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109: Daniel Zamir, ‘Shir HaShomer’

Posted by jeff on May 7, 2019 in History, Israeli, Jazz, Song Of the week

This is a story about shifting gears, about accelerating tempi, about breaking through to the other side, and about new modes of perception. It’s also a story about the early days of Zionism, about nostalgia for childhood, about Lubavitch Hassidut, about prodigality, and about having fun.

And it’s ultimately about jazz. But it going to be a bit of a journey till we get there.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the north of Palestine, the Galilee, was sparsely populated by indigenous Arabs. Hundreds, then thousands of Jewish settlers came to settle unoccupied land, but the locals were notably, often violently inhospitable. In1909, a handful of hotheaded settlers formed HaShomer, a sort of Jewish Defense League. They rode horses and tried to protect the settlers, but were limited to chance encounters and small skirmishes. In the 1930s, the Jewish settlement movement upped the ante by establishing a number of kibbutzim, often using the Homa uMigdal (wall and tower) method (putting up a watchtower and fence overnight, because Turkish rule recognized this as a structure and forbade its destruction). In 1938, Emmanuel Linn (lyrics) and Benjamin Omer (music) prepared a song, ‘Shir HaShomer’ (Song of the Watchman’) for the Channuka party of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, one of these Homa uMigdal settlements.

The song exalts the tenacity of the settlers in holding tight to the land, symbolized by the watchman standing on the tower on high, ready for any marauding attackers, dizzy with love for the very land he is guarding.

מֵעַל הַמִּגְדָּל סָבִיב אַשְׁקִיפָה,
עֵינִי תִּגְמַע מֶרְחַקִּים,
אֶרֶץ רוֹגַעַת בִּדְמִי הַלֵּיל,
הוֹי, שׁוֹמֵר, מַה מִּלֵּיל?

חֲלִיל רוֹעִים יָרֹן
גּוֹלְשִׁים עֶדְרֵי הַצֹּאן,
מַה לִּי וּמִי לִי עוֹד, כְּנַעַן?
רוּחַ מִיָּם הָמָה,
בֵּין שִׁבֳּלֵי קָמָה,
מַה לִּי וּמִי לִי עוֹד, כְּנַעַן?

סַהַר עָלָה מִן הֶהָרִים
הָעֵמֶק עָטָה עֲרָפֶל
אֵי שָׁם נוּגוֹת הַתַּן מְיַלֵּל
הוֹ, שׁוֹמֵר, מַה מִּלֵּיל?

(Verse)
From up on the tower I shall watch afar,
My eye shall drink in the distances,
The land is calm in the dead of night,
Oh, watchman, what brings the night?

(Chorus)
A shepherd’s flute shall rejoice
The flock spilling down the hillside,
What more could I want,Canaan?
The breeze from the sea whispers,
Between the sheathes of wheat,
What more could I want, Canaan?

(Verse)
The moon rising above the hills,
The valley covered in mist
Somewhere a jackal gently wails,
Oh, watchman, what brings the night?

The music of the song reflects the contrast between the frightful night (the verse) and the joyous day (the chorus). The verse is slow, tense, vaguely East European (Russian/Yiddish). The chorus is bouncy, forward moving, drum-driven, confident. The New Jew.

The song became a quintessential expression of the entire Zionist ethos. A boy born in 1950 to an insurance agent and an electric company clerk in urban Petah Tikva, catching just a phrase of the song, becomes in his heart and mind that courageous Israelite from a generation earlier, a reality already hardly imaginable. Sabra children heard these songs as they suckled. They copiously copied and memorized the words in the fourth grade, and sang them and danced to them at their parties at age 13, at 18, at 23, in their hearts and minds still at 60. The song is part and parcel of the very essence of the Israeli self-image.

I consulted with five Sabas, aged 70 to 40, about the cultural connotations of the song. Every single one of the five remarked with a nostalgic smile, “Oh, now it’s running through my head.”

The key phrase, by the way, comes from Isaiah 21:11– שומר, מה מלילה? שומר, מה מליל?. It’s a poetic turn of phrase, something along the line of ‘Oh, watchman, what brings the night? How are you? How are we? Is there danger approaching?’ Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Daniel Zamir, Red Sea Jazz Festival (Photo Itamar Grinberg)

I was fortunate enough to catch a set at the Red Sea Jazz Festival a few years back by the very fine soprano saxophonist Daniel Zamir. Daniel (b. 1981) went through a typical secular high school experience in Israel, then moved to New York and was caught up in John Zorn’s Jewish avant garde free jazz scene. He also became involved in the Chabad (Hassidic) movement, and subsequently returned to Israel. He has evolved into a consummate artist presenting a mix of cutting-edge jazz, klezmer, and no little degree of Israeli-ism.

I’ve known lots of Chabad ‘hozrim b’tshuva’ (adopting a religious life-style). A common trait among virtually all of them is that they maintain their interests and involvement in a wide variety of fields of interest, secular and religious. They don’t cloister themselves. Their Lubavitcher adherence rarely supplants their life in the world outside. But it seems to me that their Chabad ideology always takes a certain primacy, a priority. The Rebbe always has the last word.

I don’t know exactly how Daniel shuffles his very rich deck. I hope to have the chance someday soon to have a nice sitdown with him and try to sort it out. But I’m fascinated by the fact that with all his Lubavitcherkeit and free jazz mentality and Americanism, his music continues to lean so faithfully on his (secular) Zionist roots. He dedicates a CD to Gilad Shalit. He uses songs from “Eretz Yisrael HaYafa” (“Songs of Good Old Israel”) as source material. It isn’t to Ornette Coleman or the Modzitzer Rebbe that he goes – it’s to Naomi Shemer and Benjamin Omer.

Let’s go back to ‘Shir HaShomer’ for a moment. What was the very basic drive that brought the earliest settlers to leave their homes and families and religion in the shtetl and recreate themselves as the New Israelites in a desolate, unwelcoming corner of the Levant? It was the desire to determine their own destiny, to leave behind the life of the persecuted prey, to achieve a self-reliant independence that would enable them to raise their children in security. Not without fear, because they were living within that Homa uMigdal (wall and watchtower). Why is ‘Shir HaShomer’ such an iconic expression of that state? It’s because the verse expresses all the fear that was inherent in their shtetl life (fears that were all too soon realized beyond imagination), segueing into the ‘raucous’ chorus (well, for the 1930s that was a pretty rip-loose rhythm) engendered by the empowerment of freedom.

Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2011 (Photo Itamar Grinberg)

Leaping from the constrained to the unfettered. That’s not such a foreign concept to jazz musicians, is it? Is it not what Miles Davis does when he plays a chorus of the melody of ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’, and then moves from it into an improvised, personal exploration of new, free musical vistas?

So it seems to me that when all those folk-dancing Sabras are gently, smoothly swaying to the rubato verse, and then, Whoo! comes the break-loose chorus, they’re expressing the history of their forefathers that brought them toIsrael.

Nitay Hershkovitz

And it seems to me that when Daniel Zamir drinks from that well, he’s drawing from the very same impulse. Except that now we’re witnessing one very slightly-built soprano saxophonist standing on the shoulders of a couple of giant traditions, Zionism and jazz.

Here’s a clip from a studio version of ‘Shir HaShomer’ from Zamir’s 2002 CD “Amen”. Accompanying him are Daniel Freedman on drums, Omer Avital on bass, and the brilliant Omri Mor on piano, here still in his teens. Zamir writes in the notes, “Omer and Freedman do great work here maintaining the exact structure of the song, but it’s the minute deviances here and there that lead to new, unexpected places (see the end of Omri’s solo). Omri, as is his wont, isn’t flustered by bothersome signature changes from 5/8 to 4/8 and 3/4 and back; he unleashes his wrath without blinking and finishes up with a charming flourish. The brave route the whole group takes throughout the song ends in a massive release that was totally unplanned.”

Gilad Abro (Photo David Rubin)

And that’s just the tame studio version. Fast forward to the 2011 Red Sea Jazz Festival. Put Daniel as the opening act in front of several thousand sympathetic listeners thumbing their noses at the terrorist attacks which threatened to cancel the festivities, lots of af al pi chen (‘despite everything’) in the air.

Listen to Daniel’s warm and winding arpeggios, exploring, probing, breathing a stubborn vitality into this old tune. It’s hard to hear heartthrob Samurai bassist Gilad Abro on this low-resolution recording, but to see him is to recognize him as the heart of the group, pumping blood and energy and excitement into the mix. Listen to Zamir’s generosity as he gives the stage to his young band members. The very talented young pianist Nitay Hershkowits takes the forefront at 3:50, working the melody with the utmost respect, kneading life into it with such persistence. He also learned the song in kindergarten. But probably not in that 11/8 tempo, or whatever it is, that 21-year old drummer Amir Bresler is cooking.

Amir Bresler

At the beginning of the second part, Daniel brings back the melody, but now with a fever, raising the stakes, the four watchmen racing the pulse. And then at 4 minutes from the end, Messrs Zamir, Hershkowitz and Abro lay out, comping for young Amir. This isn’t a drum solo, it’s the climax of a drum concerto. He provides the coup de grace, a stunning, dizzying personal statement as the culmination of Zamir’s reading of ‘Shir HaShomer’ and the tradition from which it arises.

The kid is a drummer genius. I know that’s an oxymoron. I don’t remember ever hearing a drummer with such a sense of musicality, a composer’s sense of structure, an arranger’s sense of texture. He’s twenty-one and a half. He finished the army half a year ago, and is currently working in bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio.

These four young Israelis are singing together in a profoundly expressive musical voice, fully aware of the tradition from which they’re coming, fully exploiting the freedom this tradition has given them to express in their own vibrant, young voices the excitement of break-loose Whoo! Their grandfathers, I believe, would be proud.

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135: Kaveret, ‘Medina Ktana’ (Little Country)

Posted by jeff on Apr 17, 2018 in Israeli, Rock, Song Of the week

Kaveret, ‘Medina Ktana’ (Little Country)

Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us, happy birthday dear Israel, happy birthday to us.

It’s our 70thtoday, and the few millions of us here are mostly out on the roads, visiting air force bases, national parks, waving flags and fanning the grill with our families and friends. But not far below the surface there’s a sincerity in it all, a true recognition and celebration of our very existence, something we don’t take for granted.

The Center of the Universe

Did you know that Israel is the only country in the world whose national anthem is in a minor key? Could be because after 2000 years of persecution it was built on the ashes of a near genocide. Israel has fought three existential wars in its 67 years, and hence lives with an acute sense of fragility. It’s the only country in history recreated by a miraculous act of will out of a tribal imagination, the only nation to return to its homeland from dispersion, reviving a dead language on the way. It’s also the only democracy in this part of the world, a bizarre mix of refugees from every corner of the world stuck in the middle of the Levant, hence a sharp sense of irony regarding our still-evolving national identity. People run around like crazy trying to be normal in the most abnormal of societies.

Kaveret

In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the country barely survived obliteration, a bunch of army buddies formed a band called Kaveret (‘beehive’), sometimes also known as Poogy (after the name of their first album, “Poogy Stories”). The leader and chief songwriter was Danny Sanderson, an Israeli who grew up in the US on rock and roll. In three years they recorded three albums as out of place and ahead of their time in the Israeli musical landscape as the country is in the Middle East – sophisticated in music, production, performance and content.

Patriotic symbol

Many of their songs have become cultural icons, still sung today by teenagers and recycled by rock stars. I’d like to share one with you, sort of a mock anthem, a modest little song that captures the spirit and ethos and self-image of this noisy, neurotic little country better than anything else I know of – ‘Little Country’.

We Israelis get pretty tired of seeing ourselves on the front page of the NY Times every day. On the other hand, we also see ourselves as the center of the universe. Go explain it. Well, Sanderson’s lyrics do it best – our wry perception of our very existence, our precariousness, our homey patriotism better expressed in self-effacing humor than in pompous parades.

Happy birthday, Israel. Here’s SoTW’s official nomination for our unofficial anthem.

מדינה קטנה

במקום די רחוק, קרוב לכאן
אספנו את עצמנו
הבאנו חברינו
ולא אמרנו מי ומה

In a pretty remote place near here,
We gathered ourselves up,
Brought all our friends,
Didn’t say anything.

בדרום בצפון או במרכז
שכרנו קצת שמים
דמעות הביאו מים
פתחנו ארץ חדשה

In the north, in the south, or in the center
We rented some sky,
Tears brought the water,
We opened a new land.

מדינה קטנה מתחמקת מצרה
את הכתובת לא תמצא
היא שמורה בתוך קופסה
בעולם כל כך קשה
להתבלט זה לא יפה
נתחבא כאן ולנצח לא נצא

A little country avoiding trouble
You can’t find the address,
It’s kept in a box,

In such a hard world
Sticking out isn’t nice,
We’ll just hide here and never leave.

שני בתים, שני סוסים ,שלושה עצים
נוסעים תמיד ברגל
שרים שירים בלי דגל
נושמים שנים ללא סיבה

Two houses, two horses, three trees
Travelling by foot
Singing songs without flags,
Breathing for years with no reason.

מלחמות אסונות חולפים בצד
אנחנו בתוכנו
וכל מה שאצלנו
תמיד ניתן למחיקה

Wars, tragedies, pass on by,
We inside ourselves
And all we have
Are always erasable.

יום אחד אם כדאי אולי נצא
כל עוד נעמוד לאורך
אני לא מרגיש ת’צורך
נחיה נמות ואז נראה

One day, if we should, maybe we’ll go out.
As long as we stand up straight
I won’t feel the need.
We’ll live, we’ll die, then we’ll see.

Additional Listening from Kaveret:

Medina Ktana (Little Country)

Shir HaMakolet (The Grocery Store Song)

Yo Ya

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

109: Daniel Zamir, ‘Shir HaShomer’ (Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2011)

 

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102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

Posted by jeff on Feb 21, 2018 in Israeli, Other, Personal, Song Of the week, Vocalists

I landed in Israel in 1970, twenty-two years old, carrying a passport from the Woodstock nation, Uncle Sam in hot pursuit to conscript me to Viet Nam. I was carrying one suitcase of clothes (no winter coat) and one box of records without which I wasn’t going anywhere.

The music scene in my adopted country was as foreign to me as the backwards alphabet, the Bolshevik political climate and the Levantine cultural assumptions. The Big Deal in popular music back then in the interbellum years (1967–1973) was the army troupes.

The IDF (Israel Defense Force) was a civilian army. Everyone joined at eighteen, boys for three years, girls for two. They still do, actually. In those days, the IDF (Zahal in Hebrew) was at the center of the country’s mind, pocketbook, and Top 40. The dream of every young musician was to be accepted to an army entertainment troupe (lahaka tzvait), of which there were more than a dozen, and most of the future stars ascended through this farm system. Each comprised a dozen or more conscripts. They would develop a program of songs composed and directed by the leading lights of Israel’s popular culture, and spent their service performing for the troops.

These programs were the heart and soul of Israel’s popular culture. The music was innocent, the frame of reference communal rather than personal. Here are a couple of clips from Lahakat HaNahal, “The Officer Forgave” (with very telling photos) and “Comradeship” (an archetypical expression of the Zahal ethos).

Musically, I felt like I had been exiled to Goth from Medici Florence – Dylan, The Band, Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y, Janis, Hendrix at the height of their creativity. So I bought myself a little Phillips record player (paying 120% tax) and spent a number of years avoiding the native music by hiding my head in my box of 40 albums.

But then came the Yom Kippur War, with my new country tottering on the brink of extinction. In its wake, everything changed, including the music. The idealism of youth was shattered, and Israel began to awaken to the big world outside. Two new artists spoke to my ears in aesthetically mature and culturally engaging voices – Kaveret (Beehive) and Matti Caspi (b. 1949). His first two solo albums (1974, 1976) are still among my very favorites today.

Matti has travelled a long and bumpy road, musically and personally – an acrimonious divorce, self-imposed exile to Los Angeles, never reaching the same creative heights of those early albums. What has remained a constant is his sinuous, challenging, beautiful melodic and harmonic voice. You can invariably recognize a Caspi composition within a couple of bars. He’s primarily a composer (always using collaborators for lyrics). He’s a knock-out arranger (as our SoTW will show), a very honest and touching singer, an almost virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and a terrific performer. He also has the driest sense of humor this side of the Sahara (actually, we’re pretty close).

I really can’t do justice to the entirety of Matti Caspi’s large and varied corpus. Here’s one of my favorites, ‘How Dares the Star?‘ And another, ‘Here, Here’, using musical terminology to describe a song about a relationship. Here’s one of his most moving love songs, ‘Brit Olam‘ (Eternal Covenant). And here’s one of the funniest clips I’ve ever seen, ‘A Man Should Not Be Alone‘ (which also got its very own SoTW 150 all to itself, together with the Adam and Eve story). The text is from Gen 2:18. Matti was born and raised on a kibbutz, so he’s no stranger to the cowshed. Note the footwear. Towards the end, he says, ‘Kulam!’ (Everyone join in singing!).

In 1973 he was doing his reserve duty writing a program for the Air Force Troupe (my reserve duty, in contrast, usually consisted of planting mine fields—do you know how heavy anti-tank mines are?). There Matti (25) met Netanela (19), with the blackest hair on God’s earth, Uzbeki cheekbones and a timbre thicker than Nina Simone’s. Over the years he employed her voice as a unique color in his musical palette. Back then, a year before his first solo album, he composed a song based on lyrics by Shimrit Orr, ‘Shir HaYona’ (The Dove’s Song):

Way up above the towers
The dove spreads her wing, gliding afar, her eyes longing.

High above like bell-clappers (sic!),
At daybreak she coos, and at nightfall is dumb, her wings alight.

Onwards, onwards, above the water she hovers, still waiting.
Way up above the Hills of Gilboa, above the clouds, the road is long.

The allusion, of course, is to Noah’s dove, searching for dry land. The dove holding the olive leaf in its beak is Biblical. In early Christianity, the Hebrew ‘aleh’ was mistranslated as a branch. As a symbol of the peace of the soul, the dove appears in 4th century Christian art.  It referred to political peace as early as the 5th century, but was popularized by Picasso’s drawing La Colombe for the UN in 1949.

Matti orchestrated the song for a popular musical festival (when you watch the clip, remember that ‘music festival’ for me meant Woodstock), gave it to Netanela to sing, and the result was indelible. Here’s the memorable live performance; here’s the original recording (pay special attention to the beautiful orchestration).  Here’s a lesser, later version of Matti and Netanela dueting on it.

Netanela also had her ups and downs personally and musically. She had several very fine hits (‘We Haven’t Discussed Love Yet’, ‘White Days’), mostly penned by Matti. Then she married a Swede and split her life between the North and the Near East. Her career went off track, even though her version of  ‘Eli, Eli’ was used in the final scene of the Israeli version of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (‘Jerusalem of Gold’ was used elsewhere, but was too maudlin for the local audience). The words (original title ‘Walking to Ceasarea’) were written by 21-year old Hannah Senesh before she was parachuted as a Palestinian soldier by the British behind Nazi lines to try to save the Jews of her native Hungary. She was caught, tortured and killed. ‘Eli, Eli’ has become a secular Zionist prayer, obliquely pleading for the fundamental right to live freely. (My God, my God, may it never end, the sand and the water, the sound of the sea, the lightening in the sky, the prayer of man.)

‘Shir HaYona’ expresses a similar sentiment, a wish for transcendence, also a secular prayer. It struck a most responsive chord in the hearts of a people reeling from a national trauma, and gave voice to its deepest wish – to simply be left to lead a normal life in peace. In 1974, even though much of my musical tastes lay elsewhere, my heart was in Israel, recovering with everyone else from that national post-war shock, and this very beautiful song gave voice to that longing. I think the sentiment, and the song, are still very beautiful and truthful today.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 14: Woodstock, the event (Hebrew); Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’ (in English)

SoTW 044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

SoTW 086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

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228: Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini (Noa)/Gil Dor, Vocalocity — ‘Zeh Po, Zeh Mugan’

Posted by jeff on Dec 31, 2015 in A Cappella, Israeli, Song Of the week

a-r-g-1‘Zeh Po, Ze Mugan’ – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)

‘Oh, How I Miss You’ – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)

‘Tumma’ – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)

‘Mishaela’ (‘בעיניה’) – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)

‘Zeh Po, Ze Mugan’ – NotesAre (Roger Treece, Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Vocalocity)–Extended Version

The Dream

A guy can dream can’t he? A person should dream. You never know…

For many years I’ve been living inside the music I listen to. Like any other devotee suffering from arrested development, I’ve played with my little tin soldier fantasy Dream Teams, even in my dotage. What if Bill Evans and Gil Evans had collaborated?  What if Laura Nyro had followed David Geffen to Asylum Records? What if John and Paul had realized their dream of playing with Buddy Holly? I recently had the very good fortune to play Dream Team for real.

a-r-4The Scene

I’ve been an avid activist in the burgeoning ‘modern a cappella’ scene, especially in its European flavor, for the past ten years. The Real Group, The Swingle Singers, Rajaton, Vocal Line, even Pentatonix. I do live in and for this music, so it is with great love that I say that its form and technical sophistication has far outrun the content. There’s tons of great technique and very little creative, new, substantial music. It so often comes down to very clever, very charming, very sophisticated covers.

The Masterpiece

a-r-1And then came “VOCAbuLarieS” under Bobby McFerrin’s name, but actually composed and scored and masterminded by Roger Treece. He coaxed motifs from Bobby’s improvisational experiments and architectured them into seven coherent compositions. Roger: “I was trying to harness the way Bobby takes ideas, sounds from all over the world and alchemizes them into a new language.”

Bobby: “I’ve never worked so closely with another writer who could create around what I do. As an improviser, everything exists only in the moment, and then you let go of it. But in this context, Roger would hear something I did once, write it down and build the material into a fully scored theme and variations form, and then say, “Here, sing this.” It was old and new, mine and not mine. It was a challenge for me.”

The Process

r-g-2I listened to “VOCAbuLarieS” a couple of million times, and it became quite clear to me that this was the first important creation to come out of the music I love so dearly. So I jumped at the chance to have a sit-down with Roger at the AAVF a cappella festival in Aarhus, Denmark in 2013.

We talked Bible and belief, vocalisms and musical vocabularies. I told Roger that it seemed to me that VOCAbuLarieS was (among many other things) exploring the very roots of the voice and music (to which he readily agreed); but suggested that the palette could be expanded beyond the African and classical sources of his masterpiece. I raised the idea that he should come to Israel – the crossroads of three continents, the intersection of African and and North African and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern and Near Eastern cultures, a country of immigrants in which young people are conversant in 70 different musical languages. Roger is very Bible-oriented, so the idea of visiting God’s home court was greatly appealing, and he readily agreed, in principle.

I went back home to the wholly holey Holy Land and had the great fortune to form (together with my partner Ron Gang) Vocalocity, a 40-voice modern a cappella group under the musical direction of Kevin Fox (UK, The Swingle Singers), conducted by Erez Tal.

a-1So now I have the ear of this likeminded mad genius composer/arranger and a vocal orchestra at my disposal. And I’m thinking “Israeli Vocabularies”. How to take the Treece/McF achievement a step further? What could be done to Israeli-ize the source materials? I started thinking of potential collaborators. And the name of one artist appeared as though it had been waiting inside the magic lantern to be conjured up—

Achinoam Nini, or as she’s known world-wide, Noa. Born in Israel to a Yemenite family, raised till her teens in New York, she’s a virtuoso singer defying categorization. She’s had a remarkably varied and sparkling career both in Israel and internationally for 25 years. Her music draws from the pools of American singer-songwriters to her Yemenite roots to jazz, opera, traditional Italian, and classical Israeli. Together with her long-time musical partner and collaborator Gil Dor, she’s displayed an exceptional mastery of a wide range of styles and genres in collaborations from Andrea Bocelli to Sting to Pat Metheney. She’s a warm and unpretentious person, an outspoken peace activist who provokes no little controversy in her home country for her relentless pursuit of her political agenda. A woman of the world, Made in Israel, a true musical polyglot.

picasso04The formula wrote itself:
Roger + Achinoam/Gil + Vocalocity = Something New
Not just new. Achinoam’s melodic and percussive inclinations, Gil’s harmonic and structural predilections, and Roger’s unique abilities to grasp the ephemeral, to ‘architect’ the fleeting moment of the magic that can only emanate from the (almost always, but not here!) ungraspably improvised. Together they could permanentize the moment. I think of Picasso’s ‘light paintings’.

Now all that was necessary was to move this meeting of luminaries from my imagination to reality.

Roger and Vocalocity met at the Aarhus festival in May, 2015. We talked about the actuality of The Project – later to be named by Achinoam “NotesAre”, a homonym withנוצר  (‘Created’) – based on bringing him to Israel for a series of workshops, presentations and rehearsals. Roger was game from the git-go. I spoke to Achinoam (the luxury of living in a small country). She heard “VOCAbuLarieS”, said “It’s a masterpiece”, and graciously agreed to make time between her extensive touring and personal commitments for her and Gil to participate in a series of three workshops with Vocalocity and Roger.

a-r-3A lot of people have asked me why Achinoam and Gil agreed to participate in such an experiment (gratis—because we could never have afforded their fees). After all, they are stars with a very demanding schedule and lots of obligations.

Truth be told–they’re musicians. Dangle a juicy artistic challenge before them, they can’t resist. In these first three years of managing the virtually unfunded Vocalocity, I’ve too often said to professional musicians “I can offer you an exceptional musical opportunity, a unique instrument to play on, but unfortunately no (or very little) money.” They always listen. They’re musicians. I hope the day will come soon when we can pay people their just rewards.

So with the backing of Mil”a (the Israeli choral organization which Ron Gang heads) and the US embassy in Israel, we set a series of three workshops together in mid-November, two at the beautiful Elma hotel/music center, the third in front of an audience on the lovely stage of the YMCA, almost unadvertised for contractual reasons. But that was okay—we called it a ‘happening’, an open workshop, as opposed to a concert. It was all about the process. Real musical engagement, not a show.

NotesAre

a-r-v-1Roger sent us all a batch of ‘palettes’ to warm up our ears and voices – extended phrases in gibberish, choral chord progressions with intricate interlocking rhythms between the voices – such as Bring Us Home and Du Mac Dum. Vocalocity went over them with Roger via Skype. We sent them to Achinoam and Gil, but they were off with the Pope and Andrea Bocelli, so we figured they wouldn’t have a chance to go over the palettes before the workshops.

At our first tripartite meeting, Achinoam walked into the room carrying her palpable charisma, her warmth and a pile of papers. Greetings and hugs. What are those papers? “Well, Gil and I were listening to some of Roger’s gibberish lyrics, and some words started to coalesce. Like in “Bring Us Home”, ‘zinko zemuga’ became “Zeh po, zeh mugan (זה פה, זה מוגן)”, which in Hebrew means “It’s here, it’s protected”.

a-v-1You have to remember—Israel’s a volatile place, tsuris by the barrelful, and Achinoam is a passionate, indefatigable peace activist. Words as simple as “It’s here, it’s protected” carry a tremendous valence. ‘Here’ is no generic center, it’s here in this wacky, wonderful country of Israel. ‘Protected’ is safe, secure—not from bogeymen, but from real threats. From Ayatollas with nuclear reactors, ISIS, and teenage girls carrying knives. Achinoam said that the song expressed her nostalgia for a different, a better Israel. I personally felt the words saying ‘Here, now, we have the ability to protect ourselves against adversaries’. It’s art, open to different interpretations. That I choose a different one from Achinoam is absolutely legit. In any case, we’re talking about the same subject.

השיר הזה מוגן מפני הפחד\השיר הזה מוגן מפני כאב\השיר הזה נולד הרגע\השיר הזה בוקע מן הלב.\השיר הזה ישן וגם מפתיע\השיר הזה רחב כמו הים\השיר הזה מביט בנו, תומך וגם מריע\השיר הזה שלי ושל כולם.

This song is protected from fear/This song is protected from pain/ This song is born at this moment/This song arises from the heart./This song is old and surprising/This song is as wide as the sea/This song looks at us, supports us and cheers/This song is mine and everyone’s.

The Music

v-1So we started singing. “Zeh Po” is nine minutes long, during the course of which my dream comes true. Roger assigns a bass riff. Then adds the baritones, then each of the other voices, in interlocking phrases whose interaction bouncing off each other provide the internal combustion driving the music forward. Gil Dor is coloring it in, providing a secure harmonic underpinning. Achinoam begins to improvise, providing a linear, melodic focus to the mix. This is our first time singing “Zeh Po”. You can watch the magic, the moment of creation, right here.

Here’s the same ‘piece’ several nights later. It’s been polished just a tad, (“choreographed” is Roger’s term). At about 5’50” and again around 9’00” you can hear that wonderful, mad clockwork complex of rhythms interacting.

JARG-2Achinoam coaxed one other distinct piece from a Roger palette. She cast a Yemenite spell on “Du Mac Dum 2”, giving us “Away You’ve Gone”. Achinoam and Gil and Roger and Vocalocity making the music I’d imagined three years earlier. I’m in heaven.

I wrote to Roger: “Well, the Achinoam/Roger/Gil amalgam worked. You can imagine how thrilling it was/is for me, especially when I learned that you’ve never really gone nose to nose with a solo voice in your weight class. I feel like I’ve helped facilitate a new kind of music being born in real time of the musical intercourse of two fine artists, each complementing the other, creating a whole neither could create alone.”

He responded more soberly: “Those two pieces are definitely working, but they’re two lines of a story that has yet to be written.”

I think we all feel that we’ve tapped a seam of gold. We put together a great virtuoso singer, the mad genius of modern choral music and a wonderful vocal orchestra. And we created Something New, something of beauty and substance, something that has never been done before, a new musical direction, one I passionately hope will continue to evolve in the future.

Sometimes dreams come true.

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