The first musical piece, a popular Sabbath Piyyut (song) titled “Dror Yikra” (“Freedom Will Call”), was introduced by an Israeli Student of American and Yemenite background who shared his memories of hearing the song sung on Sabbath afternoons round about his Jewish-Yemenite grandparents table. The student shared that now, as a young adult, no matter where he is, whenever he hears this song he completely identifies with and connects back to his Jewish-Yemenite roots. Shem-Tov added that “Dror Yikra” was written in the 10th century by Dunash Ben-Labrat, a liturgical poet, commentator and Hebrew grammarian of the Golden Age of Jewish Culture in Spain, who introduced Arabic language form, meter and rhyming schemes into Hebrew language liturgical poetry. As Maimon Cohen began to sing “Dror Yikra,” the haunting beauty of his voice accompanied by keyboards, guitar, oud, and derbuka (hand-held goblet drum) carried the audience back into the melodic sounds of Arab and Jewish Andalucía. We were all so enraptured by Maimon’s delivery that after the last notes of the song were done it took us a few long seconds to realize that it was over and that we were meant to applaud.
Last week, The Hebrew University Student Union, Hillel House, Yedidi, Hashachachta?! (My Friend, Have You Forgotten?!) and Avi Chai sponsored an evening with The Shem-Tov Levy Ensemble and liturgical poetry singer (payyetan) Maimon Cohen open to Hebrew University students, staff and the general public in a small hall, (a medium-sized conference room), in Hillel House – Mount Scopus Campus. The audience of about 100 people, most of whom had come prepared for a standard one hour concert was in for a delightful surprise. There we were in a room filled to capacity, sandwiched between sound equipment on one side and the musicians on an elevated stage on the other side, when one of the organizers, a university student, stepped up to the stage. She explained that prior to the concert, Shem-Tov, Maimon and a group of Hebrew University students had prepared introductions and commentary for each of the songs the audience would be hearing. The organizer’s comments transformed the packed and stuffy conference room into a welcome hot house for the jam session/concert/workshop in creativity, musical sharing and spiritual enrichment we were about to hear. This was no longer a standard concert; it was going be an intimate Masters’ Class, and we were about to hear and learn from Shem-Tov, Maimon and the university students.
Shem-Tov’s work is familiar to two generations of Israeli music listeners. He is a well known Rock and Jazz performer in his own right, as well as the music writer for a large and varied number of Israeli lyricists and performers. His last two albums “Tahanot HaRuach” (“Windmills”, released in 2007) and “Ben Adama” (“Son of the Earth”, released in 2010), in the world music-jazz fusion genre, have both met with great success on the local and international music scenes. Maimon Cohen is well known in liturgical poetry singing circles throughout Israel. The latter is a religious Jew, the former is a secular one – and together they were promising to bring each one of us closer to the Source and our own musical spirituality. The audience was primed and couldn’t wait for the introductory comments to be over in order to see if what was being offered would be as satisfying as promised.
Then it was Shem-Tov’s turn to engage us with a modern Israeli song,“Leylot HaStav” (“Autumn Nights”, lyrics: David Fogel, music: Shem-Tov Levy). Its gentle modern melody and words served as a musical interlude and bridge between Spain and Israel, encouraging us to return to the present but not for very long. The next song “Agdelecha/Sha’ar Petach Dodi” (“Your Increase/My Love Opened a Gate”) (http://wn.com/Shem_Tov_Levy_Ensemble – it is song #15) brought us forward into the past as it combined Shem Tov’s melody with Rabbi Ibn Ezra’s and Shlomo Ibn Gabirol’s poems and as we welcomed the late 11th century works dressed in 21st century musical notes we realized that the Jewish Moroccan student who had introduced them was right when she said: “Music is central to Judaism, that is to say that the Levites and their music are central to Judaism, and are one of the ways in which we as humans achieve our closeness to one another and to G-d.”
As the evening proceeded we learned to walk through the musical interlude “Kikar HaHalomot” (“Square of Dreams”) on our own, and then listened as a self-declared agnostic who is also a philosophy student explained that from his secular point of view it is possible and permissible to feel many feelings towards G-d because the more we feel about this, the broader our relationship with freedom of choice. Ah! Now things got really exciting and with agnosticism in the air Shem-Tov took us all off to Greece via Alexandria, Egypt and the Hebrew language translation of C.P. Kavafis’ poem “The City” (written in 1910) (http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?id=58&cat=1) set to a Shem-Tov’s melody (written in 2007) (http://wn.com/Shem_Tov_Levy_Ensemble – it is song #3). I don’t know about the rest of the audience but I was in seventh heaven as C.P. Kavafis is my favorite Greek poet. Our Grecian interlude was over far too soon and we were back in late 20th century Israel with “LeKachat Pezek Zman” (“Take a Break”). There was more commentary and many more songs. After two and half hours, Shem-Tov and Maimon suddenly began talking as if they were alone, two old friends rehashing the story of how Maimon had introduced Shem-Tov to a Berber melody that accompanies an 11th century poem, and how Shem-Tov drove Maimon crazy with hundreds of phone calls to playback his new reworking of the old Berber melody and the 11th century poem. As we listened to this conversation, some of us in the audience were lost, it had all suddenly become too intimate and we were excluded, but not for long…because soon enough Shem-Tov turned to us, commanded: “Tishmu!” (“Listen!”) and began playing, we broke out in unrestrained and wild applause, cheering, hooting, ku-lu-lating, and whistling as we recognized that all along they had been talking about Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy’s “Ben Adama” (“Son of the Earth”)!(http://wn.com/Shem_Tov_Levy_Ensemble it is song #15)
As we filed out into the cold Jerusalem night, I thought, it is as the Jewish Moroccan student said “music is central to Judaism”, (indeed to all religions), and Shem-Tov Levy carries forward the Levite tradition of the ancient Jewish Temple Mount’s music makers as he, his ensemble and Maimon Cohen spent an evening increasing our knowledge, sharing their music, and touching the holy spark within each of us so that we could more easily choose to find our own freedom in increased closeness “between G-d and man and between man and his fellow”. Truly, we are all, sons and daughters of the Earth!
(Musicians participating in this performance were: Shem-Tov Levy, keyboards,flute and vocals; Gadi Ben Elisha, guitar; Noam Chen, Percussion; Sharli Sabach, Oud; and special guest, Maimon Cohen, vocals)
(All photographs for this blog post are original works by Isa David-Ben-Rafael and are owned by IsraeLightly)