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Tribute to composer Yossi Mar Chaim offers more than meets the eye

CM 21/09/2021

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Yossi Mar Chaim has never played it by the book and, now, at the age of 80 he isn’t about to walk a straight line.
That will be patently clear to anyone who goes along to the Bustan Garden Amphitheater, in Acre on Wednesday evening (8 p.m.) when a tribute production to the evergreen instrumentalist, composer and multidisciplinary artist takes place. The show, which goes by the name of Leyl Hapumpiyot (Night of the Graters) is a coproduction between the Akko Festival and Musrara – The Naggar Multidisciplinary School of Art and Society, in Jerusalem, where Mar Chaim taught for 17 years. “I stopped teaching there last November,” he says, adding that it was a combination of practicality and altruism that led to his decision to quit. “It was getting a bit difficult for me to travel to Jerusalem [from his home in Tel Aviv] every week and, besides, I think it’s time for some new blood to take over there.”
That is typical of the man. Born in Jerusalem in 1940, Mar Chaim has been constantly on the lookout for new envelopes to push for over half a century. He says the first sounds he remembers hearing were “World War Two sirens and the bagpipes orchestras that used to march under the family building once a year on King George the 5th’s birthday until the year of independence, 1948.”

While history’s jury is still out on how much the Mandate helped the Jews in pre-state Palestine, musically speaking the presence of British troops and, more to the point, British live jazz and dance music was a definite boon for the likes of Mar Chaim. “As a kid I remember my mother taking me to the Vienna Café, in Zion Square. They played jazz there. The English brought jazz here.”
Mrs. Mar Chaim Sr. was also keen for her son to get in on the act himself, but the exercise did not initially bear fruit. “My mother bought a piano on which I played mostly folk and war songs by ear, with no harmonies,” he recalls. As was to become abundantly clear, the youngster was not going to follow the musical straight and narrow. “I hated reading scores and practicing. So I stopped studying after 18 months and returned to [the] discipline at the age of 20.”
That was after he had gotten several earfuls of top notch jazz, catching a concert by iconic trumpeter-vocalist Louis Armstrong at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem in the late 1950s, and a couple of gigs by celebrated American vibraphonist—pianist-drummer Lionel Hampton. That was enough to fire any youngster’s imagination, and certainly one like Mar Chaim who was clearly gifted and was keen to wrap his youthful ears around groundbreaking musical sounds and rhythms.
In fact, the lad had already gained a pretty deep appreciation, and a little understanding, of a number of musical disciplines via the airwaves. “I developed a craze for rock n’ roll and later for jazz,” he says. “The powerful Jordanian radio station, Radio Ramallah, was the main source of pop songs, since the Israeli radio stations did very little about it in the ‘50s. Later I discovered the Voice of America shortwave jazz program, directed to Eastern Europe – two hours a day, and never missed a date.” The latter refers to shows fronted by legendary jazz presenter Willis Conover, which acted as a lifeline for jazz – and freedom – lovers living not only in the Middle East but right across the Communist bloc.
LISTENING TO the stuff from afar is all well and good, but there is nothing like catching the dynamism and vibes of the sounds as they are being created right in front of your very eyes. “The first time I saw a big band live was the Israeli Air Force (IAF) ensemble, with Danny Gottfried,” he says, referencing the now 82-year-old jazz pianist and founder of the Red Sea Jazz Festival. “You know, there is nothing like seeing a jazz big band live on stage. It is completely different than listening to that on the radio.”
Mar Chaim may have been thrilled by the IAF troupe but he was never going to stick just to jazz, even if he wasn’t ready to embrace all kinds of sounds from the start. “I wasn’t always open to everything,” he notes. “I like singing in harmony, and I learned to play music on my own. I liked playing country and dance music. That made me popular with my classmates.” Did that also apply to the fairer sex? “I’m not sure about that,” he laughs. “But I really enjoyed playing music.”
After largely devoting his self-taught keyboard dexterity to pop music, Mar Chaim was helped along his burgeoning creative way by internationally acclaimed classical pianist Alexander Tamir who, Mar Chaim notes, “was an excellent improviser.” A year later Tamir referred him to Yitzhak Sadai who taught musical theory at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Mar Chaim spent four fruitful years under Sadai’s guidance and subsequently enhanced his musical knowledge, and playing skills, during a two-year stint at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.
On his return to these shores, with his musical horizons suitably broadened, Mar Chaim quickly slotted into the developing jazz scene here and played at places up and down the country, such the Bar Barim jazz club in Tel Aviv and Tzavta in Jerusalem. It was at the latter venue that he joined forces, for the first time, with American-born saxophonist, composer and educator Stephen Horenstein, one of the prime movers and shakers behind this country’s avant-garde musical scene.
There was no stopping Mar Chaim now, as he let his hair down across a dizzying stretch of left-field projects, fusing seemingly disparate disciplines in the process. His expansive bio to date includes synergies with late iconic poet Yona Wollach, which featured stomping, screams and ashtrays, while his 1975 work “Requiem for Basketball” had soprano vocalist Adi Etzion-Zak performing a bunch of offbeat activities such as bouncing a basketball and playing with marbles, while she sang the score.
He also enjoyed some fun departures over the years, with late South African-born clarinetist Harold Rubin. One project had him and some of his pals playing tennis with rackets wired up to all manner of wild and wacky sonic textures. “There was nothing new in that,” Mar Chaim says deferentially. “[Jewish New Yorker composer, musician and record label owner] John Zorn was doing stuff like that back in the ‘80s.” Methinks Mar Chaim errs on the side of modesty on that score.
The Leyl Hapumpiyot date will reference much of the above, with three short pieces featuring the titular kitchen utensil, but there will also be an abundance of pop, rock and other more mainstream melodic material in the Acre mix too. Here’s looking forward to many more years of fearless artistic endeavor from the irrepressible octogenarian.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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