No bridge too far

The Is­raeli An­dalu­sian Orches­tra – Ash­dod spreads its wings with guest Ester Rada


‘Peo­ple of­ten ask me what An­dalu­sian mu­sic is,” says Yaakov Ben Si­mon, “to which I have two very dif­fer­ent ex­pla­na­tions: one short, one long. In short, it is like the Phil­har­monic Orches­tra, ex­cept hap­pier.”

His long ex­pla­na­tion dates back to 8th-cen­tury Spain dur­ing the Mus­lim regime (oth­er­wise known as the An­dalus era). It was a pe­riod of cul­tural pros­per­ity that prof­ited from many tal­ented artists, one of which was an ex­cep­tional mu­si­cian who com­posed 24 clas­si­cal works (‘noubas’) – one for ev­ery hour of the day.

Not only did An­dalu­sian mu­sic emerge from a pe­riod of cul­tural pros­per­ity, Ben Si­mon ex­plains, “more im­por­tantly, this mu­sic was es­tab­lished by a com­mu­nity fo­cused on the val­ues of tol­er­ance, of di­a­logue and of co­ex­is­tence.”

These are the val­ues that Ben Si­mon works daily to trans­late to the Is­raeli An­dalu­sian Orches­tra – Ash­dod when car­ry­ing out his role as artis­tic di­rec­tor. For in­stance, he pro­motes di­a­logue through the com­po­si­tion of mu­si­cians within his orches­tra; a mix of au­rally trained North African mu­si­cians and clas­si­cally trained lo­cal mu­si­cians ac­cus­tomed to a more West­ern­ized sight-read­ing ap­proach learn to work side by side to achieve har­mony. North African in­flu­ence has dom­i­nated An­dalu­sian mu­sic ever since the ex­pul­sion of Jews from Spain, when the orig­i­nal noubas were car­ried by im­mi­grants to Europe, the Balkans, Al­ge­ria, Tu­nisia, Libya and es­pe­cially Mo­rocco. The Mus­lim mi­gra­tion was not far be­hind.

En­ter co­ex­is­tence, a grow­ing con­cern for Ben Si­mon, es­pe­cially of re­cent.

“Over the past years, our de­mog­ra­phy of mu­si­cians has changed. As older mu­si­cians re­tire, we’re see­ing a wealth of younger aca­demics in­ter­ested in ‘world mu­sic.’ We also have Mus­lim mu­si­cians sit with us, mainly from Mo­rocco.”

Fur­ther­more, Ben Si­mon oc­ca­sion­ally brings in lo­cal Ara­bic mu­si­cians who have proven very ben­e­fi­cial to the orches­tra’s DNA when tack­ling reper­toire deal­ing with clas­si­cal Ara­bic mu­sic from Egypt, Le­banon and other Mid­dle East­ern ar­eas.

The third and fi­nal value, tol­er­ance, played a fas­ci­nat­ing role in the orches­tra’s de­vel­op­ment dur­ing a highly an­tic­i­pated trip to Mo­rocco, one of the most well-versed coun­tries in An­dalu­sian mu­sic, this past De­cem­ber.

The State of Is­rael has long been caught in the cross­fires of BDS ad­vo­cates – on the one hand, us­ing scare tac­tics to force in­ter­na­tional artists to re­voke sched­uled per­for­mances in Is­rael, and on the other, protest­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Is­raeli artists at fes­ti­vals world­wide.

Hence, after years of meet­ing with the King of Mo­rocco’s se­nior ad­viser An­dré Azoulay in an ef­fort to im­prove the cul­tural di­a­logue be­tween Jews and Moroc­cans and to con­tinue the her­itage of Ju­daism in North Africa that was once quite strong, al­though Ben Si­mon fi­nally re­al­ized his dream of bring­ing the Is­raeli An­dalu­sian Orches­tra – Ash­dod to Casablanca for one of the great­est fes­ti­vals of its kind, it was car­ried out as a some­what clan­des­tine op­er­a­tion.

“It wasn’t only a per­for­mance; we were in­vited to open the fes­ti­val!” Ben Si­mon boasts about the his­toric event.

Over­joyed by the in­vi­ta­tion, the sea­soned vet­eran made a judg­ment call to keep the orches­tra’s at­ten­dance un­der wraps – hid­ing it from the me­dia en­tirely in or­der to “avoid groups that might cause prob­lems be­fore­hand or place pres­sure on the pro­duc­ers of the fes­ti­val like they do in Europe.”

A vi­va­cious di­rec­tor, Ben Si­mon never views the glass as half-empty, rather fills it to the brim with sweet-tast­ing wine: “This was pure An­dalu­sian suc­cess, pol­i­tics aside. Some­times you don’t need to wave the Is­raeli flag on stage. Ev­ery­one in the au­di­ence knew where we were from, and they still re­spected us. It was in­cred­i­ble. There was live broad­cast­ing on the fes­ti­val’s Face­book page; many Ara­bic coun­tries saw it, and a few days be­fore the per­for­mance, we even had a can­dle light­ing for the last night of Hanukkah, which was broad­cast on Mo­roc­can tele­vi­sion.

“Hon­estly, where else can a group of Is­raelis stay up un­til three in the morn­ing re­hears­ing in a ho­tel lobby with mu­si­cians from Al­ge­ria, Tu­nisia, and Libya in a pol­i­tics-free zone?”

It is ob­vi­ous that for this pas­sion­ate role model, the orches­tra ex­tends far be­yond notes writ­ten on a page or ac­quired by ear.

“As the main An­dalu­sian orches­tra in Is­rael, we don’t want only to pre­serve the mu­sic, we want to bridge cul­tural and re­li­gious gaps.”

This “great bridge” to which Ben Si­mon refers forms the foun­da­tion for the orches­tra’s cur­rent con­cert se­ries, aptly named: Bridge of Strings.

On an eter­nal jour­ney to shed light on dif­fer­ent cul­tures, Ben Si­mon has in­vited the soul­ful Ester Rada to join the Is­raeli An­dalu­sian Orches­tra – Ash­dod this month. Ea­ger to ex­pose her Ethiopian roots on stage, he claims that while Ethiopia may be on the other side of Africa, these in­flu­ences are bor­der­less in his­tory.

So far, the col­lab­o­ra­tion has been noth­ing but pos­i­tive.

“Not only is Ester a won­der­fully tal­ented mu­si­cian,” Ben Si­mon shares, “she is the kind of mu­si­cian that knows how to ad­just and isn’t afraid to delve deeper into the ma­te­rial. She doesn’t just read the Ara­bic words aloud; she sings like some­one who was born on the streets of Casablanca.”

He was equally sur­prised by the ef­forts of an­other group of spe­cial guests, the Mo­ran Choir, who stud­ied hard and re­hearsed cease­lessly to per­fect the new lan­guage.

“These are the kinds of projects that I love – the ones that chal­lenge us to draw out­side the lines. Some­times the fi­nal pic­tures don’t trans­late to the stage, even with the best mu­si­cians, but I’m not afraid to be dar­ing, to chal­lenge our orches­tra and my­self. It’s a thou­sand times harder than play­ing it safe, but when the stars align, the re­sults are mag­i­cal.

The Is­raeli An­dalu­sian Orches­tra – Ash­dod per­forms on Jan­uary 14 and 15 in their home­town of Ash­dod be­fore mov­ing onto Modi’in on Jan­uary 16. They fin­ish their se­ries off with two per­for­mances in Tel Aviv on Jan­uary 24 and 27.

For more in­for­ma­tion: an­

(Mike Edri)

THE AN­DALU­SIA Orches­tra – Ash­dod (above) will per­form with Es­ther Rada (right).

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