Creating harmony

Musician and educator Ami Yares believes that music has the power to make for better understanding between people.

Ami Yares 311 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
Ami Yares 311
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
Musician and educator Ami Yares believes that music has the power to make for better understanding between people.
Always interested in how music affects identity, in 2008 he founded The Shuk with his old friend Yoni Avital and, together with other musicians, they travel the world with their mission to use music as a means to excite and educate people about Israeli and Jewish identity, society and culture.
He also has a group called HOLLER! which performs American music and his own compositions and has a lively following. And as if this weren’t enough, he is also the program co-coordinator for HEARTBEAT, the nonprofit founded by Aaron Shneyer in 2007 which aims to use music to build understanding and transform conflict by bringing together Arab and Jewish youths to make music together.
Yares grew up in a traditional Conservative home in southern New Jersey. In spite of his Hebrew-sounding name, Amichai, the family had little connection to Israel, but when their son announced his intention of going to study Hebrew at the WUJS Institute in Arad, they were supportive. Yares had finished his studies at Rutgers University where he majored in music and Jewish studies and had worked as a special education and music teacher. During summer vacations he volunteered at an overnight camp run by the Conservative movement for Jewish kids with special needs, Ramah New England’s Tikva program.
“Often it was the first time they were away from home and having the chance to have a little independence and a fun summer. It made them feel good about themselves,” he says.
But Israel beckoned, and in 2005 he found himself in Arad, during which time he had the chance to study Arabic and Beduin music. His teacher in Arad was Muhammad Abu Ajaj, one of the foremost experts on Beduin music, and later he studied with Yair Dalal, one of the world’s preeminent interpreters of traditional Middle Eastern music.
“Through my teachers at Rutgers University and in Israel I became aware of the Arab influence on Jewish culture,” he says.
At about this time, he began to play the oud, which he’d first heard as a teenager on an early visit to Safed.
“I fell in love with this instrument and knew I had to play it some time in my life,” he says. “I can play it, but I find it very hard to do the traditional Arabic scales.”
Still only here as a tourist, he began postgraduate studies in the musicology department of the Hebrew University and worked part-time as a cook in a Jerusalem restaurant.
“It worked out perfectly as I could go to class during the day and work at night.” He became proficient enough to be put in charge of the kitchen during his shifts.
At the same time he was still writing songs and performing.
His ensemble HOLLER! began its life during this time.
He quit his studies to become more a part of Israeli society.
“I felt if I’m going to live here I want to get more involved in issues affecting society. I needed to work and it made the most sense to commit to living here.”
In August 2008, Yares attended the Paideia Project in Stockholm, a 10-day seminar designed for Jewish educators dedicated to the revival of Jewish culture in Europe.
“The aim was to see if one could develop an educational idea that would help to strengthen Jewish identity,” says Yares. He thought of his oldest and best friend, Yoni, and realized he would be the perfect partner for what was to become The Shuk.
“The idea came to fruition in Sweden,” he says.
The Shuk now performs to great acclaim, anywhere in the world where there are Jews and anybody interested in Israeli and Jewish culture prepared to listen.
It will also perform at private events, which is helpful financially. But for Yares, the primary aim is a way to express his personal relationship to Jewish culture and bring traditional Jewish music to diverse groups – visiting youth, old people, Holocaust survivors, here and around the world.
His work with HEARTBEAT involves going into schools and creating a musical group made up of Jewish and Arab children 14 and up who not only play together but talk to each other about the conflict and teenage problems.
“The goal is to give the youth a voice through music so in the end we can bring about social changes,” he says.
He now rents an apartment in Jaffa and has a roommate who is a tour guide. He learns Arabic and is beginning to read and write it.
“I always felt it was wrong to live here and not have a connection with Arabs, and it’s one of the reasons I moved to Jaffa,” he says. “I acknowledge that there is another narrative here which is just as important to them as ours.”
“I’m blessed with a beautiful diverse group of friends of varying backgrounds,” he says. “Yes, we do discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I would say that not animosity but sadness prevails when talking about the political and social climate in Israel. We don’t try and change each other’s opinions. It comes down to giving people a chance to be who they are, to listen and to try to make it possible for people to have a respectful existence.”
“I’m developing a concert series which will take place on the rooftop of my house. We’ll serve light refreshments from a bakery called Food Underground and beer brewed in Taiba.”
He’s also going to record another album for The Shuk, as well as an album of his own original compositions with members of HOLLER! One thing is for sure. He will go on making music, teaching and working for better understanding between communities.