From human sacrifice to supermodels, the inspiration of the Great Gehenna Choir

Cooperative group of professional musicians bring own set of idiosyncratic ritual to every song they perform

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

There are choirs and then there’s the Great Gehenna Choir, a quirky but professional cooperative of Israeli singers who are serious about their tunes, their lyrics, and how they belt them out.

It’s a meta choir.

In fact, in the past they have called themselves ‘kahal kehilla makhela,’ loosely translated as a communal choir. Now they’re more of a collective of artists — a group of singers, composers, choir directors, and a couple of pianists — and they sing as a group of equals.

The name is from the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Gehenna) in Jerusalem, where ancient Canaanites once conducted human sacrifice, alluding to the musical rites performed by this choir.

Noam Enbar, the idiosyncratic musician and founder of the Great Gehenna Choir, of which he’s still a member, singing at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. (Courtesy Great Gehenna Choir)

The choir was initially created by Noam Enbar, a singer, composer, and performance artist known for his musical works full of ritual and politics. He established and managed Gehenna, and wrote much of the music sung by the choir for its first two years.

He’s still a singing member, but is now part of the cooperative. When Gehenna sings as a group, rehearsing every Sunday morning for four hours, they may work on one of Enbar’s pieces, or on one composed by one of their own, and orchestrated by another member.

But they often still sing the pieces composed by Enbar, who frequently collaborates with poet and educator Yonatan Levy, known for quirky, idiosyncratic texts.

On a recent Sunday, they were rehearsing for an upcoming event at Jerusalem’s Hansen House, a popular Gehenna choice called “Rav Pil’i,” or “Great Wonders,” a song of acronyms by Inbar, made up of the letters of Bar Refaeli’s name. (The video above shows Great Gehenna singing “Rav Pil’i” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.)

Suffice to say it’s about Bar Refaeli, the supermodel and occasional actress, who holds a questionably iconic place in Israeli culture.

When sung by Great Gehenna, they perform it, and sing it, with great intent, creating a kind of secular modern day ritual, said choir member Amit Fishbein, but with a certain degree of irony as well.

At a rehearsal in Jerusalem’s Hansen House, they started out singing in circles of four or five, belting out their lyrics, eventually moving into one circle.

The Great Gehenna Choir performing in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. (Courtesy Great Gehenna Choir)

And for all that they’re singing acapella style, without amplification, about a bathing suit model who has reached international fame for her appearances in Sports Illustrated and her previous relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio, there is nothing in their music that is pop-like or celebrates celebrity.

It’s a lot more ironic than that.

Instead, each song is an elaborate composition of easy-to-learn music that invites the audience to learn the tune, and hum along. As part of their ritual, they never sing onstage, but rather in the center of the crowd of onlookers, which can make it difficult for them to find appropriate spaces to perform.

There’s no amplification used either, so that interaction with the audience allows them to hear the words, and to understand the song.

And therein lies the idea of Great Gehenna: wonderful voices, idiosyncratic songs and arrangements, and lots of inside jokes in Hebrew, all offering a complete contrast to what many of these professional musicians experience in their real lives.

There’s Michal Tamari, a 28-year-old singer who has been singing with choirs for her entire life and was drawn to this “nouveau” choir (she leads “Satan Gala” in the video above, recorded in Hansen House), and Dor Magen, 31, a professional choir director.

“Most of us are musicians, we’re not amateurs, and if we’re doing this, it’s because we want to,” said Magen.

“It’s a contrast to the life I live outside,” said Fishbein, who is  a professional singer and whose work with Gehenna is her first with a choir. (She leads “Jabberwocky,” the video embedded below).

Ido Akov, a 24-year-old freelance pianist, said he wanted to get to know his body better and didn’t like the classical choirs he tried first.

“I liked the ability to be a partner in so many aspects of the choir, besides just singing,” he said.

The choir members meet once a week, in addition to their weekly rehearsals, in order to coordinate performances, public relations, and other administrative tasks. Members can take part in directing and managing the choir, but aren’t required to.

Singing with Gehenna “brings me to places I’d never been before,” said Sarah Verrees, 32, a professional classical singer. “It’s beyond music, you’re always in a process here.”

Great Gehenna will perform at Hansen House on Thursday, February 1, at 8:30 p.m. Entry is free.

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