Andrew M. Rosemarine, Paris.
With heavenly harmony, Arabs and Jews played Judeo-Arab devotional music at a concert in Paris recently, organised by André Derhy’s Fédération des Associations Sépharades de France and James Cohen’s Centre Rambam. The overwhelming majority of Arabs and Jews can live together peacefully once political differences are put aside. I know, because I have lived among both. So it was gratifying to see the evident warmth emanating from Arab members of the orchestra, to the two hazzanim they were accompanying at the concert.
The Centre Rambam, which radiates Moroccan Jewish culture and Andalusian prayer, is one of the beacons of Sephardi culture in Paris. Its young and dynamic Hazzan, James Cohen, himself half Moroccan, half Egyptian, is open to other traditions. He tells me “It’s important to hear good quality prayer wherever it comes from, even if it’s not our own particular style of prayer.” And so, for the conference’s concert and shabbaton, James invited a star from another firmament – Jerusalem-born Yechiel Nahari, in addition to Casablancan Haim Louk, both giants of their own traditions.
Yechiel flew in especially from Miami, where he leads services during the winter months, spending the rest of the year in the Syrian community in Deal, New Jersey. Yemenites, as is well known to all you Yemeni shul frequenters, have roof-raising vocal equipment, that once brought down the Walls of Jericho. Yechiel, three-quarters Yemenite, rejoices in an astonishingly powerful voice, that lifts off to the Heavens like an Apollo Rocket. He sings in the style of prayer once common in Egypt and Syria, and adds pyrotechnics and shooting stars.
Haim, however, is a Master of the Andalusian tradition, with the passion that flamenco connoisseurs and aficionados of Carmen will recognise. Haim has put his passion to practical use also, for he has eleven children! Both cantors are great showmen, and won over the hearts not only of the packed out concert hall, but also the Muslim musicians in the Andalusian orchestra, from Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere . One of the drummers was so happy, that a smile as broad as North Africa covered his face for much of the evening. Was it because the musical heritage shared with us by Louk and Nahari is also their own inheritance too? For Jewish and Muslim classical culture share the same roots, the two communities living side beside, since the Jews of Yathrib (Medina) welcomed Mohamed to settle among them in 622. The other Muslim musicians played exquisitely, and it was heart-warming to see their fruitful interactions with the soloists and other Jewish musicians. The close collaboration between Louk and Nahari was a mekhaye also. (For none Yiddish speakers, a mekhaye is that kind of joyous experience capable of reviving the dead!)
At a synagogue service at the Centre Rambam on shabbat, these two illustrious cantors were joined by Haim’s nephew Moshe Louk. His voice exudes the bright light of sun-drenched southern Spain, and transported us all into medieval Andalusia, sparkling like the leaping waters from the Alhambra’s fountains, golden like the braid on the toreador’s tunic.
On Friday night, Yechiel and Haim both excelled in the prayer Bameh madlikin (What materials can one use for Shabbat candles?) Indeed Yechiel grew so impassioned that the words exploded in flames, setting alight the whole shul, until the fire service arrived in the person of Fire-Fighter Haim. Haim, the Life-giver, every inch the gentleman fireman, softly smothered the inferno with his charm, and put it out at the words Hamekhabe et haner (He who extinguishes).
Dramatic all-consuming flames had been conquered by quiet charisma. What a clash of styles! What thrilling rejuvenation of a millennia-old Mishnaic text! What a lesson for life! What a wonderful symbol for the prospects of Peace between Arab and Jew!
Copyright Rosemarine 2013