Safra: The sound of coexistence at Berkeleys Ashkenaz

Posted By on September 5, 2014

Berkeleys Jewish Middle Eastern ensemble Safra makes its Ashkenaz debut on Sunday. Photo: courtesy Safra

If only coexistence was as easy in the Holy Land as it is on the bandstand. The East Bay ensemble Safra, which makes its Ashkenaz debut on Sunday, has developed a sumptuous body of Sephardic music drawn from North Africas intermingled musical traditions, combining Hebrew lyrics, Middle Eastern instrumentation, and popular melodies from the Middle East and beyond. The bands vision isnt so much utopian as a refraction of an increasingly riven regions shared cultural heritage.

Launched in early 2013 by two Berkeleyans, vocalist Eliana Kissner and oud player John Ehrlich, Safra quickly took shape with the dynamic percussion tandem of Debbie Fier on dumbek, riqq and bendir, and

Susie Goldenstein on dumbek and riqq. For Sundays show, the quartet will be joined onviolin, oud and percussion by the Bay Areas great Moroccan musician Bouchaib Abdelhadi, a master of cross-cultural collaborations (Bruce Bierman teaches Yemenite dance before the concert).

Much of Safras music is drawn from Ehrlichs last trove of cassettes documenting rare recordings made around the Arab world. The zippiest songs that we find, the ones people really enjoy, are pizmonim, songs in Hebrew written to fit well known Arabic, Turkish or Persian folk melodies, Ehrlich says.

Not so much prayers as praise songs for God, pizmonim were often works commissioned to celebrate a wedding, bris or bar mitzvah. The music flourished in the ancient Jewish communities of Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo, Smyrna, and the Maghreb, though the tradition has continued after political upheaval forced those communities to flee to Israel.

Some of our melodies are taken from Arabic pop songs of the 20th century, Kissner says. These songs arent some secretive borrowing. They come from the larger history of Jews in Arab countries, and some of them were written by living composers in Israel.

The bands origins can be traced to the copyroom at Congregation Netivot Shalom, which is where Ehrlich and Kissner first met (several years earlier Ehrlich encountered his future wife at the temple, so who needs J-Date and Craigslist?).

A long-time student of the oud, the pear-shaped Middle Eastern lute, he was on the lookout for new musical collaborators after the breakup his band Zaatar, which specialized in the music of Middle Eastern Jewish (or Mizrahi) cultures.

At the time I was just kind of scanning the horizons to see who was out there, says Ehrlich, who works for the city of Albanys Building Division. Its really about finding a lead singer, thats the most challenging component. The first or second time Eliana and I got together to play we realized we had similar interests and vision. Both really wanted to put together a professional quality working ensemble.

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Safra: The sound of coexistence at Berkeleys Ashkenaz

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