Mixing and matching

Israel Gottesdiener and Benny Rosenbaum of the Reim Duo, known for its hassidic and other Ashkenazi songs, will be taking to the stage with Moroccan crooner Shlomo Bar in the Singing Roots series.

Israel Gottesdiener and Benny Rosenbaum of Duo Reim with Shlomo Bar. (photo credit: YEHOSHUA YOSEF)
Israel Gottesdiener and Benny Rosenbaum of Duo Reim with Shlomo Bar.
(photo credit: YEHOSHUA YOSEF)
They may not be quite as high profile as The Rolling Stones, but the Reim Duo has been around almost as long – 45 years to be precise. During that time, they have become the darlings of Ashkenazi communities across the world, released more than 20 well-received albums and culled a clutch of prizes and awards, taking first prize in the annual Hassidic Song Festival on several occasions and also winning the Bible Song Festival and the Jerusalem Festival.
Over the years they have become synonymous with instantly recognizable renditions of such staples of the Ashkenazi repertoire as “Yedid Nefesh,” “Yevarechecha,” “Mi Ha’ish” and “Od Avinu Hai.” Now Israel Gottesdiener and Benny Rosenbaum appear to be widening their stylistic and cultural horizons when they join forces with Shlomo Bar for the first installment of the Singing Roots series, which will take place on November 3 at the Performing Arts Center in Herzliya.
It is the first of five shows that will take place in the series between now and June, and it is certainly not a musical or cultural confluence that readily springs to mind. Gottesdiener and Rosenbaum specialize in hassidic and other Ashkenazi material, intermittently interspersed with forays into surprising stylistic directions, while Bar, the founder and iconic leader of the veteran Habreira Hativit cross-cultural band, is predominantly identified with Sephardi music, particularly Moroccan material.
The Reim twosome have actually been together longer than 45 years.
“We had a couple of years together when we sang in the military rabbinical band in the army,” says Gottesdiener.
He says the duo was destined to work together.
“We were soloists in the band, and we were offered a three-year recording contract by Hed Arzi as soon as we left the army. It’s like A Star Is Born. And why should we go our separate ways when it was clear that we were going to be a success?” he says.
That may have been wishful thinking at the time, but it proved to be prescient.
“The time we spent together in the army band was our internship as the Reim Duo,” says Rosenbaum.
“We gained a lot of experience. We performed all over the country at all sorts of army bases and front line positions. We learned to be ready to perform at a moment’s notice, and we learned the repertoire well.”
Initially, Gottesdiener and Rosenbaum were part of a large ensemble of 15 voices, but logistics eventually paved the way for the duo format.
“Sometimes we’d go to a stronghold with, say, eight soldiers. So it was a bit ridiculous having 15 people perform for so few soldiers,” says Rosenbaum.
After a while, the ensemble split up into more compact sub-units, and Gottesdiener was paired with Rosenbaum.
“Our voices complemented each other’s,” says Gottesdiener, “so it made perfect sense for us to become a duo.”
The pair tasted success from the very start. They took part in the inaugural Hassidic Song Festival in 1969 and won first place. A few years later they embarked on their first international tour. While they were in Switzerland they had a weekend off – Gottesdiener and Rosenbaum are both Orthodox and don’t perform on Shabbat anyway – so they decided to spend Shabbat in St. Moritz at a kosher hotel. While they were there they broke out in song, and a young woman caught their dulcet tones and was duly impressed. It transpired that her father ran the Swiss offshoot of the leading EMI record label, and the pair were soon signed to a threeyear contract with the Swiss company.
“It wasn’t our usual style,” recalls Rosenbaum. “There was lots of instrumentation – more classical style. It was a non-Jewish approach to the music.”
The Swiss-based endeavor helped to widen the duo’s musical and cultural horizons.
“We sang songs in English, Spanish, German and Yiddish,” says Rosenbaum, and immediately begins singing a ditty in German.
“That’s his language,” Gottesdiener interjects. “I never really connected with the language.”
Language barriers notwithstanding, 45 years on the road in recording studios and at all manner of venues all over the country and abroad is an impressive statistic.
“We were always observant; we didn’t suddenly become religious. We never became extreme, and we never wavered in our religious beliefs,” Gottesdiener states by way of explaining the duo’s longevity.
He says that he and Rosenbaum have always enjoyed across-the-board popularity.
“We grew up in a secular environment, and our music has always been popular with all sectors of the population.”
That, he says, was confirmed when he recently caught a late-night screening of a Hassidic Song Festival of yesteryear.
“I looked at the people in the audience, and there were Sephardim, Ashkenazim, religious and secular people; these are the people that have followed us for the last 45 years,” he notes.
That goes for the professionals, too.
“We always performed with secular and religious Jews, as well as non- Jews. If you look at the old posters of our shows, you’ll see that we shared stages with people like [Greek singer] Aris San and veteran crooner Yehoram Gaon, [Greek musician George] Dalares and [rock diva] Riki Gal,” he says.
By now it has become apparent that the seemingly unlikely pairing with Bar next week will not be too much of a musical stretch for the duo.
“We have performed with all kinds of mizrahi singers before, like Shimi Tavori, and now with Shlomo Bar,” Gottesdiener says.
But Bar is not Tavori. Despite the fact that the 71-year-old Moroccan percussionist-vocalist has taken in wide-ranging swathes of styles and genres over his long career, it is still difficult to imagine him on the same stage with the perennially popular leaders of the hassidic music sector.
Rosenbaum says he and Gottesdiener did not encounter any animosity when they first got together with Bar to discuss the project.
“We initiated this synergy with Shlomo Bar,” Rosenbaum notes. “He immediately said he felt we could work together well. He puts his heart and soul into his music, and we do the same with ours, so that is a good starting point.”
The Herzliya concert repertoire will feature many of Bar’s and the duo’s best-known numbers, including anthemic Bar social protest song “Yeladim Zeh Simha” (Children Are Happiness) and the well-known “Kfar Todra,” while the Reim Duo will weigh in with “Shalom Aleichem” and “Vehi She’amda.”
“Shlomo has something very Jewish in his music, just of a different color,” says Rosenbaum. “We may seem to be very different, but I think the contrast between us will generate a lot of interest with the public, but we really share a lot of common ground. This is going to be a good show.”
The Singing Roots series will also feature shows with Jewish gospel songs; an intriguing match-up between internationally renowned singer-cantor Dudu Fisher and veteran pop singer Rutie Navon performing Jewish liturgical material; and an emotive and high-energy interface between veteran pop-rock pianist and vocalist Shlomo Gronich and harmonica player Michal Adler, together with an instrumental ensemble. The series will close on June 1 with a lively klezmer show.
For tickets and more information: 1-700-702-929 and www.hoh-herzliya.co.il/