Jazz, Piyyut, and Jewish Identity
By Aryeh Tepper
The Israeli-born, New York-based Omer Avital is both a world-class jazz musician and a master of classical Arabic music. He recently visited the Tikvah Fund, oud in hand, for an evening of music and free-flowing discussion about jazz, piyyut [liturgical verse], and Jewish identity. He was interviewed by Aryeh Tepper, who has written about these subjects for Jewish Ideas Daily—including a piece on Avital’s trans-Atlantic musical project, the New Jerusalem Orchestra. Here are some highlights, with musical interludes available at the click of a mouse.
What is Piyyut?
Tepper: When we say piyyut, you think of your High Holiday prayer book, something not relevant to our times. But piyyutim are still being written today. In fact, In Israel there has been a “revival” of piyyut, with modern adaptations.
Audience: Is it the music that’s called the piyyut, or the words?
Avital: Piyyut in modern Hebrew means poetry, but it’s very related to music. The paytanim were musicians, too. Piyyutim were always sung in synagogues—by Syrian Jews, Iraqi Jews. It’s liturgical poetry, yes, but related and connected to singing. It’s an elaborate musical format, a serious musical tradition.
Framing the Discussion: Internal Servitude and External Freedom
Tepper: In the late 19th century the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am wrote an essay titled “Internal Servitude and External Freedom.” He said Western European Jews thought they were free because they had civil rights, but they were spiritually enslaved because they couldn’t move without looking over their shoulders. Eastern European Jews had few civil rights, but they had internal freedom—a compass, a tradition. They knew who they were.
That framework is relevant to the state of the Jewish people today. Zionism is a blessing, but the price has been high. In reorganizing the Jewish people, we came to deny an essential part of ourselves—the Arab part. The “Arab part of ourselves” may sound strange: Jews and Arabs are at war. But the Jewish people in many ways—and half the Jewish people in Israel—are culturally Arab. In denying that, we deny ourselves.
Politically, I don’t know anyone who would want to live in anything other than a Western liberal democracy. But culturally, the Jewish people is not part of the West: Both the West and the East are part of the Jewish people. Because we haven’t successfully separated the political from the cultural, we’ve raised an Israeli generation that doesn’t know where it came from, that looks down on its parents and grandparents, that denies itself.
Piyyut is important in this context because it emerged, to a large extent, from an Arab framework. With the re-embrace of piyyut, we are recovering a part of ourselves. It’s a small step in the direction of spiritual independence.
Avital: I started playing jazz out of a search, I guess.
I grew up in Givatayim, outside Tel Aviv. My father listened to everything from Arabic music to Frank Sinatra, to jazz and pop, to the Zionist songbook. He played music all day; he wasn’t a professional, but he was very musical. So, I heard a lot of music. The Mizrahim were ashamed of their culture or wanted to be mainstream. We didn’t listen to that music; it was off the table. So, Greek music was very popular, and a little bit of Spanish music, because it’s related to Moroccan music; it’s essentially Arabic-Jewish. So I listened to that.
I showed some musical talent, and my mother made me study. She said, “You’re going to the conservatory.” Luckily, Givatayim had a very good conservatory. Before I went there, I just did my thing, playing soccer and practicing music 15 minutes a day—no weekends or holidays. When I got there, I saw kids practicing eight hours a day because otherwise their parents would kill them. So I started practicing an hour a day.
I had no musical frame of reference because we never listened to European classical music, except for the Spanish music. But I had a great classical guitar teacher, because my brother played guitar before me. I got into the classical thing, and I was pretty good at it. I still love classical European music. It’s a part of me, the first thing I was trained to do. But then I saw these older kids in the hallways playing blues—and rock, which is really blues. It hit me hard.
Tepper: Can you do blues chords on the oud?
Avital: Let me see. There’s the form, then there’s the style and feeling. It might be too weird:
Omer’s Bluesy Oud
Avital: It fascinated me: You could bend the strings. It was so much fun that I grabbed a guitar and asked someone, “How do you do it? I have to do it.” I was blown away. It was all I wanted to do. My teachers were shocked because I was already pretty good at classical guitar, but it wasn’t a real connection. I bought an electric guitar and a keyboard, and I had rock bands—until I discovered jazz, through a great teacher in our school. I was fascinated by jazz. I thought it was the most amazing thing you could do, getting together and improvising on a high level. I still do. I borrowed the school’s upright bass, and pretty much that was it.
To New York City
Avital: In 1992 I flew to New York with two or three friends. We studied at the New School under the great Arnie Lawrence. He opened the New School’s jazz department, which was traditional—like piyyut. In the 1990s, the music’s founding fathers were still alive. I played with a lot of great musicians.
Tepper: You said you played with Rashid Ali, who played drums for the great saxophonist John Coltrane. You talked about the openness with which he received you.
Avital: Jazz comes from the East and Africa, but it accepts everything and anybody that can play it. It’s a high art form. Not many people can achieve its highest levels, but the jazz giants got to these levels. It’s more than just playing; it’s spiritual. The music couldn’t be so open and endless if it didn’t come from people like these. Music is physical energy. It’s sound waves: You can’t lie. If you’re not open, it’s not going to be open. It’s definitely a part of a personality.
Audience: Tell us more about the oud—how it works, where it’s from.
Avital: I would say the oud is—the piano of Arabic music? It’s from Iraq. It’s played, not in Persian music, but all over North Africa and the Arab world. In the ninth century a legendary Iraqi oud player moved to Cordoba and founded the Andalusian school of music we still play today. But with the oud there are more microtones—quarter notes, not just the twelve notes in the Western scale. You’ve probably never heard them in Western music.
Omer Plays the Oud
Avital: When you get deep into this music, it’s very hard to come out. It’s about feeling, from a time when music was about more than just music. There’s a scale you play in the afternoon, a little melancholy; a scale to play when you feel sad. It’s a mode—a way of thinking, a place. Maqam, the Arabic word for scale, doesn’t work like a Western scale; it actually means “place.”
I’m not religious, so why do I love piyyutim so much? When I play this music I feel my tradition. But it works for everybody; it’s art. The son of the Baba Sali said if you know how to sing a piyyut, even if you don’t go to synagogue, it’s a great thing.
Tepper: I’ll use an Arabic phrase to capture the essence of it. It’s called the “pintele Yid.”
The New Jerusalem Orchestra
Tepper: The New Jerusalem Orchestra has a combination of instruments you never see—a 20-person choir, a Western string quartet, oud players, a three-piece brass section. S’meihim B’Tzeitam, sung in synagogue on Shabbat, is based upon piyyut—and gospel blues. It’s one of the most exciting things happening in music today.
Tepper: Rabbi Haim Louk was the singer. He’s our Billie Holiday.
Avital: He’s an amazing artist, an amazing paytan. He goes to the palace in Morocco at least twice a year, and they treat him like a master.
He grew up in Morocco—an excellent Torah student and amazing singer. He went to a Lithuanian yeshiva in London. When he came to Israel in his 20s he was brilliant, very culturally open-minded. But in Israel then, there was a specifically European Zionist thinking that rejected all Arabic influences and did not allow Louk’s tradition into the mainstream. These people were mixed into the European Jewish narrative and lost their history.
When I come to America, I see that when it’s Jews, it’s gefilte fish. I have nothing against gefilte fish, but it’s not my tradition. I have a history of thousands of years that’s heavily linked to the Arabic tradition. I feel myself a part of the Middle East. I started to realize these things only in my mid-30s.
This concert wouldn’t have happened without Haim Louk, an amazing human being who was open enough to allow me to do this. This is the music he sang as a kid. At the first rehearsal, he didn’t know what to do; he was in shock. It’s like bringing a baseball player to a baseball field and playing soccer.
In everything I do with this tradition—and with jazz—I want to stay very close to the original, but I have to work with what’s around me musically. So the aesthetic problem was, how do I keep this authentic? Everything came together the last night. It was most powerful for Moroccan people, because they saw that our music is actually concert music, jazz, everything. For me personally, it mixes up where I come from and [jazz player] Elvin Jones. So many layers. The moment when it blended was worth all the suffering. It was the hardest thing I’ve tried to do in my life. I came back to New York and thought, I’m never doing this again.
Tepper: You don’t realize that you’re a kabbalist. The Kabbalah talks about unifying worlds. You are unifying worlds.
Avital: My idea in music and in life is that the more you can connect things, the better.
Audience: What’s the relationship between the renewed Mizrahi cultural confidence in recent years and the conscious religious turn, the reclaiming of Sephardi moderation?
Avital: The tradition is all religiously infused. I think it’s more a matter of going back to the mesoret [tradition], but people get back to it at different levels and different times. Aesthetically, I sometimes feel more Arabic when I hear this music. You could say that through the Arabic tradition Jews explored Judaism, and through the synagogue they explored Arabic culture.
The Sound of Arab-Jewish Music
Tepper: Give us a taste of an Andalusian sound, a Yemenite sound, and an Iraqi sound.
The Andalusian Sound
Avital: Andalusi music is rich, optimistic, rhythmic—groovy. It’s North African music, with layers, and Spanish classical music, which is Jewish-Muslim. For Jews, the Adalusian tradition is sacred, a high tradition. So, the piyyutimare mostly Andalusian—but some popular tunes got in.
Tepper: The Yemenite sound?
The Yemenite Sound I
Tepper: In Yemen they only played drums because of the prohibition against playing musical instruments after the destruction of the Temple.
Avital: People say this is one reason why Yemenite singers are so good: They can’t rely on instruments, only drums.
The Yemenite Sound II
Avital: It’s funky. The rhythm and the melody are very important. An Iraqi would patronize, saying it’s desert music.
Tepper: How about the Iraqi sound?
The Iraqi Sound
Avital: Iraqi music sounds so ancient and heavy; yet it’s connected to the great Iraqi tradition, because all the paytanim were very, very good at all these styles.
Egyptian music is the most popular. Here is an Arabic song by Da’ud Husni—a Karaite, a Jew from Egypt, and an amazing composer.
The Egyptian Sound
Avital: There’s an art in adapting an Arabic song. Rabbi David Buzaglo, an early 20th-century master of the Andalusian tradtion, would take these songs and write incredibly deep piyyutim that had great meaning and rhyming but sounded exactly like the Arabic originals. It’s a high, lost art.
A Body of Work
Tepper: You’d think you could pick up Haim Louk’s “greatest hits” in a record store, but the only place you can hear him is YouTube. Anyone with such a body of work should be written about and studied musically. B’ezrat Hashem, that’s what you’ll do.
Avital: He’s an amazing artist, and the fact that there’s nothing out there means a lot. Coming from this tradition, I’m actively trying to make it work; but it’s hard.