Story of the NJO

The New Jerusalem Orchestra (NJO) is the product of the shared musical-cultural aspirations and dissatisfactions of Omer Avital and Yair Harel, the orchestra’s musical and artistic directors. Both Avital and Harel were enchanted by the rich musical heritage of Jewish communities rooted in an Arab-Islamic milieu, and they set out to expand, extend and refine that heritage. Likewise, Avital and Harel also shared an antipathy for the once-powerful claim that forming an Israeli identity requires erasing all traces of the diaspora. As they co-wrote in the musical manifesto for the NJO’s first musical project, Ahavat Olamim, or Eternal Love, “We seek to ingather the exiles of the Jewish soul that were exiled in, of all places, the Land of Israel.” The NJO is thus a counter-statement to the dominant cultural ethos in Israel.

That is not to say that distinctions should not be made. For Harel, the ingathering is part of a larger Zionist vision, while for Avital, it is part of a personal-familial quest. Harel’s vision is to cultivate a Jewish-Israeli identity that, grounded in the multi-cultural musical past of the Jewish people and responsive to the cultural dynamics of Israel’s present, will be far more open and vital than what the founding fathers of Zionism left behind.

“We seek to ingather the exiles of the Jewish soul that were exiled in, of all places, the Land of Israel.”

A faithful student of the celebrated Israeli composer and ethnomusicologist, Andre Hajdu, Harel extended his teacher’s love of musical freedom and habitual disrespect for conventional boundaries by reaching out to Avital and offering to bring the half-Yemenite, half-Moroccan virtuoso to the 2008 piyyut festival in Jerusalem, which Harel runs.

Avital, who was by his own account doing some soul-searching at the time, gladly accepted the offer. In high school in the mid-1980s, Avtial and a couple of friends had turned their backs on their Israeli musical peers and started seriously digging Charlie Parker. After army service, he moved to New York and encountered-in jazz figures such as Billy Hart and Rashid Ali—the openness, vitality, and depth of the American jazz tradition. This encounter with a living tradition moved Avital to explore the Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish traditions that had played a peripheral role in his own secularized youth. He embarked upon an intensive study of classical Arab music, especially of the Moroccan-Andalusian variety. When Harel invited Avital to the piyyut Festival, which would feature the great Moroccan payytan, Rabbi Haim Louk, Avital, who had been listening to cassette recordings of Louk, jumped at the chance to play with one of his artistic idols.

… an extraordinary blend of soul and first-rate musicianship that marked a turning point in the development of a uniquely Jewish-Israeli culture.

The joint performance at the 2008 piyyut festival was a rousing success, and Avital subsequently approached Harel about establishing a large ensemble. When the Israel Festival offered the opening slot in 2010 Harel suggested expanding their work with Rabbi Louk, and the New Jerusalem Orchestra (NJO) was born.

The NJO’s initial musical project, Ahavat Olamim, brought a serious jazz sensibility to the performance of Andalusian piyyut. With Rabbi Louk taking center stage, the result was an extraordinary blend of soul and first-rate musicianship that marked a turning point in the development of a uniquely Jewish-Israeli culture. A double-disk recording of the May, 2010, performance was released in 2011.

… the NJO’s unique sound [that] is rooted in the African and Middle Eastern elements of the Jewish past and is refined and extended into an artistic statement of universal significance.

The NJO’s second musical project, Maqam Yerushalem, was performed in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2012. A multi-cultural musical fantasy in two parts, the first part explores the longing for Jerusalem, both heavenly and worldly, that has animated the imagination of different musical cultures and is fashioned around disparate musical traditions from the East, including Yemenite, Ethiopian, North African and Turkish music. The second part is a musical journey that ranges from classical western music to classical Arab music to American Jazz to Flamenco. Featured in Maqam Yerushalem are the Ethiopian-Jewish singer-saxophonist Abatte Barihun, the Moroccan cantor Maimon Cohen, and the Arab-Israeli female vocalists, Lubna Salame and Haya Samir. As for critical response, the performance was ecstatically celebrated in the Israeli press as, “the closest thing [possible] to the coming of the Messiah, from a musical perspective.”

The New Jerusalem Orchestra plans to tour the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel in the beginning of 2014. The tour, centered around a month-long residency in New York City that will be sponsored by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, will give music-lovers around the globe a chance to experience the NJO’s unique sound that is rooted in the African and Middle Eastern elements of the Jewish past and is refined and extended into an artistic statement of universal significance.