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Moroccan Jewish music and life via piyutim

CM 01/09/2021

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Like all cultural institutions across the country Jerusalem’s Confederation House spent much of the past 18 months or so closed for business and, eventually, followed suit by putting out some artistic fare via virtual platforms. But now it is coming back with a bang – a big one – and is launching a new series of concerts at the local Zappa club whose capacity far outstrips that of the much-loved cozy parent venue.
The motive for the adventurous series, which kicks off on Thursday with a treat for fans of Jewish liturgical music, is put as “leaving the intimate auditorium of Confederation House for the large expanse of the Zappa club.” The initiative, says CEO and artistic director Effie Benaya “enables new and larger audiences to be exposed to original house productions.” The Zappa doors are due to open at 8 p.m., with the members of the Piyut Ensemble, led by artistic directors Yair Harel and Avraham Cohen, taking the stage a couple of hours later.
Since its inception, the Piyut Ensemble has developed a singular choral style, drawing on the polyrhythms and harmonies of North African and Middle Eastern traditions of liturgical poetry, synagogue melodies and a broad palette of world music colors and textures. More recently, the group has focused on material fueled by the traditional melodies and performance practices of the Tafilalt region of Morocco.

That suits vocalist Netta Elkayam, and husband vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Amit Hai Cohen down to the ground. The pair will join the ensemble at Zappa and bring their own unique readings of seasoned songs from the Moroccan songbook, many of which were created and handed down by the illustrious Abuhatzeira family. The latter clan is feted for its prominent rabbinical members through the centuries, and also for its liturgical output.
But Elkayam and Hai Cohen, who both have the requisite cultural familial roots, are not interested in simply regurgitating tried and tested renditions. In addition to performing and writing music, Hai Cohen also gets into some filmmaking and is about to release a fun and definitively entertaining short film which goes by the thought-provoking name of “To Box with God.” The protagonist is a character called Jo Jo, who also just happens to be a member of the Piyut Ensemble. The curly haired impish septuagenarian delivers a bunch of Abuhatzeira-inspired numbers fused through hip-hop and electronic beats. The movie blurb describes the outing as “an intergenerational link between two artists of Jewish-Moroccan extraction, working both in Jerusalem’s underground as well as on international circuits. It’s a deep dive into their shared world.”
The synergy works well, and that sentiment will find its way onto the Zappa stage on Thursday, with a couple of songs that feature in the film. “Today, there is a lot of conservatism connected to all of this [music],” Hai Cohen posits. “They say this is tradition. Don’t touch it. But tradition has to evolve. It has to develop. There is no other way.”
The man has a point. Consider, if you will, that Mozart was once the new kid on the block. And, like all newcomers, was probably initially treated by the then establishment as an annoying young upstart. The same thing happened to the Impressionists when their brave groundbreaking works were summarily rejected by the Salon which, at the time, ruled the art world roost in Paris.
So why, indeed, shouldn’t Hai Cohen and Elkayam revisit Jewish Moroccan material of yore and give it a contemporary twist or two? But, as has been sagely noted by many a wise old creative head over the years, you’ve gotta know where you’re coming from to step into the unknown and not lose the cultural authenticity thread. “Think, for example, of [Egyptian diva] Oum Koulthum,” Hai Cohen suggests. “She challenged the traditions by including instruments like a saxophone in her orchestras. That is, of course, a western instrument.” The peerless vocalist also featured electric guitars. Not that the players in question exactly let rip a la Hendrix, but it was still considered a daring departure from the norm.
That, in a nutshell, is very much what “To Box with God” is about – sizing up the age-old accepted way of rendering ethnic music and coming at it from an edgier angle. “Boxing with God, is about boxing with tradition,” Hai Cohen chuckles. “It is about challenging the tradition, but with respect. It is about confrontation rather than just going with the flow.”
The Zappa audience stands to experience something out of the ordinary, something outside the now pretty familiar domain of North African liturgical scores. “We take material from the Yagel Yaakov cluster of songs,” Hai Cohen explains. “The songs originate from the Abuhatzeira family, and Jo Jo is a descendant of the family, and he brought the songs into the Piyut Ensemble repertoire. People, here, are familiar with Andalusian music, but this is very different. These are Moroccan hill songs which are much more African, and more bluesy. They are more based on the pentatonic scale. They are more folk music-oriented.”
Elkayam and Hai Cohen dug into the historical backdrop of the music, and sourced something close to the original renditions of the material. “Our new project, Arénas, is based on recordings I found in an archive which were made by a researcher [in the 1950s] who visited the [Le Grand Arénas] transit camp near Marseilles through which the majority of North African Jews passed on their way to Israel,” says Elkayam. The recordings introduced her into a veritable sonic treasure trove which she and Hai Cohen have fused into their work. “The researcher recorded songs from areas of music I had no idea existed. Before that I worked off all the pop stuff, and such like, from the 1950s and 1960s that was available.”
The Arénas venture, which also informs the couple’s spot at Zappa, brought Elkayam right into the quotidian beating heart of Moroccan Jewry from the Atlas Mountains. “These are songs that were handed down by word of mouth, across the generations. These are often women’s songs, not from the synagogue which, of course, is different from liturgical music. That’s the Jewish music we normally know. But this is sort “outsider” Jewish music. These are songs, for example, sung by women accompanying someone going to the mikveh [ritual bath], with a repetitive beat, and a sort of call-and-response format.”
This, for Elkayam, brings us straight into grime, joys, challenges and colors of everyday life back then and there. “In the recordings you hear pots and pans, and babies crying,” she laughs. “It is very inspiring.”
Thursday’s Piyut Ensemble concert promises to be a moving and evocative experience.
For tickets and more information: http://tickets.bimot.co.il. www.confederationhouse.org and (02) 539-9360 ext. 5

Source: Jerusalem Post

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