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Inspiration Takes Many Forms
The Ben Ish Hai
by Judy Lash Balint
November 24, 2008

Jewish Kawali music? It was all part of the annual Festival of the Oud held in Jerusalem this week. The oud is an 11-stringed lute that occupies a place in Middle-Eastern music very similar to that of the piano in Western music: it's a required introduction for all music students and the universal instrument for teaching music theory. An essential part of nearly any Middle-eastern ensemble, the oud is also an exceptionally expressive solo instrument.

In a lively concert in the intimate auditorium of the Confederation House, where the windows overlook the walls of the Old City, Yehuda Ovadia Fetaya together with his Yona Ensemble performed Jewish Kawali music to the poetry of the Ben Ish Hai, a late 19th century Kabbalist born in Baghdad. The pieces were beautiful, uplifting, soulful and entertaining.

Fetaya appears on stage in a black pants, white shirt and large black velvet kippa. With his long black beard and wire-rimmed glasses, the 30-something chazan at a Jerusalem synagogue is not exactly star material. But the minute he lifts the microphone and his rich tenor begins to voice the ancient words and compelling Sephardic melodies of Jews who were expressing the innermost feelings of their souls, it's easy to see how he's become one of the most popular of the paytanim and why kawali is among the latest revival trends in Israeli music.

The audience that packed the Confederation House auditorium was a fascinating mélange of contemporary Jerusalem. Older, traditional Sephardic couples mingled with younger baal teshuva types in their large, colorful, crocheted kipot and Indian-style clothing. Hip, secular Jerusalemites in their later 30s and 40s with shaved heads and smartly dressed female partners clapped enthusiastically in time to the music.

The talented Yona Ensemble comprised of seven amazingly energetic and creative musicians were a pleasure to watch as well as to listen to. They had an easy rapport and pleasant way of allowing each other to shine in various numbers. No ego grand-standing here.

Interspersed throughout the two-hour concert were short, punchy explanations of the pieces from the knowledgeable Prof.Haviva Pedaya, scion of a dynasty of respected Torah and Kabbalah scholars, with origins in Iraq.

A few days earlier, in a completely different atmosphere, a large crowd gathered for another musical event that was uplifting in its own way. To commemorate the 14th Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the roving troubadour whose tunes are now used in hundreds of shuls worldwide, the Carlebach Foundation sponsored its annual memorial concert at Binyanei Hauma. While the musicians and attendees here were a less diverse lot than at the Confederation House, the enthusiasm and love for music based on authentic Jewish text was the same.

No question that such inspirational events help us deal with the often less than inspirational daily Jerusalem reality.

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