Like two musical souls connecting

The 20th Tel Aviv Piano Festival brings together a kamancheh master and a rising vocalist.

MARK ELIYAHU (front) and Shai Tsabari: Our music has different kinds of temperaments. (photo credit: ZOHAR RON)
MARK ELIYAHU (front) and Shai Tsabari: Our music has different kinds of temperaments.
(photo credit: ZOHAR RON)
The Papaito music complex in Tel Aviv is a unique maze of rehearsal rooms and recording spaces where beautiful guitars are on display alongside printed materials celebrating bands who passed through it, from the Nag Hammadi Band, a rock act composed of journalist-musicians, to Yemeni groove group Bint El Funk and The Giant Lizards From Nibiru Planet, a psychedelic space-rock duo.
Shai Tsabari, who sings the theme song in the recently released film The Unorthodox, where he performs alongside lead actor Shuli Rand in a musical celebration of Jewish traditional text and black soul music, and Kamancheh master Mark Eliyahu, who hails from a celebrated musical family greatly honored in Israel – emerge from the rehearsal space for a short interview about their upcoming shared performance in the 20th Tel Aviv Piano Festival taking place through October 27.
The festival features 300 artists, musicians, actors and dancers, including Shlomi Shaban, Eviatar Banai and Berry Sakharoff.
“The easiest thing in the world would have been to bring a piano and just let me and Mark jam alongside it,” Tsabari jokes, “but that would have been too easy. So we ended up creating original songs and compositions just for this show, there will be keyboards we’ll create mash-ups of our music and I will take the role of some of the musical instruments using vocals.”
Both Tsabari and Eliyahu were brought up in distinct musical traditions. Tsabari’s grandmother was a musician within the Yemenite Jewish community and his father is a cantor. Eliyahu, the son of Tar master and noted musicologist Piris Eliyahu, traveled to Crete as a teenager to study music under Ross Daly and later mastered the kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument, under Adalat Vazirov in Azerbaijan.
“My mother is a pianist. I trained in classical violin as a child and she would accompany me,” he shares. “To this day, we often play together in family gatherings.”
The two worked together in the past and the spark was created, moving them to consider what sort of original work they might do together.
“Our music has different kinds of temperament,” Tsabari explains, “Mark creates concert-style music, which invites the audience to listen because it’s so wonderful. My music is more about inviting the audience to dance and move.”
Eliyahu is quick to point out that such distinctions, which used to be noticeable, are no longer as valid.
“With the younger generation, that distinction is gone. I’ve had concerts where young people raved and danced and moved to the music, even if in the past it would be played, supposedly, in a concert setting.”
Eliyahu describes their working process as “like two hearts or even two souls connecting,” whereas Tsabari speaks about a powerful synergy.
When I try to touch on the issue of Mizrahi music and classical oriental music, I am met with a polite but powerful rebuke. Tsabari and Eliyahu strongly argue that their music is Israeli music, and could only have been created in the unique melting pot of Israeli society. Eliyahu points out that it’s this Israeli freedom that allows him to create his own music as a composer who doesn’t need to concern himself with the reaction of established musical gurus in a highly guarded tradition. Tsabari simply waves questions about Mizrahi music away as unimportant. “What I do is very Israeli,” he explains. “Here, there is the freedom of an encounter,” Eliyahu adds. “We both create Israeli music, and make something new.”
One possible example of that newness is Tsabari’s song “Hamelah” (“The King”). Written by noted Jewish mysticism scholar Professor Haviva Padia, the lyrics describe powerful Jewish themes of exile and yearning in a musical style that seems to fuse hassidic music and qawwali-like ecstasy. Hailing from the Indian subcontinent, this Sufi musical tradition became globally known thanks to the genius of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Tsabari confirms that this was one his musical influences but points out that even here, Israeli freedom can be noted. “Qawwali,” he says, “is unique because it combines a very formal and strict structure with a spontaneous meeting between musicians performing together and their audience,” for example, “Khan might sing something written on the spot during the show.”
Few Israeli musicians could claim to have a nearly 3oo years old musical tradition such as Khan did, yet great music does not always need to be three centuries behind it to be powerful.
“Our music,” Tsabari says, “wants to touch something sublime.”
Eliyahu and Tsabari will perform together at Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Asia Hall on October 25.
For information on the Piano Festival, go to