The New Jerusalem Orchestra is dedicated to creating great music. There is more, however, to the music than just sound on a bandstand. The NJO’s music tells a story, in rhythm and tune, about the character of Israeli society, the many dimensions of Jewish history, the dynamics of modern-day Jerusalem, and the trajectory of Jewish life in Arab and Islamic lands. Here are some aspects of that story…
Celebrating the Arab Dimension of Jewish Identity
The music of the New Jerusalem Orchestra celebrates in a sophisticated artistic language, the Arab dimension of Jewish identity. This statement might surprise some people given that in today’s world, the terms “Jewish” and “Arab,” are often presented in opposition to one another. Until recently however, Jews were active participants in the fashioning of Arab culture and society. Many Israeli Jews and their descendants remain, to a degree, culturally Arab. In this sense the music of the New Jerusalem Orchestra ― often informed by Arab musical forms and occasionally sung in Arabic ― is in and of itself a kind of return, an effort, extending beyond the intrinsic beauties of the poetry and the music, to reconnect to and reclaim a neglected dimension of the modern Jewish experience.
Creating a Global Jewish Culture
One of the great challenges facing the Jewish people today is forging a common culture for Jews in Israel and around the world. How can Jews who historically speak different languages, often draw meaning from different religious texts, and/or disagree about the interpretation of common scripture, religious customs, and tradition, participate harmoniously in a contemporary Jewish society with some semblance of a common culture? The New Jerusalem Orchestra offers exciting new possibilities in answering this critical question. It is living, breathing testimony that such a culture can exist. Using the language of music, the NJO creates art that enables Jews of all stripes to experience, together, the richness and vitality of a living, creative Jewish culture that lovingly embraces the Jewish tradition even as it reinterprets that tradition in the spirit of innovation.
Israeli Society on One Stage
Israel is a divided country. Religious, traditional, and secular Jews argue over a host of issues, from the role of religion in the public sphere to the obligation to serve in the army. Tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews still bubble to the surface, and Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, sometimes disagree as to whether there should be a Jewish state at all. When, however, the New Jerusalem Orchestra takes the stage, things change: a string section of secular musicians from Tel Aviv accompanies a Moroccan-born Ultra-orthodox rabbi as he sings sacred Jewish music deeply rooted in Arab and Berber musical forms, an Israeli Jew trained in Persian percussion fingers the beat for an Ethiopian-born saxophonist as he improvises on the fundamental elements common to Ethiopian music and the blues, and a Jewish Israeli plucks the oud as one of Israel’s top female vocalists, an Arab woman from an Egyptian family, moves the audience to ecstasy with the controlled passion of her voice. These are the sounds of the New Jerusalem Orchestra, electrifying and soulful musical conversations that reflect the many sides of Israel’s richly multicultural society.
Why the New Jerusalem Orchestra? Because contemporary Jerusalem is a city teeming with profound life: the ancient rubs elbows with the modern and the East is intertwined with the West. In Hebrew, the name for Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, is based upon the word shalem, which means completion, or wholeness. The New Jerusalem Orchestra embraces East and West, the Arab and Jewish dimensions of Jerusalem, the ancient and the modern, and Jerusalem’s secular dimension as well as its religious one. As such, the NJO is a musical image of wholeness, or completion. Yet that wholeness remains, paradoxically enough, open-ended, because the NJO transforms the tension that holds between the various poles into a creative force.
The 3rd Generation Returns
The multi-cultural character of Israeli society has not always been recognized, let alone celebrated. This is especially true for the Arab-Jewish culture of the first generation of immigrants from Arab lands. Thankfully, things are finally starting to change. The immigrants’ grandchildren – 3rd generation Israelis – are reclaiming what was lost in the transition to the Holy Land. The clearest manifestation of this return is the revival of Sephardi piyyut, liturgical sacred song that is informed by Arab musical forms. The revival of piyyut has deeply impacted, in turn, the world of Israeli rock and pop, as popular Israeli artists from Kobi Oz to Dudu Tassa have mined their grandparents’ forgotten traditions for artistic inspiration. The New Jerusalem Orchestra is part of this generational story. Omer Avital and Yair Harel are returning to the marginalized traditions of their musical elders and recasting these traditions in a new cultural context and in fresh artistic forms. Like other 3rd generation Israeli artists, Avital and Harel are moving forward artistically by refining and extending musical forms from the Jewish past.
The Jewish People as a Microcosm of the World
Jewish identity is ideally a universal, multi-lingual identity. In the symbolic language of the Jewish tradition, 70 souls descended into Egypt, parallel to the 70 nations who constitute the world. Likewise, during its 2000 year diaspora, the people of Israel were exiled to the four corners of the earth and, along the way, amassed cultural powers that could have become creative power when the time came to return home. Instead, Israel’s founding generation forged a new national identity by erasing the diaspora, and the exiles of the Jewish soul were exiled again in, of all places, the Land of Israel. The New Jerusalem Orchestra is mending in artistic form what was broken in that founding generation. It is linking together, in rhythm and tune, the exiles of the Jewish soul and transforming them into the fundamental elements of a simultaneously Jewish and universal sound.
The Shape of Jazz to Come
By the end of the 20th century, the world of jazz was becoming increasingly divided between traditionalists and the partisans of the avant-garde. Musicians hungry for vitality but dissatisfied with the limitations imposed by the available options reacted by reaching beyond the borders of idiom and geography and looking for inspiration in non-Western music. In turning to musical traditions from North Africa and the Middle East, the New Jerusalem Orchestra found a gold mine of profound spirituality and freewheeling improvisation. The NJO, however, does not just use these musical traditions for inspiration, it plays them in their integrity, making music that bridges musical idioms and at its improvisational heights ecstatically obliterates the distinctions between them. The National Jazz Museum’s desire to host the NJO for a month-long residency in New York City confirms that the NJO’s energetic and joyous sound is one of the most exciting new directions to emerge from the world of jazz in a long time.