Digging cultural roots

Beit Mazia hosts the Jewish Festival for Contemporary Art.

There is a long-standing debate among intellectuals and practitioners alike about whether there is such a thing as “Jewish art.” What, indeed, imbues a particular work with definitively Jewish content? Is, for example, Chagall’s oeuvre suitable for the religion discipline epithet? What about Judaica? Be that as it may, the upcoming International Jewish Festival for Contemporary Art, which will take place at Jerusalem’s Beit Mazia November 12 to 17, covers wide tracts of cultural, creative, sociological and historical ground. In all, 18 works will be displayed over the six days, with some 120 artists from across the fields of dance, cinema, theater, video art and music in the mix.
Gennaro Della Volpe will bring something of an outsider’s view to the proceedings on several grounds. First off, the 50-year-old singer, who goes by the stage name of Raiz, hails from Italy, and his connection with the festival’s eponymous religion took a while to kick in.
“My mother is Jewish,” says Raiz, who will perform on November 15 alongside Italian quartet Radicanto.
“But I was not brought up Jewish. I was very far from religion as a kid,” he notes.
His Jewish roots were resuscitated around 10 years ago.
“I think it was probably something like a midlife crisis,” he says. “It’s a sort of a spiritual thing that happens to men at a certain age,” he adds with a chuckle.
That set him on the road to selfdiscovery as he began to dig into his maternally inherited roots.
“It’s been a very nice journey, actually,” he says. “I was searching for spirituality, and I found a lot of positive things in Judaism.”
The exploratory odyssey also brought corporeal rewards.
“I also found a wife, a Jewish wife.
Without this, I wouldn’t have met her.
My wife is half-Israeli and half-Libyan. I met her in Rome,” he recounts.
The two feel a strong bond with this part of the world.
“We’d love to spend all our time here. In our hearts we are here, but we work in Italy,” he says.
That’s not just talk.
“We officially made aliya a year ago,” notes Raiz, adding that he harbors additional strings to his artistic bow. “I am a musician and an actor.”
Raiz’s thespian endeavor, like his musical exploits, are the fruits of his own labors.
“I never really studied music or acting,” he says. “I am self-taught.”
His work in the latter field largely involves character roles, for which Raiz feels particularly well suited.
“I play tough Mafia types from Naples. That’s natural for me,” he says.
Not only does the singer come from that region of Italy, but he also has the muscular bulk to go with the hustler part.
The Radicanto quartet has been around for more than 20 years and has been melding different artistic disciplines and musical styles since the get-go. The group’s name comes from the idea of marrying roots with singing, and their music wends a merry meandering path among various strains of folk material. Theater, cinema and dance also come into play in Radicanto’s output.
Raiz imbibed a very different musical diet in his youth.
“I grew up with rock and roll and reggae,” he recalls. “But in my town you cannot avoid listening to traditional music. The city is full of traditional music. I love to say that with my right ear I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, and with my left ear I was listening to Mario Merola – you know, the traditional music and musicians in Napoli.”
[Merola was an Italian singer and actor best known for reviving the traditional popular Neapolitan musical melodrama format known as sceneggiata.] “I always try to mix the two things,” Raiz continues. “They are both natural for me.”
Raiz, also naturally, looked for a vehicle for channeling his diverse musical and cultural influences.
“I formed a band called Almamagretta. It means ‘migrating soul.’ We recorded a lot of albums. It’s a mix of dub reggae music and Neapolitan stuff,” he says.
Over the years, Raiz maintained his search for new musical vistas and eventually connected with Ladino songs and other strains from this part of the world. That will come to the fore at his Beit Mazia date next week.
“I love Mizrahi music. It’s very similar to Neapolitan music. It has the same attitude, and the way of singing is similar,” he notes.
Raiz’s vocal delivery tends towards the emotive side. He offers an enticing mix of husky streetwise traits with mellifluous romantic undertones.
“I love Arabic music and Jewish Sephardic music. I also love Ladino and piyutim [liturgical music] with oud accompaniment,” he adds Raiz says he is constantly looking to take his artistry to the next level.
“I don’t sing in Arabic yet, but I’d love to. In our performance we play Neapolitan music and Jewish music, and we try to mix the two together,” he says.
Sounds like a musical marriage made in heaven.
The International Jewish Festival for Contemporary Art takes place November 12 to 17 at Beit Mazia in Jerusalem. For tickets and information: (02) 723-7000 and *6226, goo.gl/U9BtF7 and tcj.org.il/page.php?id=214