Music, as we can happily state, comes in all shapes, formats, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic guises. It’s not just a matter of differentiating between definitively contrasting genres such as, say, rock music and charts of the western classical variety.
There is a multitude of nuances and stylistic inflections within each genre too. Hence the broad sweep of the sonic fare proffered as part of this year’s A’ira Shachar liturgical music festival which takes place June 19-22 under the auspices of Confederation House in Jerusalem, with veteran paytan (singer), Rony Ish-Ran once again serving as artistic director.
The opening concert, in fact, is scheduled for the spacious Zappa venue. With the three remaining shows the musical action transfers to the cozier confines of the veteran cultural center. Each slot comes with its own title, and focuses on a different breed of liturgical – aka bakashot – music.
The curtain raiser goes by the name of KeAfafei Shachar (Like the Eyelids of Dawn) which, inter alia, references the custom of congregating in synagogues in the dead of night and singing bakashot until sunrise, in time for the shacharit morning prayer service.
Ish-Ran says the current series is partly designed to enlighten us about the various strains of piyutim (liturgical poems) that were once commonly recited across the Jewish world. “Bakashot singing was far more widespread than we are familiar with today, in terms of the geographic hinterland,” he explains. “We know that bakashot were sung even in Balkan countries.” Mind you, that appears to be a lost art. “We know they sang them, but we don’t know how they sang, what the texts were, or the melodies.”
That is a shame and, perhaps, at some stage in the future they will be rediscovered. For now, we can enjoy the four styles of the festival, beginning with the Halabi-Jerusalemite style at Zappa. The concert features a cross-generational cast of paytanim, including Raphael Barazani, Daniel Naim, Yehuda Vaknin, Yechiel Nahari and Ish-Ron himself.
He says it will be something of an eye- and ear-opener for us. “Some of the bakashot we will perform are not so well known among the Israeli public. But there are some superstars in the religious eastern community. Yechiel Nahari is a genuine ‘rock star,’” he chuckles.
The 62-year-old gent in question was born in Jerusalem, to Yemenite and Syrian parents, and spent four decades in the United States earning a crust as a cantor before coming back here to roost. Raphael Barazani and Netanel Cohen also have admirers. No doubt, their number will increase after the opening concert.
The audience can expect a musical feast
Ish-Ran says the Zappa audience is in for a feast. “All the paytanim are experts in their field, in bakashot and in the world of the maqam,” he notes, referencing the system of melodic modes that form the bedrock of Arabic music. That, he says, leaves plenty of room for musical maneuver. “A significant part of the music of bakashot is based on improvisation. There are whole sections that don’t come with written music. The paytanim go off in different directions as they perform on stage.” That should make for exciting viewing and listening.
Some of the patrons may recognize the source material, at least in terms of style if not the actual pieces. “Some of the repertoire is better known, like the Halabi and the Moroccan. The Babylonian is less well known. It was the exclusive domain of the Iraqi kabbalists.”
The Babylonian variety will be aired at Confederation House on June 21, with singer-qanoun player Elad Gabai and stellar violinist-oud player Yair Dalal – both of Iraqi descent – fronting the show. They feed off a rich piyut heritage, both in musical and textual terms.
The repertoire features piyutim from the 16th century, with works by iconic paytan and composer Rabbi Israel Najara, through to later contributions from paytanim of the 19th century. The Babylonian oeuvre includes piyutim which marked important events in the calendar and lifecycle, and others that impart yearning for spiritual elevation.
The series, which is supported by the Culture and Sport Ministry, and the Municipality of Jerusalem, closes with the Adon Olam Yeshuatee (Master of the World, My Savior) concert devoted to the Turkish tradition. “The tradition of the Jewish communities from southeastern Turkey, near the region that suffered the earthquake earlier this year, includes influences of the Kurdish area and the tradition of the Jews of Halab [in Syria],” says Ish-Ran.
The artistic director says not all the songwriters were professional musicians. “Some of the people that composed the piyutim were not trained musicians and couldn’t write music, but they were very musical. My father who never studied music is, today, the cantor of the Zichron Yaakov synagogue in Nachlaot.”
Ish-Ran confesses to having a vested interest in the June 22 slot when he fronts the Urfanin ensemble. The name of the troupe comes from the town of Urfa in southeastern Turkey. Ish-Ran’s father hails from the vicinity. “‘Urfanin’ – which means in the region of Urfa – is the best-known song from there.”
The term piyut is normally used in the context of liturgical material from the eastern part of the Jewish world, although Ish-Ran notes it is not an inviolable delineation. “When people say piyut they think that only belongs to eastern communities, but that is really zmirot – religious songs – which all communities sing [on Shabbat and at festival meals], from the east and the west.”
Ish-Ran says the word of the bakashot is getting out beyond the usual suspects. “Each time the audiences grow and became more heterogeneous. That is wonderful. You get people, from Sephardic backgrounds, who would never go to a synagogue, and certainly not to sing bakashot in the middle of the night. And you get people with Ashkenazi roots who enjoy listening to piyutim. And you get people who would not normally sit in a mixed group – men and women together – to listen to or sing bakashot. This is becoming more accessible, and more attractive, to more people.”
He says liturgical music has stepped in from the colder margins of society. “Bakashot is now part of the mainstream,” he chuckles. “That has always been an ambition of mine, that it should be accepted as a bona fide part of Israeli culture. This is wonderful music performed to very high standards of musicianship.”
For tickets and more information: 6226*, http://tickets.bimot.co.il, (02) 539-9360, ext. 5 and http://www.confederationhouse.org