Classical: Ethnic cello, or chel-hu

Rali Margalit performs on this unique string instrument.

Rali Margalit (photo credit: AIDA FULLER)
Rali Margalit
(photo credit: AIDA FULLER)
As Rali Margalit unzips the case of her ethnic cello, the chel-hu, the air in the lounge of the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem becomes infinitely more charged. Once removed from its covering, the instrument is luminous, unusual, strange. It is clear that for Margalit, this object is sacred, that her love of it and care for it have elevated its wood and wire to something far beyond organic matter.
“This is a one-of-a-kind instrument. Not another exists in the world,” beams Margalit, hoisting the chel-hu onto a bar chair. “I ordered it from a man in Australia, Peter Biffin, who makes the most incredible instruments. After he finished it, he told me it was so difficult that he would never do it again.”
Margalit, long haired, widesmiled and exuding warmth, sits perched in the dining hall. It is mid-morning, and Margalit spent the night in Tel Aviv, an unusual occurrence for the composer and musician. Her husband, Nitzan, one of five partners at the helm of the national chain that is the Abraham Hostel, makes his way through the room where a few backpack-carrying 20somethings read books and mingle. The couple, parents of three children, live in Jerusalem.
“Nitzan travels back and forth to Tel Aviv all the time but I am mostly in Jerusalem,” says Margalit.
Margalit was born and raised on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. As all children in her community, she learned to play the flute. At the age of nine, having shown musical prowess, Margalit was asked which instrument she would like to play next.
“I said I wanted to learn piano, but my teacher said she had enough pianists already,” she laughs. “So she gave me the cello.
The best thing about it was that as a cellist, you got to rehearse in a room by yourself, with a mirror. I could look at myself for as long as I wanted without anyone bothering me or judging. The lack of privacy in the kibbutz was very intense for me. I think, basically, my whole career can be credited to that mirror.”
After the army, Margalit obtained a bachelor’s degree from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
“I was a recent graduate and I was invited to perform in a Ladino festival. That was the first time I heard ethnic music, specifically percussion, and it was a point of no return. I was completely blown away, and I knew that ethnic music was what I would do. At that point, I didn’t think that I would compose. But I began to take things that I experienced and turn them into music. I wrote a piece, Atalya, about the gossip in the dining hall of the kibbutz. And if I look back, though people listening to my music wouldn’t hear it, the kibbutz was a huge influence on my music,” she says.
Once in the ethnic musical sphere, Margalit began researching and reaching out to other musicians.
“I learned of an artist named Ross Daly. He is an Irish man who traveled the world collecting melodies. He then sat in Crete to compose music. He gives master classes in Israel, which I have attended, and it was at his place in Crete that I first saw an instrument by Peter Biffin. He perfectly translates between Eastern and Western music,” she recounts.
Next week, Margalit will stage a reunion performance of her hit album Susim (Horses). The album was inspired by the writings of Kyrgyzian author Gingis Aitmatov.
“He writes about the open expanses of Kyrgyzstan, about the horses running. I’ve never been there and I’ve never heard those sounds, but when I read his books I felt as if I was there,” she explains.
On the record, Margalit plays two cellos – classic and Biffin’s chel-hu – alongside Lev Elman on percussion, Elad Gabay on the qanun and vocals and Hagit Rosmarin on the flute.
“Our quartet got together 10 years ago. In 2010, we released Susim. It was well received, and we performed for the next three years in Israel and abroad. In 2013, I felt I needing something new, so I went to do a master’s in jazz music. We all got busy with our own projects,” she says.
During the time that Margalit delved into American jazz scores, her partners’ careers blossomed.
“When we took our break, I thought it might be the end, but coming back is like meeting family. We are picking up the conversation exactly where we left off four years ago,” she smiles.
The performance has pushed Margalit to return to some challenging measures.
“There is a piece called The Wind Hunter, which was influenced by Vivaldi. It’s a very virtuosic piece. I always feel, with that piece, that I am at the top of the stairs and someone pushes me, so I run and run to avoid falling. I used to rehearse it to get away from that feeling, but I realize that that rush, the uncertainty, the effort, they are what make the piece what it is. The more I can let go and flow with it, the better,” says Margalit.
‘Susim’ will be performed on March 30 at the Confederation House in Jerusalem. For more information, visit