Ethnic, traditional sounds celebrated by Jerusalem music school in special concert

Jerusalem's School for Music and Silence will hold a special concert of traditional and modern music.

Students from the School for Music and Silence, located in Jerusalem (photo credit: GITAI SILVER)
Students from the School for Music and Silence, located in Jerusalem
(photo credit: GITAI SILVER)
Miles Davis, the iconic jazz trumpeter, once mused that it is the quiet interludes between the notes that really make the music what it is. 
That is not only definitively accurate – a melody is, after all, a sequence of notes interspersed by spaces – it also creatively spot on. It is also perfectly in line with the ethos behind the School for Music and Silence – and, naturally with the title of the institution – which has been operating out of a formerly grand edifice dating to the 19th century, behind the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
Since it first opened its doors, five years ago, the school has helped to steer the artistic ambitions and creative gifts of around 200 willing souls, across a broad spectrum of styles and genres. The school’s teaching staff covers numerous disciplinary tracts. Ethnic music, for example, is addressed by distinguished Dagestan-born composer-ethnomusicologist instrumentalist Piris Eliyahu, while pianist Omri Mor has made a name for himself across the globe for his singular marriage of jazz and Andalusian music. Uruguayan-born percussionist Roni Iwryn seasons his Latin roots with all sorts of flavors from this part of the world, and irrepressible wind instrument player Eyal Talmudi displays a tendency to explore the wilder margins of the jazz domain, with the occasional dosage of klezmer music and beats. Flamenco singer-guitarist Yehuda Shveiky trained where it matters most, in Spain, before returning here to bring his accrued education and performing experience to the Jerusalem school, and Elad Levi is, today, one of the country’s finest exponents of Moroccan violin playing, and teaches instrumental and vocal Andalusian music.
All of the above will be on display Wednesday evening, together with their classes, when the school holds its end-of-year concert at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. Judging by the institution’s previous annual showings, it promises to be a thoroughly entertaining and culturally enriching experience for one and all.
Levi, who has been with the school since the get-go says he, and the rest of us, are in for a treat. “This is going to be the most important event of the school year,” he notes, adding that we can expect some quality performances in the program, which kicks off at 7 p.m. “I have taught at quite a few schools,” says the Ashkelon-born Jerusalem-resident educator. “There is something in our end-of-year shows that is different from anywhere else. This is really professional. If you didn’t know you would never believe that most of the musicians on the stage were students at a school.” 
Levi says there’s ne’er a dull moment as soon as the onstage fun begins. “The audience really gets that. They wonder what is going on – so many styles. You have Piris Eliyahu playing Turkish music, and then you get Roni Iwryn brings the Afro-Cuban stuff, and I bring my Andalusian music. You get everything.”
Levi et al are ready to fire on all cylinders. “The event is a sort of showcase of all the styles taught at the school,” he says. “All the students take part.” The violinist immediately backtracks on the disciple terminology. “It’s a bit difficult to call them students, because I view them as colleagues, all the people who play in my ensemble. I don’t relate to them as my students.”
Levi, who comes from a family with Moroccan roots, began his own tutelage at a very early age. “When I was six my father sent me to a piyutim [liturgical singing] activity. I went to learn piyutim with the late Meir Attia, so I am in this [music] business since the age of six.”
Then again, 37-year-old Levi grew up in a very different era, and place, from the likes of Attia and celebrated Andalusian violinist Yeshua Azulai. He may have attended long services at the local Moroccan community’s synagogue, and learned the rudiments of his craft from some of the most venerated performers and teachers of the music, but Levi’s youthful ears were also honed in on the commercial, Western sounds of the time. And, for a while, he turned his back on his familial roots. “There was a time when I detached myself from Andalusian music,” he notes. “It was a sort of teenage rebellion against my parents. You see all your friends listening to, and playing, different music. It’s tough.” 
While he was trying to find his place in the world, as an adolescent, Levi straddled very different spheres of cultural baggage and sonic output. “Throughout the time I was learning, and playing, Andalusian music I’d listen to lots of other things,” he recalls. “As a kid, you see your friends listening and playing different music.” It was as if Levi was stuck in some kind of time warp. “As a kid, I mostly played with my grandfather’s [Moroccan-born] friends. The audience was also, basically, of that generation.” So, while Levi grooved to pop and rock sounds put out by the likes of British Nineties rock group Radiohead, British Eighties electronic outfit Depeche Mode and American Eighties heavy metal group Metallica in his bedroom, and with his classmates, he continued honing his Andalusian-based craft. 
The latter eventually won out, at least for a few years. “I listened to everything, including Israeli rock. I stopped playing the violin a couple of years before the army, and that continued on through my military service. If you’d asked me back then if I was going to be a musician, I would have said no.”
Levi eventually got back on the Andalusian track a couple of years or so after the army. “A friend of mine took to a concert at Hillel House, on the Hebrew University campus,” he explains. “It was a show with eclectic bassist-vocalist Eran Tzur, a paytan [liturgical singer] called Maimon Cohen and [oud player] Armand Sabbakh.” Levi was startled by what he encountered there. “I went into the auditorium, and I see 250 young people, around my age, and certainly not all from Moroccan families. I was stunned. I thought, what’s going on here? What happened since I stopped playing Andalusian music?”
Things had, indeed, changed – for the better. “There was an audience for Eastern music,” says Levi. “In the past, you only saw older people listening to the music. Suddenly the market had been blown wide open. It was amazing.”
Things moved on swiftly, for Levi, from then on, even if he did need some surreptitious help from someone close to him. “My then girlfriend – she’s now my wife – sent my CV to the Israel Andalusian Orchestra Ashdod, without telling me. I got an invitation to an audition, but I had no idea what they wanted from me,” Levi laughs. Even so, he went along and was duly accepted, appearance notwithstanding. 
In fact, it was something of a homecoming, in more senses than one. “I had long hair and, I guess, I didn’t look the part. But the person who gave me the audition was the son of my teacher [Yeshua Azulai]. He didn’t recognize me. He saw my name, which seemed familiar to him, but he met someone who didn’t fit the image he had of me from the past.”
In the end, Levi’s musicianship gave the game away. “Back then I copied the way my teacher played. His son got that and, during the audition, he looked at me strangely, until he realized who I was.” Levi quickly took his place in the orchestra, and his return to his musical and cultural roots was complete.
Today he is delighted to share his backdrop and accrued experience with his students-colleagues from the School for Music and Silence, who will share the stage with him at the Jerusalem Citadel. Levi is also encouraged by the wider, across-the-board acceptance of Eastern ethnic music today. 
It is a far cry from the Establishment scene that met new immigrants from Iraq, Morocco and other places around the Arab world, back in the Fifties and Sixties. Back then, the likes of the al-Kuwaiti brothers, who had been megastars all across the Arab domain, were almost completely ignored by the Ashkenazi-dominated powers-that-be in the still young State of Israel. “What is happening now is a comeback to those days,” Levi declares. “If you ask a lot of people what, for them, is Moroccan music, they’ll probably cite bands like [Moroccan-derived rock band] Sfatayim. That’s not a good representation of Moroccan roots music. Moroccan music is much deeper, richer and more varied. I think people are starting to get that.”
And the proof of that pudding is in the listening and learning. “There are great audiences for Andalusian music today,” says Levi. “And look at our school! It started from just a bunch of us wanting to play the music and progress with it. We had 13 students in the first year, now we have over 60, and people are already asking about next year.”
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