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French musician Devora Benasouli to perform at Harash 4 jazz festival

CM 24/08/2021

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In any form of art, if you ain’t got a story to tell, or you’ve got one but don’t know how to convey it, you’re not going to get too far with your craft. By that token, the sky is the limit for Devora Benasouli.
The 43-year-old French-born songstress is in the lineup of the Harash 4 jazz festival, currently – pardon the pun – in full swing at the eponymous jazz venue in Tel Aviv’s hip Florentin district. The festival, which began yesterday is due to run through to Saturday and features a broad swathe of styles, cultural baggage and artistic intent.
Benasouli brings plenty of all of those to her game whenever she takes the stage, as she will do tomorrow at 9 p.m., alongside longtime sparring partner keyboardist Yakov Muravin.
I have to admit – and I am probably putting a few jazz lover noses out of joint with this – but, when I hear a jazz vocalist do their thing, I frequently find myself wondering what they are bringing of themselves to the plate. Many female singers, for example, seem to be largely Ella Fitzgerald wannabes. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking your lead from some towering figure of the jazz pantheon, at some stage you have to – as they say in jazz circles – find your own voice. And, by the way, that applies equally to instrumentalists.
Benasouli freely admits to having her idols in the jazz arena, as well as in other domains of musical endeavor, but she is definitely her own person when she steps up to the mic. What you hear from her is WYSIWYG – a yesteryear computer technology acronym that stands for What You See Is What You Get. Actually, in Benasouli’s case, it should probably be WYSAHIWYG, as in What You See And Hear, etc.
Mind you, she does have a head start on most of her counterparts when it comes to onstage demeanor. “I come from the theater. So, for me, the whole thing about presenting a song is about offering an audience a story, even within improvisation,” she notes. Stepping into uncharted waters means taking risks but it does not mean you have to lose the plot, literally. “That’s the same with improvisation. When you hear the greatest instrumentalists, when they are improvising they are telling you a story. It’s not just a matter of the notes they feel like playing on the spur of the moment. It’s always a matter of developing an internal monologue.

THE SINGER says the audience gets the performer’s dynamic. “I think that is what makes a good show, and that it is really urgent for you to get that story out into the world.” Sounds pretty intense, but in a positive mutually beneficial way. At the end of the day, Benasouli does not have much choice about that. “If you don’t do that it’s a waste of time getting on the stage. You simply have to do that. And, if you have to do that, you have to put your whole soul into it.”
That is patently the case with Benasouli. Having watched some of her video clips over the years, she comes across as an artist who leaves no creative stone unturned in going that extra yard or two. “It’s like being an elite athlete. You have to perform to the maximum. For me, it’s the essence.”
For someone who sounds so convincing and accomplished it comes as some surprise to learn that she got in on the musical act relatively late in life. “When I was a kid [in Paris] I wanted to be an actress. When I was 14, I started studying theater at school,” she recalls. She upped that educational ante when she made aliyah, in 1997. “I spent three years studying at the Nissan Nativ School of Acting. That was great.”
Despite wanting to settle here permanently at some stage, after graduating Benasouli returned to France for a further 12 years where she honed her thespian skills across a range of productions and projects.
Then a long-harbored ambition began to filter to the surface. “I had always wanted to do something in jazz,” says Benasouli, adding that she received a couple of loving familial shoves in the desired direction. “I heard a lot of music at home. My dad likes jazz, and my younger sister is a jazz singer. She’s really great. That inspired me.”
So – in professional terms – at the relatively not-so-tender age of 22 she started to test the jazz singer waters. She cast her burgeoning material net pretty far and wide from the outset, performing with bands of all sorts of ilks, including funk, groove, rock and soul. In fact, she did so well in the latter field that, in 2009, she won first prize in the prestigious Sankofa Soul Contest, putting in some pretty convincing and emotive covers of numbers by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles.
As far as Benasouli is concerned anything with African sentiments and sensibilities is cool with her. That is probably, at least partly, down to her parents’ Algerian and Tunisian roots. “I love black music, all kinds – blues, gospel – those roots really influenced me.”
It was time to go to the source. “I lived in New York for three months. I wanted to hear the music in the place it comes from.” She caught as many gigs as she could, and also benefited from the heavyweight coaching experience of now 91-year-old pianist Barry Harris and saxophonist Bob Mover.
Benasouli says she had a marvelous win-win stretch in the Big Apple, the positive fallout of which continues to fuel and inspire her artistic work. “That was one of the happiest times of my life. Just being in New York was like being in a Woody Allen movie, the whole time,” she laughs.
Benasouli cites some of the jazz world’s greats as her mentors, both from the States and from this side of the Pond. “I love Ella [Fitzgerald] and Sarah Vaughan and, of course, Billie [Holiday] and Abbey Lincoln. They were all great storytellers. And there are contemporary singers like Cassandra Wilson and Rachelle Ferrell, and French singers like Barbara and Jacques Brel. They wrote poetry. I connect with the texts too.”
Thursday’s gig with Moravin will see Benasouli roll out some singularly fashioned renditions of jazz standards, as well as a couple of originals of her own, and one she wrote with Moravin. She says she can’t wait to hit the Harash 4 stage, and looks forward to a time when more women are out there, front stage, performing across the world. “There aren’t enough women in jazz, instrumentalists too,” she notes. “There are so many great female artists. I think we deserve a better chance to show what we can do.” Point duly taken.
Benasouli is certainly not planning on holding anything back in Tel Aviv tomorrow evening.
For tickets and more information: 
Harash 4.com/festival.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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