It’s a sign of the seismic shifts in the Israeli music scene when Ashdod’s Andalusian Orchestra, the award-winning band of musicians that plays traditional Sephardic and Jewish-Arab music, pairs up with Israeli rocker Berry Sakharov for a concert.
It’s not just Sakharov, either. The Israel Prize-winning orchestra will perform a series in March with Yonatan Razel, the ultra-Orthodox composer and pianist whose spiritual music is often played on Galgalatz, the top-40 radio station.
“Berry Sakharov doesn’t need me,” said Jacob Ben Simon, the orchestra’s CEO. “But like any joint venture between musicians, you’re curious, you look around. When I sit with an artist and invite him to work with us, I say you come to us and we’ll come to you.”
Should audiences expect a mashup of Sakharov’s “Kama Yossi” with a Moroccan liturgical poem when the orchestra hosts Sakharov and Moroccan chanteuse Raymonde Abecassis at Herzliya’s Zappa Club Sunday night?
Something like that, said Ben Simon.
“When we cooperate with someone, we look to find the dialogue,” he said. “We find the twist, we find the challenge, we’re not just an orchestra that goes along with the lead vocalist.”
Like the music it plays, the orchestra has been influenced by its location in this melting pot land, said Ben Simon.
“We work with a lot of other musicians because we’re open to it,” he said. “In Israel, there’s a little of everything, and when we cooperate with other musicians, it brings us to the younger generation and the music lovers.”
Founded 20 years ago in the southern port city, the Ashdod orchestra, with 30 musicians and lyricists who are mostly of Tunisian, Moroccan and Russian origin, once focused solely on traditional Sephardic and Andalusian music and poetry. Playing a variety of instruments, from the violin to the oud, the orchestra grew out of the musicians’ love of piyyut, traditional liturgical poetry handed down from fathers to sons, said Ben Simon.
“It was the music created in Spain and sung by Muslims and Jews,” said Ben Simon.
‘It was the music created in Spain and sung by Muslims and Jews’
As the Jews moved and migrated, the music spread; it was adopted first in North Africa by Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian communities, where it took on influences from flamenco to folklore.
“It’s got a very wide spectrum,” said Ben Simon. “There were 600 to 700 years of travel that were soaked up in the music.”
When the North African Jews came to Israel, they “brought what they knew,” he said, including Ladino melodies and liturgical poems from Morocco and Algiers. The orchestra took the music out of the synagogue and put it onstage.
“The first audiences were those who were familiar with it and had grown up with it,” said Ben Simon. “There was a kind of pride to putting it on stage and being proud of it.”
The orchestra has been instrumental in pushing the music of liturgical poems into the mainstream, said Ben Simon, aided by the musicians and singers who were born listening to those familiar tunes.
Other Israeli musicians began integrating the poems into their music as well, from soulful brothers Eviatar and Meir Banai (as well as cousin Ehud Banai) to the alternative Yemenite universe of sister-trio A-Wa.
These days, their audience is split between music lovers who grew up with the sounds of the orchestra and those who love music of any kind. For the latter, the particular blend of East and West becomes a kind of local world music, said Ben Simon.
“You don’t have to be from Morocco to love it,” he said.
That said, the trend of playing the stringed oud and the darbuka drum has led to a certain lack of knowledge among the Israeli public, he said, as people often equate any music made with the traditional Arab instruments as Andalusian.
“We’re not amateurs, we’re not a wedding band,” he said. “We’re an orchestra with 30 musicians; our music is classical music at a high level.”
Despite the growing popularity of the Andalusian sound, it hasn’t been easy to survive, said Ben Simon. Most of the orchestra’s musicians work in other settings in order to earn a living. Sadly, the Ashkelon Andalusian orchestra ended up closing and moving to Jerusalem after losing their government funding several years ago.
With more than 120 performances per year and 5,000 subscribers, the orchestra performs regularly, including concerts for children, looking to expose Israeli kids to their sounds.
“We see ourselves as the leaders and ambassadors to bring this music everywhere,” he said.
The Andalusian Orchestra will perform with Berry Sakharov and Raymonde Abecassis on February 28 at 10 p.m. at Zappa Herzliya.
The Andalusian Orchestra will perform with Yonatan Razel and liturgical poets Maimon Cohen and Moshe Luk throughout March and beginning April in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Ashdod, Ra’anana and Kiryat Motzkin
Call the Andalusian Orchestra box office for concert dates and tickets: 1-800-693-693.