Old City sounds

The festival program takes in a broad musical hinterland of styles and genres, from Turkish and Yemenite sounds to jazz, classical music, rock and klezmer.

The eclectic festival (photo credit: Courtesy)
The eclectic festival
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With its incredible wealth of cultural and religious history, the Old City of Jerusalem makes an unparalleled backdrop for cultural events and, increasingly, artistic directors are putting the millennia-old vibes to good effect.
The next cultural enterprise to feed off the iconic setting is the Sounds in the Old City Festival, the fifth edition of the annual music event, which takes place March 28-31. It must be said, strictly speaking, that the geographic purview of the four-dayer does stray beyond the confines of the ancient walls, with Zion Square featuring in the show lineup, but the vast majority of the venues lie well and truly within the boundaries of the Old City.
As we know only too well, over the centuries Jerusalem has been fought over, coveted and adulated by all kinds of civilizations and nations that made their way over here. The result of that sustained interest has not only been a split of the Old City into different quarters but also a residual and deeply embedded cross-cultural vibe.
That is duly reflected by the eclectic nature of the festival program, which takes in a broad musical hinterland of styles and genres, from Turkish and Yemenite sounds to jazz, classical music, rock and klezmer.
The latter sector of musical exploration is principally represented at the festival by the suitably titled Klezmer International band. The moniker is well earned, if only terms of the members’ countries of birth. The trio comprises bass player Rosa Lea Salamon, who hails from Copenhagen; Russian-born violinist Daniel Ratush; and accordionist Yoshio Otsuka, who came to Israel from Japan five years ago.
The band has been around for a year, but it seems that the requisite chemistry was there from the outset.
“Yoshio and I met first,” says Ratush, who comes from a very musical family. “We were a duo to begin with, and we played klezmer and all kinds of Balkan stuff.”
Ratush comes from the classical side of the musical tracks, but started getting into klezmer when some pals asked him to lend his fiddling expertise to the annual klezmer festival in Safed. Once there, the vibes really got to him, and the rest – for now, at least – is evolving musical history.
“I had a great time at the festival, and I met [internationally acclaimed clarinetist] Giora Feidman there. He inspired me so much, and imparted his love of klezmer to me. I heard him play, and got a taste of the music from him first hand. He has such a strong personality.
He’s a magician.”
There are thousands of people all over the globe, who catch Feidman at his frequent concerts, who would agree with that observation wholeheartedly.
Shortly after that Ratush was asked to join a bunch of like-minded budding musicians in Safed. He gained some hands-on training in the perfect setting.
“They weren’t professional musicians but we played together at weddings, which is what klezmer musicians have always done.”
It’s not a bad way to earn a living either.
Still, he was looking to make further advances with his newfound musical love. His confluence with Otsuka helped greatly in that regard.
“When I met Yoshio it was a great break for me, because I realized I could take my klezmer playing to a higher plane with him,” the violinist says. “Yoshio is a superb accordionist and he has a great teacher.”
The latter is celebrated Moldova-born Israeli accordion player and educator Emil Aybinder.
“Yoshio and connected wonderfully right from the word go,” Ratush enthuses.
Although klezmer music stepped out of the confines of the Jewish musical world quite some time ago – there are some fine bands in places like Sweden and Germany without a Jewish member among them – one would not naturally think of Japan as a good breeding ground for a klezmer accordion player. Even so, it seems that Otsuka got a good handle on the music as a youngster.
“I was a member of a Japan-Israel friends association and we sang and played a lot of hassidic songs together,” he explains. “We played klezmer music as well.”
Otsuka also shares Ratush’s principle sources of inspiration.
“I saw Giora Feidman at a concert in Japan,” he says. “He was incredible. I also saw Emil play there.”
In fact, Aybinder saved Otsuka from a life without music, at least in practical tangible terms.
“I learned classical music, but I got fed up with practicing and playing notes when I was about 17 or 18.”
After a couple of years devoid of instrumental training, Otsuka caught an Aybinder gig in Japan, and he was charmed into taking up the accordion.
Salamon, meanwhile, got into her current musical avenue of expression through shaking a leg.
“I started playing the double bass when I was 15, and my uncle was a jazz-band leader,” she recalls. “I saw his bass player and I fell in love with the bass.”
Jazz start notwithstanding, Salamon had always had Jewish music around.
“I went to a Jewish school and we used to dance the hora to klezmer music, and also at weddings and at bar mitzvas and bat mitzvas. So when I came to Israel to study I was hoping I’d find someone to play klezmer with.”
“And one day I showed up,” Ratush interjects with a chuckle. “I saw her playing, through a window, and I just went over to her and asked her if she wanted to play klezmer with us.”
Klezmer music hails from all sorts of places, and incorporates numerous cultural strands and colors so, perhaps, it is not surprising to find a trio of musicians born in Russia, Japan and Denmark doing their thing in the genre to great effect.
“I hear Rosa’s jazzy thing in her playing, and I often ask her, for example, to play a [jazz] walking bass,” Ratush says. “I think that adds something more interesting and a more personal form of expression. I think it works well.”
The audience at the trio’s March 28 (8:20 and 9:40 p.m.) gigs at David’s Tower should get that all-embracing vibe loud and clear.
Elsewhere in the glittering and wide ranging Sounds in the Old City Festival lineup you can find rockers Dudu Tassa and Ehud Banai, female Yemenite music outfit Gulaza, Armenian music band Dilijan, internationally renowned countertenor David D’or, veteran rock-pop artists Shlomo Gronich and Alon Olearchik, and cross-cultural singer- songwriter Amir Benayoun. Shows will take place each evening between 7 and 11. 
For tickets and more information: www.itraveljerusalem.com