and the special connection of Safed with all its air of mysticism, the kabbalah and the special energies there. That adds up to the best mix you could have.”

The man has a point. The artist firepower is there for all to see, and hear, and the Klezmer Festival has a large diehard following, with people from all over the country thronging the hilltop city and its charming history-laden byways, not to mention the main music venues.

 Israel Klezmer Orchestra (credit: Israeli Embassy in India)
Israel Klezmer Orchestra (credit: Israeli Embassy in India)

The mass appeal of klezmer

So, no pandering to mass appeal tastes for Bar Sela? Well, that’s not strictly true. Sanderson certainly is no klezmer music aficionado and, while he is unmistakably immersed in his Jewish roots, Banai also generally plies extracurricular sonic channels. “The municipality decided it wanted to have a stage with acts that are not exactly klezmer, or artists for whom klezmer is not their cup of tea,” Bar Sela notes with a spoonful or two of understatement. “There the program is a bit broader, with the shows taking place right at the end of the day’s lineup. On other days you have artists who touch on areas close to klezmer, like Ehud Banai and Ishay Ribo.”

Bar Sela clearly leans towards the purist side of the klezmer tracks, but even he is cognizant of the fact that delineations and definitions tend to ebb and flow over the years and, whether you like it or not, as an artist and certainly as an artistic director, you have to take some of that on board. “That’s why that stage is there,” he chuckles before quickly getting back to the principal line of stylistic attack. “There is an infinite quantity of klezmer music in the festival.”

Quantity and quality. “There is a wonderful violinist in the festival called Daniel Ahaviel,” Bar Sela continues. “He is a virtuosic player. He recently won a klezmer competition at the Tel Aviv Museum. And there is a pan flute player called Avraham Shuab.” That, says Bar Sela, not only broadens the instrumental purview it all suggests some seasoning from contiguous disciplines. “Avraham made aliyah from Kishinev and he played with the Moldova Philharmonic Orchestra. What he does with the pan flute is incredible.”

That also points to the breadth of styles and cultural baggage incorporated into the very wide domain we know as klezmer. I suggest that the pan flute is not an instrument the ordinary music listener on the street readily identifies with klezmer music. “Moldova borders on Romania, and the pan flute is very popular in Eastern European music in general,” Bar Sela explains. “We are neighbors of these styles.”

There are, indeed, plenty of “neighboring styles.” Around 18 years ago I came across a CD by Trio Carpion called At the Black Sea, which dips into a wide array of styles and subgenres that inform the umbrella filed we know as klezmer. “There are all sorts of influences in this music,” says Bar Sela.

He cites all-woman trio Kulana as one to look out for in Safed. “They have a trombonist, saxophonist and flutist. The trombonist was a member of the IDF orchestra. They are very special.” Trombone? That doesn’t sound like a staple of the klezmer scene. Bar Sela sets me right on that score. “The trombone was an integral part of klezmer bands and ensemble in the United States in the early 20th century,” he advises.

The instrumental plot, for the forthcoming bash in Safed, thickens and spreads. “We are bringing the Ra’anana Symphonette. That is quite something for the Klezmer Festival.” That should serve to swell the ranks and enhance the textural offerings. But it isn’t just about the acclaimed ensemble. “The orchestra will support Emil Aybinder. He is a phenomenon of nature. He is also, by the way, one of the most important teachers at the Academy of Music and Dance [at the Hebrew University] in Jerusalem,” Bar Sela stresses. That is quite a feather in the cap of an instrument that, until not too long ago, was traditionally viewed as not much more than the support act for campfire singalongs. “Emil is an internationally renowned musician. He will do something really special with the Ra’anana Symphonette.”

There appear to be special somethings all over the concert agenda. And there’s plenty on offer to keep the crowds, of all ages, happy and engaged, with jam sessions, shows for kids, storytelling and comedy spread across the three days. The latter is a traditional element of Eastern European culture, with a reprise of the role of the “badchen,” or merrymaker, while relating tales of yore has long been a staple part of the communal Jewish ethos.

Our best known klezmer player is 87-year-old clarinetist and raconteur par excellence Giora Feidman, who continues to delight audiences around the world with his unparalleled musicianship, warmth and wit. Bar Sela says that although Feidman was unable to slot an appearance in Safed into his busy schedule, his spirit will hover over the goings on in the Galilee next week.

Like the venerable clarinetist Bar Sela also began his musical life in the western classical domain. Almost three decades Feidman’s junior the artistic director eventually hooked up with the older player. “He was in charge of master classes here for a few years, and he gave me one of his [fabled] transparent plastic clarinets,” Bar Sela exclaims. Rumor had it, back in the day, that the diaphanous models were made of glass. I happened to interview the genial Feidman around that time and he scoffed at the idea. “Glass would crack and break,” he laughed.

For Bar Sela, being handed one of his mentor’s instruments was more than he could possibly have imagined. “Giora is the reason I started playing klezmer. I saw him play, in Netanya where I lived, when I was in fourth grade. Neighbors of ours had a record of his. Everyday I’d go upstairs to their apartment to listen to it. He moved me so much.” Bar Sela’s and Feidman’s paths eventually crossed. “I worked with Giora for 10 years. You see, children’s dreams do come true!”

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