Coming home to mother

Ofer Callaf and his band present Mughaniyat: The Song of Motherhood – music from the Khugarya region of Yemen.

 (photo credit: OFER CALLAF)
(photo credit: OFER CALLAF)
Q uite a few years ago, an Indian musician named Krishnamurti Sridhar, who was due to perform at the Israel Festival, shared some enduring and formative wisdom with me. When I apologized for calling late for a telephone interview, his simple and telling response was: “You are not late. It is happening now.”
That is an ethos which Ofer Callaf wholeheartedly embraces, and applies on a day-to-day basis.
The 49-year-old Israeli keyboardistvocalist will be front and center at Confederation House in Jerusalem, under the auspices of CEO Effi Benaya, on July 5 (8:30 p.m.) when he presents his show, Mughaniyat: The Song of Motherhood, with music from the Khugarya region of Yemen. He’ll be joined by vocalist Tom Foegel, Callaf’s brother in musical arms, along with bass guitarist Eran Horovitz, oud player Liav Baruch, drummer-percussionist David Digmi and vocalist Hila Tom “Mughaniyat (Callaf pronounced the “gh” like an “r”) means poetesses,” he explains, adding that the art form was embraced by Muslim and Jewish women alike.
“Actually, mughaniyat were poetesses who also sang.”
Callaf has been busying himself with musical endeavor for over a quarter of a century. Even so, he didn’t get around to composing music in the mughaniyat genre until three years ago, and he started writing lyrics just a few months ago.
Besides performing regularly on stages around the country, he also teaches at the Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem. His specialty is multidisciplinary singing which, considering his gradually evolving artistic backdrop, makes perfect sense.
“I was never really rooted in my Yemenite background,” he says.
Indeed, there wasn’t much in the way of familial nurturing to point him in the direction of his hereditary ethnic backdrop. “My mother was orphaned at the age of 1, so I didn’t know my maternal grandparents,” Callaf continues.
“And I didn’t really know my father’s parents either.”
On the other hand, Callaf received plenty of paternal encouragement to follow an artistic career route.
“My father was a healer. He used herbs and stuff, and he treated people from all over. He used to take me to a theater course every week, and he also encouraged me to join Inbal.” The latter refers to the preeminent Yemenite traditionbased dance company. “I did dancing and singing with them,” Callaf adds.
Taking a look at Callaf’s professional development it is easy to see why the aforementioned temporal line of thought applies. As with many second generation Israelis, Callaf originally eschewed his musical-ethnic roots, instead preferring to groove to the sounds of such western pop and rock acts like Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones. Later, he immersed himself in western classical music, both on piano and with his voice.
“I still sing lieder,” he notes. So, it must be quite a stretch to accommodate the seeming cultural chasm between classical German vocal compositions and tunes and texts created by Yemenite women.
“I suppose it is,” he admits with a shrug. “But, you know, it’s all just music.”
In an era of neat pigeonholing and genre – and subgenre – industry categorizing, that is a refreshingly open approach. For Callaf it matters not a jot what material he puts into sonic expression.
HIS DANCE background also comes into the equation. “I need to feel something before I can play it, feel it with my body,” he states.
He also needs to get a rationale angle on the material in question.
“Any music I play or sing has to make sense to me. I need to be able to see the logic behind it.”
That may sound a little clinical but, when it comes to his own creations, Callaf is anything but.
“I don’t think about things like musical intervals,” he notes. “I wrote something, and played it to Tom [vocalist Foegel]... Tom said to me: ‘Hey! that’s a seconds’,” Callaf continues, referring to a two tone distance.
“I hadn’t realized that. I hadn’t analyzed the interval.” He was nonetheless elated with the discovery. “In traditional Yemenite song, getting to a seconds interval represents the highest spiritual level.”
Everything clicked, in a musical and a very personal sense, for Callaf around three years ago when he attended a Yemenite music gig at the Carousella café on Jerusalem’s Metudella Street.
“I met a nice young man there called Tom,” Callaf recalls. The two hit it off and Callaf found himself inviting Foegel over to listen to a score he’d composed for a liturgical Yemenite text. “I sang it to Tom, and then he asked me to sing in a Yemenite accent. Then it all fell into place.”
There were more neat juxtapositions to come. “Tom came over with me to see my mother one day, and they got chatting,” says Callaf. “It transpired that Tom and I are relatives, and we share the same great-grandmothers, who were poetesses and singers. And he told me that my maternal grandmother’s sister was a famous singer.”
Callaf clearly knows how to go with the flow. That seamless dynamic should come across loud and clear at Confederation House, as he and the band perform a program of original and traditional works. “When I sang, I always felt more connected with the female vocalist side,” Callaf states. “I always felt part of a female generational chain. It’s natural. It’s all part of me.”
For tickets and more information: (02) 624-5206 and