Jewish World Review March 26, 2001 / 2 Nissan, 5761

In Ofra's footsteps:
New Sephardi CDs

By Paul Wieder -- A LOSS was felt a year ago in several worlds: the worlds of Israeli life, Sephardi culture, and international music. This loss was caused by the passing away of one woman --- Ofra Haza.

Haza was born in 1959, in Hatikva, near Tel Aviv, to parents fleeing Yemenite persecution. A prodigy, she was singing professionally by age 12. Her career began with traditional melodies learned from her mother, then evolved to encompass the dance music of today. By the early 1990s, she had won acclaim in her native Israel, on the radios of neighboring Arab nations, and in the dance clubs of England. Her music was sampled by American rap musicians, she recorded with fellow Jews Paula Abdul and Lou Reed, and she performed at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin. In 1992, Haza was nominated for a Grammy, and was poised to enter true superstardom with her work on the soundtrack to Prince of Egypt. Then, late February 2000, Ofra Haza died of AIDS-related complications. She was 42.

Haza was possessed of an enchanting voice, but perhaps her greatest art was her ability to reach forward to the future without letting go of the past. All Sephardic music from Israel and America produced during her career -- including Noa, Zehava Ben, and David Broza -- bears her imprint, and will continue to for generations. Even a small sample of four new Sephardi recordings bears this out:

The Sephardi songbird Fortuna recently released her fourth effort, "Mazal." As on her previous works, she combines traditional Spanish and Middle-Eastern instrumentation and a nightingale's voice with classic Jewish and Spanish prayer and poetry. Recently, however, she has begun to write her own arrangements and add wordless, niggun-like melodies to her repertoire.

Fortuna was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but first encountered Sephardi music in Israel's Diaspora Museum. A twenty-second snippet of a lullaby was enough to propel her on a lifelong, worldwide journey into Sephardi music. Over time, she has recorded traditional music from Spain to the former Yugoslavia.

The dozen songs on Mazal represent a good introduction to Fortuna's music. Here are Jewish classics like "Shalom Aleichem," Spanish traditionals, and Sephardi poetry, all sublimated into a single musical vision by Fortuna's elegant voice. Equal to that of Nana Mouskouri or Enya, it is a delicate instrument- the sound an orchid would make if it could sing.

Another element of Sephardi culture is Mizrachi, or Middle Eastern, music. Ofra Haza's fundamental sound, Mizrachi music shares many of the same instruments and source material as Spanish-based Sephardi music. While basic Sephardi music contains Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) songs and Latin rhythms, Mizrachi has an identifiable Arabic influence. Still, there is great overlap; the Brazilian Fortuna's third album, "Mediterraneo," spans the Mediterranean basin, from Spain though Morocco up to the Balkans, while the Moroccan Gerard Edery's first effort was the Spanish/Ladino Linda Amiga.

Edery again brings his soothing baritone to his fourth release, "Morena." The core of this Mizrachi collection of 15th Century love songs is the Song of Songs; a third of the 15 tracks take their words from this love poem. The theme continues with romantic songs from Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Israel. A similar global approach informs Edery's latest release, Romanzas Sefarditas, a collaboration with oud virtuoso George Mgrdichian.

Edery's bronze-like voice, which saw him through 25 operas, is powerfully expressive. On Morena, he is backed by the members of his Ensemble, the silken-voiced Nell Snaidas of Uruguay and Rex Benincasa, a percussionist who has mastered both Latin and Middle-Eastern drums. Romanzas Sefarditas pairs Mgrdichian's fluid oud playing with Edery's insistent guitar work. Both albums are lush experiences, perfect for a candlelight dinner.

The album title Morena refers to the Greek song with the lyric: "'The Dark One,' they call me/ though I was born fair." This image is echoed on Fortuna's Mazal in "Morenika": "Little Dark Girl, that's how they call me/ I was born white/ But the summer sun made me like this."

Another song shared by many Sephardic artists is the 16th Century prayer "Lecha Dodi"; Fortuna soars with her version on her second album, "Cantigs." Edery's rendition of this welcome to the Sabbath Bride focuses on the "Bride" aspect, while Richard Kaplan prefers the "Sabbath" element.

"Lecha Dodi" is one of 18 prayerful tracks on Tuning the Soul, by L.A. chazzan Richard Kaplan and scholar Michael Ziegler. It is both the opposite of Morena and its perfect complement- as spiritual as the other is sensuous. Even more far-reaching, Tuning dips down into Yemen and South Asia while encompassing the meditative niggunim of Galician and Polish Chasidism. Yet it never leaves the synagogue.

Tuning the Soul is one of the most transcendent works you'll hear. The music itself reaches both inward and upward. It is both Eastern and Western. And it can be appreciated equally by those steeped in Jewish tradition and those who claim that Judaism lacks spirituality. With both simplicity and sophistication, Kaplan and Ziegler elevate their drums, flutes, lutes, and cymbals to instruments of prayer.

Yet another "Lecha Dodi" appears on "Out of the Reeds" by Pharaoh's Daughter, an ensemble fronted by the globe-trotting Basya Schechter (four continents and still in her 20s!). Like her life- she has held some 60 jobs since she was nine- the group's sound is cobbled together out of many elements. It combines Middle-Eastern drums like the dumbek and tabla, Western stalwarts like clarinet and cello, and something in between- a guitar Schechter tuned to sound like its Arabic ancestor, the oud. The lyrics here are equally diverse: Jewish prayer, Yiddish and Ladino folksong, even a melody from Mali.

The result is a rich, spicy melange of sounds at once startling and captivating. Although Out of the Reeds has only one reed instrument, Schechter's vocals and, um, "guit-oud," possess a reedy, bent-note quality instant recognizable as Mizrachi. The rest of Pharaoh's Daughter are fluid musicians as well, able to follow Schechter through the myriad sounds she traverses and bridges. The standout track is, ironically, "Hamavdil"; this Ladino blessing is given an outstanding, globally-influenced accompaniment that stands in direct contrast to its lyric's theme of separation.

The album's title is a reference to the drawing of the infant Moses "out of the reeds" of the Nile by, of course, Pharaoh's daughter. Not surprisingly, tradition holds that this woman's name was Basya. Out of the Reeds, Pharaoh's Daughter's second release, is their first on Jewish Alternative Music (JAM), a label spun off of the venerable Knitting Factory Alternative Music label to produce avant-garde Jewish music.

Ofra Haza may be gone, but her music sings on in the melodies of Sephardi and Mizrachi musicians everywhere. Whenever a new lyric or tune is written in the ancient tradition, her art will serve as a muse. All Sephardi instruments take two hands to play- one to touch the past, the other to grasp the future.

Paul Wieder is a public relations associate at the Jewish United Fund and a columnist for JUF News. Contact the author or the magazine by either clicking here, or calling (312) 444-2853.


© 2001, JUF News