Most of us, at some stage of our lives, need a sense of home, a feeling of being rooted. After all, as any artist will tell you, if you don’t know where you’ve come it is hard to forge ahead and develop your craft. Niva Harel certainly knows from whence she hails.
The fifty-something singer-guitarist will demonstrate her cultural umbilical cord on Thursday (8:30 p.m.) when she takes the stage at Confederation House in Jerusalem, along with her trio of instrumentalists, to perform songs from her Shamma program.
The show goes by the epexegetical subtitle of Yemenite Women’s Song, and Harel, who goes by her stage name of Niva, says the concerts serves as “a ceremony that presents intimate women’s song inspired by the pain in their lives, their daily chores and yearning for forbidden love.” Sounds both intriguing and edgy.
Harel has various strings to her creative bow, including quite a few that tend towards the curative side of life. Her website offers information, not only about her work as a singer, instrumentalist and songwriter, there are also workshops that focus on the voice as a means of complete self-expression, and a slew of literary creations from Harel designed to point the way to a spiritually healthy condition.
All of which, she says, also infuse her musical output. “They all come from a deep spiritual world, from a woman who follows a spiritual world. That is all an expression of the voice, whether it’s a voice of singing, or a voice of writing.”
Harel’s musical exploits are the result of a relatively recent return – rediscovery would be a more accurate description – to genetic form. “I didn’t grow up on the [Yemenite] root; I am now coming back to it. It is like the voice which takes me on an odyssey and now it’s time for the root,” she notes. It took her a while, and she explored numerous extraneous areas of musical endeavor in the process.
Still, Harel does not regret the time and effort she put into the other stuff. “I had to go out and investigate all the foreign worlds I could encounter to be able to come and immerse myself, at the age of 50, in this. I had to go through all of that to find out where I really come from.”
It wasn’t as if Harel was in denial. She wasn’t rebelling against her ethnic roots and, like many second and third generation Israelis, embracing the here and now. This wasn’t about being a sabra, as opposed to a Yemenite or Iraqi or Russian. Despite her deep Yemenite roots she simply did not get a taste of the culture, especially the music, at home. “My grandfather – my mother’s father – was born here. He came from a Yemenite home but he was born an Israeli. Just like all those European Jews who wanted to shake off their past in order to be Israelis, my grandmother grew up in Tel Aviv and everyone, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, mingled together. He didn’t allow my grandmother – who was born in Yemen – to speak Yemenite at home.”
That eventually filtered through to Harel’s generation. “We spoke Hebrew at home, and I listened to Israeli music, like Chava Alberstein, not Yemenite music.”
That, says Harel, may have made her work harder to get back to where it all began, generations gone by. But it also gave her the gift of discovering a new world. “This show is not Niva demonstrating her expertise in Yemenite culture. Not at all. This is a show which comes from my artist’s soul, and from a woman, a real and realistic woman, exploring her roots, and considering them with wonderment.”
She says that comes through in the delivery. “These songs have flowed through me. I don’t sing the songs as they were rendered in Yemen. These are the songs of Yemenite women, Yemenite fusion. It is called Yemenite fusion because the songs are scented with the aroma of Niva, and have been arranged by the amazing musicians I have with me.” Harel will be joined on the Confederation House stage by electric guitarist Gilad Weiss who also plays sax, Shani Shavit on bass and percussionist Maayan Douari. It is a quality lineup, with a broad range of influences and sonic leanings, which should provide for a well-seasoned and multistratified offering. The venture is also enhanced by the production savvy of Gil Ron Shema, who came to note in the late 1990s as a member of now defunct ethnic music supergroup Sheva.
Harel says she keeps her artistic options as open as possible. “I didn’t train, formally, in any kind of music. It was like that when I sang jazz, and it’s the same with this.” That, she feels, is a boon to her creative pathway. “I think that leaves me freer, and more adventurous, to do what I want with the music.”
Then again, she is not a genuine autodidact. She spent a year at the Maqamat School of Eastern Music in Jerusalem. “That was great,” she recalls. “That taught me the Arabic scales which the Yemenites sang, but didn’t play them on instruments. The Yemenites had the tradition of refraining from playing instrumental music until the third Temple is built,” Harel explains. “That was a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.” She also gained much from her tutelage with late lamented Yemenite singer Gila Beshari.
Harel took the information she gleaned from the school and Beshari and ran with it, in several directions. “I took the [Yemenite] songs, into my heart, and to my guitar. I sing as you sing with western scales, with western instruments – guitars, synthesizers and all that. I don’t have quarter tones on my guitar.”
At the end of the day, the Shamma project – named after Harel’s grandmother – is about Harel’s take on the music, filtered through a decidedly feminine prism of emotions and spirit. “I have something to say in this world, as an artist and a woman. I bring my heart to the music of the past, and bring it into the world of now.”
For tickets and more information: *6226 and http://tickets.bimot.co.il, (02) 539-9360, ext. 5 and http://www.confederationhouse.org