Listening to the music of Alma is something of a throwback, of the best kind. In addition to a host of videoed live slots, the trio’s alluring body of work thus far takes in three albums – the latest of which, Lichvod Hamakom (In Honor of Place), was recently released and will be presented this Thursday at an online concert at Confederation House, broadcast via Facebook and YouTube.
There is a compelling earnest spiritual vibe to the group’s output, performed by vocalist, keyboardist and melodica player Raya Muskal; vocalist-guitarist Avraham Muskal, husband of the aforementioned; and fellow instrumentalist and singer Eliav Uval-Neeman. Next week’s date also features Avi Rabi on bass and bass guitar, with Einat Harel on drums and percussion.
Veterans of the New Age scene, spearheaded by the likes of the Sheva bunch from the Galilee and propagated at such then-hugely popular festivals as Shantipi and Beresheet, no doubt immediately latch onto the Alma energies and intent. There is an almost hypnotic element to some of the Alma material, particularly a haunting number called “Ayala” (“Doe”) off the group’s debut album Me’al Mah She’anachnoo (Beyond What we Are). The lyrics come from a work by late post-modernist feminist poet Yona Wallach, with Uval-Neeman adding a score that has appealed to people of all walks and ages over the years. The musician says he was surprised by the across-the-board response, especially within the context of the first studio offering.
“Yes, it took on some kind of universal status. We didn’t expect anything from the record but that song really caught on. It is very moving that it is sung at so many different events and situations, like shira mukedeshet (spiritual community sing-alongs) and by secular and religious people alike.”
In fact, “Ayala” is the result of a highly serendipitous development and almost didn’t make the cut.
“We had recorded all the tracks for the disc, but I had this song that I had thought about including too,” 42-year-old Uval-Neeman recalls. “[Bassist and producer] Naor Carmi was doing the mixing on the album and he said, OK let’s try and see how it goes. So we did a really quick live recording and it worked out. Naor said that it was good, and that it should be on the record.”
Good thing too.
“Ayala” has, indeed, proven to have enduring mass appeal but there is more to the threesome. Since they first got together around 17 years ago, they have spent long hours suggesting and sharing musical ideas, and getting close. In Honor of Place is the latest of three records they have put out to date and they have played on all kinds of stages up and down the country in the process.
AS JAZZ artists will generally say, it helps to know your bandmates as people, and not just as fellow musicians. Developing a good understanding – if not a close relationship – with the other guys and gals with whom you perform and record is an invaluable asset to accrue. The Muskals and Uval-Neeman clearly enjoy strong rapport and genuine affection for each other.
Despite hailing from Jerusalem and the environs thereof, Uval-Neeman and Avraham Muskal actually encountered each other in far-off foreign climes. Both come from observant backgrounds, although Muskal comes from a haredi family from Bnei Brak while Uval-Neeman’s backdrop tends more towards the traditional rather than the stricter side of the observance lines.
As is often the case at that particular stage of their personal evolution, when they were in their 20s both decided to make a break for it and struck out on their own spiritual pathway. Muskal left the cloistered familial and community surroundings when he was in his teens and eventually headed for Spain, but not before imbibing a heady musical brew and the hassidic tishes, or festive gatherings, which featured powerfully emotive sing-alongs.
“It all started from there,” Muskal noted in an interview he gave to the former Channel One TV station around eight years ago. “I left the community, but the music stayed with me.”
And so the young guitarist ended up doing a quirky busking act on the streets of Grenada when Uval-Neeman happened to mosey on by. He was studying flamenco guitar there at the time. Muskal was kitted out in a flowing white robe with a laurel of olive leaves on his head. He was playing a saz, a stringed instrument popular in Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijan and Balkan music. Muskal’s shtick was to remain motionless until a passerby threw a coin into the hat in front of him, whereupon he’d begin playing for a few minutes. Uval-Neeman heard him do his thing, and threw a bunch of coins into the hat, to hear Muskal play a bit longer before introducing himself in Spanish, then asking him, in English, where he was from. And the rest, more or less, is ongoing history.
They soon became fast friends and came across Raya a couple of years later at a common friend’s place. They began jamming then and there, and all three sensed they shared more than just a musical connection. Friendship soon flourished, before Raya and Avraham bonded on a more romantic level and became a couple.
Happily, that did not spark any friction, or divided loyalties and their musical road continued unabated.
“We developed a deep friendship between the three of us,” Uval-Neeman says. “We started meeting for improvisational jam sessions and gradually we came up with some actual properly formed songs. We had this special understanding from the outset.”
That had more than a little to do with their religious experiences during their early formative years. When their paths crossed they were, to all outer visual intents and purposes, living a non-religious way of life, but were all still engaged in a spiritual journey, a search for meaning.
“When we met we were each, more or less, secular but we had an inner spiritual bond,” the guitarist notes.
THAT QUEST naturally informed their artistic path too.
“Music is a form of prayer, as it has been for us from the start. We are each on a journey, connecting with our inner feelings.”
Uval-Neeman says the songs they come up with can be based on texts from the Bible, by Rabbi Kook and poets like Wallach, or can be the result of spontaneous writing sessions. The latest album tends largely to the latter textual line of attack.
They also meld their individual – and common – musical influences, which range from American folk to flamenco, jazz and even Irish music.
“I listened to rock music as a teenager,” explains Uval-Neeman. “I liked Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and all those guys. I got all of that from my older brother.”
Folk-rock star Ehud Banai once described Alma’s work as “local Hebrew-Canaanite folk.”
“I’m not much into strict definitions,” Uval-Neeman remarks, “but I could go along with that.”
Typically, Uval-Neeman says the title of the latest album reflects both the individual and spiritual of the trio members.
“‘Hamakom’ means ‘the place’ but it is also one of the names of God.”
For now, the guitarist and his pals are just delighted to have the opportunity to strut their stuff, albeit on a virtual platform.
“We really appreciate this opportunity from Confederation House and [CEO and artistic manager] Effie Benaya. The last gig we did was in Ein Karem a month and a half ago. It is important for us to play our music for people.”
Judging by the way the public responds to Alma’s heartfelt offerings, the sentiment is entirely mutual.
For more information: www.confederationhouse.org/en/page_18924