When it comes to divas, in this part of the world they don’t come any bigger or venerated than Shoshana Damari. The Yemenite-born singer, who died in 2006 at the age of 82, was known for her sumptuous vocal textures and emotive delivery of such enduring hits as “Kalaniyot” (Anemones), “Hayoo Leilot” (There Were Nights) and “Migdalor” (Lighthouse).
All of the above, and more, feature in the set of the Queenta gig at the forthcoming winter edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, February 23-25.
Queenta, naturally enough, is a quintet and something of a supergroup at that. Singer Chen Levy fronts the all-woman band, as well as serving as musical director and arranger. She is backed by celebrated flutist Hadar Noiberg and acclaimed pianist Katia Toobool, with Inbar Paz on double bass and May Segal on drums. That’s a powerhouse lineup but nothing more than Damari’s treasured body of work deserves.
But, surely, taking on someone of Damari’s standing must be a daunting mission. How do you even try to match up to the majesty of her sound and the grandeur of her persona, even if she is long gone? “First off, we don’t compete in any shape or form,” Levy sets me straight. “That was never on the table. For me, it is impossible to compete with her. I have to say it isn’t even interesting. She is Shoshana and she gave what she had to give. I am Chen, and I’ll give what I have. I don’t have anything else to offer.”
“First off, we don’t compete in any shape or form. That was never on the table. For me, it is impossible to compete with her. I have to say it isn’t even interesting. She is Shoshana and she gave what she had to give. I am Chen, and I’ll give what I have. I don’t have anything else to offer.”Chen Levy
Levy did not grow up with the sound of Damari’s peerless vocals ringing in her young ears. “We didn’t hear her music at home. I am a little young to have been able to catch her when she was around, in her prime,” says the 37-year-old singer.
In fact, it was a different area of the arts that eventually drew Levy into Damari’s world. “I went to see the documentary by Kobi Farag about her, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. It is called Queen Shoshana,” Levy recalls. The royal moniker was appropriate. Early on in her career, Damari was dubbed the Queen of Hebrew Song.
The documentary left a deep and lasting impression on Levy. “It is an amazing film. She came across as a very strong woman, which surprised me a lot. She was also a feminist, long before anyone thought of the concept. And she had a very successful career at a time when women were supposed to stay at home. She was very confident about the gift she had to give to the world. She knew what she had to do with her life.”
AS THE documentary spun out Damari’s story Levy began to get the first inkling of getting into the diva’s oeuvre. Those initial murmurs percolated for a while but the genre die was already cast. “I started doing research, listening to podcasts about her and learning about her life.”
Discovering more about Shoshana Damari
Levy discovered that, during her long sojourns in North America and elsewhere around the globe, Damari had some interesting and inspiring encounters. “I started thinking about taking her songs and drawing into jazz, in a way that did not disrespect the songs, when I saw in the documentary that she had met [iconic jazz, blues, gospel and folk pianist-vocalist] Nina Simone. They became good friends. Shoshana even taught Nina how to sing “Eretz Zavat Chalav Udevash” (Land of Milk and Honey). That’s crazy.”
That friendship led to bigger and jazzier things for Damari. “Nina introduced Shoshana to the jazz people and Shoshana even performed with the Dizzy Gillespie big band,” Levy notes, referencing the ensemble led by the stellar trumpeter-vocalist, who was one of the founding fathers of modern jazz.
And so the seeds of Queenta began to germinate and, fittingly, came to fruition at the Queenta Woman’s Jazz Festival, which Levy founded and which took place at the Yellow Submarine, in Jerusalem, last year. The sophomore edition is set for the end of May. “I performed Shoshana’s songs, for the first time, at the first festival, in 2022,” Levy says. “We had men and women then. I didn’t really think then about having an all-female group.”
Backstage, however, it was a different story. “I suddenly looked around and I saw all the artists were women. I had never had that experience before. In the jazz world, whenever I performed, I was usually the only woman. There was a special ambiance [at the Queenta Festival], a feeling of a community of women. I thought it might be interesting to try to create something from this.”
She also received a helpful push in the desired direction from Yellow Submarine honcho Atcha Bar. “Atcha and I talked about that and he said let’s go for it, let’s get a band together which is all women and we’ll see how that goes.” It went pretty well. “There is a different energy to an all-female band. I like it,” says Levy. Presumably, the Red Sea Jazz Festival crowd, next week, will also dig it.
As Levy pointed out, she is no wannabe Damari. Many of the numbers Queenta performs do not follow the typical Yemenite lilting form. Still, I noted that the band’s reading of Livavtini does feed off Yemenite musical sensibilities Levy says that is very much down to her own personal baggage. “Livavtini is a song my mother used to sing when she washed the dishes,” Levy explains. “And my mother is Iraqi,” she laughs. “I think all the trills in what we do [in Queenta’s version] is from that.” Otherwise, the band very much takes the base material and runs with it every jazzy way.
Still, Damari’s spirit is there in the contemporary mix. “I listened very carefully to what Shoshana did with her recordings. I filtered out the instruments. I wanted to catch every nuance. That gave me everything I needed to know.”
For tickets and more information, visit: www.redseajazz.co.il