Music that once made peace

A passionate yet accidental love for Andalusian music: Shmuel Elbaz (photo credit: SHMUEL ELBAZ)
A passionate yet accidental love for Andalusian music: Shmuel Elbaz
(photo credit: SHMUEL ELBAZ)
Sitting in a Tel Aviv café over an odd combination of Tuborg beer, sliced watermelon and heavily seasoned green olives, Shmuel Elbaz sips his beer and says: “I like being unique. I like doing something that no one has ever done before.”
Musician, music arranger and symphony orchestra conductor Elbaz did just that when he orchestrated and performed several Bach sonatas on the mandolin, literally a world premiere. And now he is about to boldly go where no one has gone before by combining the two loves of his life: conducting symphony orchestras and the classical music of Andalusia.
On July 17, Elbaz will conduct a concert of Andalusian music, with its traditional songs and melodies played on its traditional instruments, along with the entire Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion. The concert is titled “From Andalusia with Love.”
FOR ELBAZ, the road leading to this rather unusual undertaking has been, as they say, long, with many a winding turn.
Born in Beersheba 49 years ago, he knew from around the age of seven that music would be his life. It all started with a mandolin class at the Beersheba Music Conservatory taught by Russian émigré Simha Nathonson. This began his lifelong devotion to classical music and his virtuosity with the mandolin. He later studied orchestral conducting at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.
Elbaz’s passionate love for Andalusian music, however, was literally accidental.
“It’s a funny story,” he says.
“When I was a kid, my father used to listen to Andalusian music. He brought with him from Morocco hundreds of these records. I was so angry about him listening to that music. He came here early in his life, when he was 17 years old. I couldn’t understand why he was holding on so tightly to his past,” he relates.
“I said, ‘Now you’re in Israel. Why are you still listening to that crap?’” he says.
“It was awful music to me,” he goes on, “because I was interested in classical music. So one day, I took all of his records and threw them out of the window of our third-floor apartment. All my friends were there downstairs, and I yelled, ‘Catch a record, win a prize!’ I was around 13 years old. Maybe this was my adolescent rebellion.”
After collecting everything he had flung out the window and schlepping them back upstairs, Elbaz’s punishment was to write the music, note by note, that was on each and every one of the records. That, he says, began his love affair with Andalusian music.
“I didn’t plan it. It was an accident, a mistake,” he recalls, laughing.
The love affair later became a marriage when, in 2002, Elbaz was invited to serve as chief conductor of the Israel Andalusian Orchestra in Ashdod. A genre of music previously performed in small ensembles at life-cycle events like weddings and bar mitzvas had now been brought to the stage, in full glory, and was performed as concert music.
The orchestra made enough of a mark to be awarded the Israel Prize in 2006 for its lifetime achievement and special contribution to society and the state.
“No Western classical music orchestra has gotten this prize in 40 years, not even the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra,” says Elbaz with obvious pride.
“Concerts today are fully booked. It’s hard to get tickets,” he says.
“The audience is made up mostly of people whose families came from the Maghreb – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria,” her explains. “But more and more, other people are coming, people who like music and want to hear something different. It’s really catching on, with more and more people. And what’s really interesting is that the age of the audience is going down more and more. We see more youngsters. Now there are four orchestras in Israel playing Andalusian music, and all their concerts are full.”
SO WHAT IS Andalusian music?
It is said to have been born in ninth-century Muslim Spain, in the southern emirate of Cordoba (Al-Andalus), across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco. The music later spread across North Africa and beyond along with Muslims and Jews fleeing Spain ahead of the Christian reconquista. It is written to be sung, accompanied by such traditional instruments as the oud, rabab, qithara and naqareh.
“Andalusian music is Arabic music, and 90 percent of that is vocals. The music is there to support the singer and the words of the song,” he explains.
“The Jews had a very important role in making this music. They often took out the Arabic words and replaced them with Jewish liturgical lyrics of the great religious poets of the time, like Yehuda Halevi. It was a very high level of Hebrew poetry. And they tried to make it so that the pronunciation of the Hebrew words would be close to the previous Arabic pronunciation,” he relates.
“They carefully chose Hebrew words that would do this,” he continues. “The interesting thing is that they would sometimes put in a line in Hebrew and then a line in Arabic that would rhyme. It was a music that mixed Jewish with Arab. Now this almost sounds like a utopian dream, to make this kind of cultural relationship between Muslims and Jews, but this actually lasted for hundreds of years. And the contribution of Jews to preserving this Arabic music is also dramatic, because much of this music disappeared. What survived is because Jews kept it, put in Hebrew lyrics, and even used it for religious liturgy.”
And now it will be used for a full symphony orchestra, in four concerts, arranged and conducted by Elbaz.
“This is unique and the first time in Israel,” he says. “This is classical Andalusian music, but arranged for a full symphony orchestra. The traditional instruments will be there, but with the full orchestra as well.”
Elbaz has been exhaustively rehearsing with the orchestra for weeks, and is fully aware of the challenges and potential pitfalls involved with what he is trying to do.
“The thing is to make it sound right, and not some kind of fusion music with just a hint of the classical original,” he says. “I want something that will make the singer not feel strange or uncomfortable, but rather that the orchestra is giving him more power, more layers of sound, more glory.”
Despite the challenges, Elbaz is thrilled to be bringing Andalusian music to the symphony concert stage for the first time in Israel.
“It’s great that this orchestra is open to this kind of music,” he says. “But considering that here in Israel we have a society that comes from so many different places, from so many cultural backgrounds, this is something that should have happened much earlier than now.”
Late or not, he expects that the project will benefit not only the genre of Andalusian music, but the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion as well.
“This audience, which would ordinarily never come to hear a symphony orchestra, maybe will be open to that as well and decide that they want to come back for more.”
“From Andalusia with Love” will be performed by Shmuel Elbaz and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion on July 17 at 8:30 p.m., with three other concerts scheduled for the orchestra’s upcoming season. For information: (03) 948-4840.