When the world music genre really got going, around 30 or so years ago, various Israeli-born musicians of Sephardi descent suddenly began rediscovering their ethnic roots. Now-63-year-old violinist and oud player Yair Dalal is a prime example, as he broke away from rock and roll, and blues guitar and reconnected with his parents’ Iraqi origins.
There are plenty more examples of born-again ethnic artists, but, manifold artistic directions notwithstanding, siblings Guy and Roy Zoaretz never left their musical domicile. “Ladino is from home,” says the latter. “It has always been part of my life, and Guy’s.”
The brothers will proffer some of their multi-stratified musical DNA at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, on Thursday evening (9 p.m.), as part of the institution’s Likrat Shabbat (Ahead of Shabbat) original concert series. Guy will act as MC and storyteller, in addition to providing vocals, musical director Roy will also play piano, and they will be supported by clarinetist Boris Haimov and bassist Ziv Harpaz.
IT IS quite a stellar sibling synergy, with both Zoaretzes achieving stardom over the years – 45-year-old Guy as an acclaimed actor, director and TV presenter, while freshly turned-50-year-old Roy has strutted his stuff, as pianist, record producer and arranger, with pop and rock giants the likes of Rita, Hayehudim, Danny Sanderson and Mosh Ben-Ari, all benefiting from his gift for getting the most out of the artists and presenting that to the public in the best way possible. There is also the matter of a 15-year Stateside sojourn, during which he wrote several soundtracks and worked on the Hollywood scene.
“I also wrote a musical service for Steven Spielberg’s synagogue,” Roy says. “They said they were experiencing problems with assimilation and wanted to attract young people back to the community.”
The keyboardist got an impressively early start to his musicianship, and got some of the fruits of his infant labors out to the public, releasing his first album at the age of 12. “I started playing piano when I was three,” he notes.
The youngster had a role model of sorts. “When my mother was a child, in the Shapira neighborhood [in southeast Tel Aviv], she had German neighbors who had a piano. She’d hear them playing and she swore that when she was older she’d have a piano.” It took quite a few years, but eventually, as a mother of three, she finally achieved her ambition.
But it was her offspring who made the most of the new acquisition, and there was soon a surprise in store for the parents.
“One morning my father came back from his night shift – he was a blue-collar worker at a bakery – and he heard someone playing the piano,” Roy recalls. “He got some kind of compensation from the IDF following the Yom Kippur War, and that’s how he could afford to buy a piano.”
Intrigued by the keyboard performance, Zoaretz Sr. went to the living room and discovered his three-year-old son with his tiny hands on the ivories.
“It wasn’t me just plonking around. The note sequences actually made sense. I had to sit on a couple of volumes of Yellow Pages [telephone books] to be able to reach the keyboard,” he laughs. “My father didn’t comprehend what was happening. I just went to the piano and taught myself to play.”
Mind you, the kid did get some early pointers to the way things were supposed to sound.
“There was always music – records and the radio – playing at home,” he says. “My dad was crazy about Italian operas. To this day he sings all the time. He was the singer of the family. He has a genuine operatic voice.” Dad even got in on the act. “We’ve had him on the stage with us, and he wrote a song for us. It was in Hebrew, but it was part of the Ladino side of our program.”
The brothers feed off quite a substantial familial musical backdrop. Their father hails from Tripoli, while their mother, who was born in Salonika, brings Balkan baggage to the fray. That’s quite a mix, and if you add Roy’s classical training, with some jazz, rock, pop and electronic endeavor in there, too, you end up with rich sonic pickings that can lead almost every which way. “As a kid I listened to [Egyptian diva] Oum Kulthoum, Mozart, Led Zeppelin. You name it.”
He enhanced his classical music education credentials with a stint at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, and has composed chamber works. But, he says, his heart remains with the short form. “I always loved songs. To this day I think that the two-and-a-half-, three-minute song, the impact it has on you, you can’t get that from any composition of 30, 40 or 50 minutes.”
Zoaretz got down to business in double-quick time.
“I started writing songs from around the age of five,” he says.
He also got noticed. “My father took me to a club, one day. They thought I might perform there. I played a couple of things and [pop star] Matti Caspi heard me. He told my dad he should get me recorded.”
Even with all those evolving musical-professional strands, more than anything, Zoaretz believes it is his basement-level upbringing that provides him with the requisite creative bedrock.
“As kids, we used to play outside, encounter real life,” he exclaims. “That was the great gift we had. Today, you get all these musicians who went to places like Juilliard, but they don’t have the street. They don’t have the rawness. That simplicity.”
For Zoaretz, if you don’t graft, you don’t end up with anything worth its salt. “Today, in the virtual world, you don’t often get artists who create from scratch. Classical musicians are going to vanish. Today you don’t have that obsessiveness, with kids being told to sit down and practice on their instrument, four to five hours a day, whether they like or not.”
The youngster came to wider notice when he appeared on the popular TV comedy show Zehu Ze! Back then there was a solitary state-run television station, so practically everyone in the country caught Zoaretz in the act. He learned an important lesson in the aftermath of his 10 minutes of glory.
“Guy and I were on the bus to school and everyone recognized me. When I got to school, everyone wanted me to come back home with them after school, and the nature studies teacher, who couldn’t stand me, told me I didn’t have to take the test that day, that I could go and play music. They played my song over the school PA system.”
That doesn’t sound too bad, but Zoaretz says he is alert to the dangers of ego pumping at such an early age. “Today, when I see the talented kids on reality music shows, it makes me cry for them. I curse their parents for letting the kids do that – actually, making them go on the show.”
Any superiority complex the teenager may have been nurturing following his meteoric rise to national stardom was quickly snuffed out by his mother.
“She made sure I was grounded,” Zoaretz says. “She made it clear to me that there were no stars in our family, and that I had to put in my shift on my schoolwork and music.”
IN FACT, the parental element has been ever present in the Zoaretz siblings’ life and career, and the Tripoli-Salonika musical influences continue to inform and enrich the brothers’ output – as will be apparent at Beit Avi Chai this week.
“Piyutim [liturgical music] is built in for us, and quarter tones.” The latter is a fundamental element of Arabic classical music but does not appear in its Western counterpart. Zoaretz was a willing apprentice, and lent a keen ear to the vocal goings-on at the local synagogue.
“I learned all the piyutim,” he says. “And I know every Ladino song there is.”
Again, help came from close to home. “Grandma Perlika, my mother’s mother, was a database of Ladino songs. She knew all the Spanish romantic songs – the ballads and the nonsense songs.”
Zoaretz says he and his brother feed off all the aforementioned musical baggage, with plenty of emotive stuff mixed in. “There are heart-wrenchers and also fun songs in what we do. I think it is a good lead-in to Shabbat. I hope people will go home from the show with a good, warm feeling in their heart, and with a smile.”
For tickets and more information: (02) 621-5300 and www.bac.org.il