Tamar Festival 2021: Music lights the Dead Sea desert

After last year’s festival was scheduled during a COVID lockdown, the 2021 ensemble features over 25 artists in joint shows and guest acts.

 SINGER AND songwriter Hanan Ben Ari preforms at the annual Tamar Festival in the Dead Sea Masada site, September 2021 (photo credit: Tamar Hanan)
SINGER AND songwriter Hanan Ben Ari preforms at the annual Tamar Festival in the Dead Sea Masada site, September 2021
(photo credit: Tamar Hanan)

Wearing masks and whispering excitedly, families and fans weaved their way in the dark across the sand, with lighted faces of desert mountains guiding their way to a night of music and exhilaration.

The Tamar Festival is a yearly Sukkot four-day celebration of Israeli music, in performances backdropped against the breathtaking Masada.

Shows are held every night and each early morning in a sunrise performance. After last year’s festival was scheduled during what ended up being a COVID lockdown, the 2021 ensemble features over 25 artists in joint shows and guest acts.

As one of some 6,000 participants on the second night, I was ushered by dozens of staff and police to a parking site, stepped out into the sultry night, and was led up to the show on a shuttle. I was prepared for a traffic jam, but everything went smoothly; the event was impressively executed, with few lines and crowds that were not-too-large.Each visitor presented a Green Pass and the festival itself was spacious, with tables and sofas spread out several meters apart before the show. Most wore masks, at least until the music began.

The crowd was varied – teens in shorts and sandals and middle-aged couples in kippot and headdresses, seniors over 60, and families with toddlers, all with radiant faces at the prospect of a concert after a long cultural drought.Some 2,000 seated and even more standing across a huge arena faced Hanan Ben Ari as he took to the stage. The atmosphere was electric – everywhere you looked, the audience was smiling and singing along with an infectious sense of freedom.

AUDIENCE AT a music concert at the Tamar Festival, September 2021 (credit: HADAS LABRISCH)AUDIENCE AT a music concert at the Tamar Festival, September 2021 (credit: HADAS LABRISCH)

“I didn’t really believe this would happen. And even when the show was set, I didn’t think anyone would come.” Ben Ari said from the stage. “Some people say a performer is a sun, and the audience reflects his light like the moon. But under this full moon, you are the sun. And I promise we’ll radiate your light a million times over.”

The 33-year-old singer-songwriter has two successful albums under his belt. While many of his songs speak of God and religion, and one of his most well-known singles is a lament to the Gaza disengagement (“Ima Im Haiti Yachol”), his music is directed at everyone as he asks, “don’t label me on Wikipedia.” In a performance lasting over two hours long, Ben Ari was wild with energy, jumping across the stage and infusing each word with emotion.

For his song “Cholem Kmo Yosef” (Dream like Joseph), Ben Ari came into the crowd and perched atop a stand between the open ground and the bleachers, singing in the center of a thousands-strong circle chanting back his words.

The audience erupted into applause when guest performers Berry Sakharof, Micha Shitrit and Amir Benayoun joined the stage. Sakharof sang “Halaliot” and made the older fans go wild; Shitrit, a songwriter sang timeless classics like “Biglal HaRoach” and “Masmerim VeNotzot” before coming up again when Amir Benayoun sang a mesmerizing rendition of “Shvurei Lev” (Heartbreaking) by Ben Ari as well as his own famous “Omed Basha’ar” and “Kshe’at ‘Atzuva.”

 SINGER AND songwriter Hanan Ben Ari preforms at the annual Tamar Festival in the Dead Sea Masada site, September 2021 (credit: Tamar Hanan) SINGER AND songwriter Hanan Ben Ari preforms at the annual Tamar Festival in the Dead Sea Masada site, September 2021 (credit: Tamar Hanan)

“Look around you. Look to your right, to your left. Everyone around you looks different, acts differently, believes differently, probably votes differently,” Ben Ari told his audience. “But we are best when we’re together. This is Am Yisrael.”

When the final song was over, many remained in front of the empty stage where music was still playing over the loudspeakers and started dancing, completely carefree.

BARELY TWO hours later, a smaller group made their way up the path towards the Masada heritage site. Sleepy-eyed and quiet, we climbed up a trail at 2 a.m. in a surreal dream, carrying blankets for a nap at the mountaintop before the sunrise show.

VISITORS TO the Tamar Festival sunrise show await the cable car to climb to the top of Masada, September 2021 (credit: HADAS LABRISCH)VISITORS TO the Tamar Festival sunrise show await the cable car to climb to the top of Masada, September 2021 (credit: HADAS LABRISCH)

We were taken up in glass-walled cable cars, where the full moon beamed upon a stunning view of dunes and the glistening Dead Sea.

In what felt like an intimate camping trip, visitors of all ages convened near the stage, where a large straw mat strewn with pillows awaited. Soft music was playing on the red-lit stage, shrouding the rest of the heritage site in darkness.

At 4:30 a.m., the show began. In an overly large sweatshirt and a messy ponytail, looking just as comfy as we were, Keren Peles immediately began with her new song, “Ein Sof la-Laila” (No End to the Night).

“I planned to wear something beautiful for you guys,” she told her audience, “but it’s been a tough time for me physically. I didn’t even know if I’d make it. Luckily I got this sweater, so I’m set.”

SINGER AND songwriter Keren Peles preforms at the annual Tamar Festival in the Dead Sea Masada site in a sunrise show, September 2021 (credit: HADAS LABRISCH)SINGER AND songwriter Keren Peles preforms at the annual Tamar Festival in the Dead Sea Masada site in a sunrise show, September 2021 (credit: HADAS LABRISCH)

No barriers seemed to stand between the stage and the awed audience, most of whom were still wrapped in blankets. The talented musician sang many of her popular songs as she played the keyboards, with increasing energy and laughter between sets. “I made a living out of being dumped. I get my heart broken and I make a song out of it,” she said, singing “Itay.”

The night was still dark and the temperature was rising as the reggae group Hatikva 6 joined Peles on the stage. Together, they sang “Ba’olam Shela” (In Her World), “Lachzor Habaita” and “Hachi Israeli” by the group, with Peles soloing for some of the rap parts with seamless ease. By this time the audience was on its feet, singing and dancing along.

It was evident that Peles was weak and slightly hoarse, recovering from an illness after revealing on social media that she was hospitalized last month. But as the night wore on, it seemed any pain was a propeller, and she performed with crazy energy like a true rock star, pushing her voice to the brink and singing powerful renditions of her classics.

As morning broke, the Masada fortress magically appeared around us and Peles ended her show with the much-awaited “Mabul,” followed by a recent release called “Bat Li Pit’om.”

The sun rises over Masada at the Tamar Festival, September 2021 (credit: HADAS LABRISCH)The sun rises over Masada at the Tamar Festival, September 2021 (credit: HADAS LABRISCH)

“It was my dream to perform in Festival Ha-Tamar,” said Peles. “Thank you. This doesn’t seem real.”

The Tamar Festival ended on Saturday night.