How Shai Tsabari stepped into musical paradise

Shai Tsabari performs ‘Lecha Dodi’ in Krakow in 2014

Brought up in Bat Yam, Shai Tsabari is a well-known Israeli musician of Yemenite origin who has just performed in the US.  He is at the centre of an exciting Israeli musical trend to blend traditional liturgical poetry with modern rock, jazz and Middle Eastern influences. Interview in The Tablet:

Bat Yam has its miseries, but Tsabari’s childhood hardships weren’t
financial. “We lived there for the community,” he said. “In synagogue,
my dad would sit next to his friends from the cheder [religious
school] in Sana’a. Community was very important to him, because
immigrating was so difficult. I grew up feeling that there was us—the
community—and outside there was big, Western Israel. ‘Be careful of
them, they’re wolves, they’ll gobble you up!’”

It was a deeply musical home, though Tsabari did not realize it at the time. His father is a cantor and a mori,
the honorific Yemenite Jews give to those who teach young boys how to
read from the Torah (Yemenite Jews traditionally don’t celebrate Bar
Mitzvahs as the children participate fully in services years before they
hit 13). “He taught me a lot about Yemenite prayer, about the Yemenite
reading of the Torah,” Tsabari said. “It’s a very precise sort of
reading; you can’t make one mistake—of melody or pronunciation—because
everyone is an expert.”

Tsabari’s paternal grandmother was a singer, but not in the typical
sense: She was a mourner for the community. “She would lament the dead.
It’s a freestyle art with its own internal logic,” Tsabari said. “You
console the bereaved until he cries, so that he will get out of his
state of shock.” She would also sing at births, Henna (engagement)
parties and weddings. “It’s a very different sort of singing. In Arabic,
not in Hebrew. She would take a darbuka or a platter, drum on
it with her ring finger or a spoon, find her groove and make up words.
She sang songs about me, how much she loved me, how happy my parents
were when I was born. Or about the bravery of Moshe Dayan and how we won
the Six-Day War!” he said. “She was the best singer I’ve ever heard.
She was complete freedom.”

Shai Tsabari: This is a text from a 1,000-year-old
prayer book, the Saadia Gaon Siddur. Most contemporary Hebrew-speakers
have trouble understanding the words, but there’s something about their
rhythm which is almost like rap and made me want to set them to music.
A-WA, who are really successful in the United States,
sing on this track. We performed in Krakow together. It was their first
time outside of Israel, and they asked me for tips ahead of the show.
Today they could teach me.

After completing his military service at 21, Tsabari began attending
classes at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music north of Tel
Aviv. Only then did he realize how organically musical his childhood
was. But he also realized that the Israeli music scene of the mid-’90s
had little room for his style. His grandmother’s singing, it turned out,
was completely unrelated to Western musical scales he was learning. In
class, he was given modern lyrics to compose a melody to. He sang it as
he would verses from the Torah, complete with the traditional Yemenite
phrasing. “That’s your safe space,” the teacher told him. “Leave it.”
Tsabari felt that that space was his calling. He left the music school
instead.

Tsabari spent his 20s struggling with the desire to make music. He
worked as a cook and a magazine editor, always flirting with music on
the side. Crucially, he worked as an assistant to Nitzan Zeira, head of
the music label Nana Disc. Zeira published albums by some of Israel’s
top recording artists, while Tsabari knew exactly how much milk they
took with their coffee. In 2007, Berry Sakharof, the closest thing to
rock royalty that Israel has, was looking for someone to do back-up
vocals for a project he was working on with the musician Rea Mochiach.
Called Adumey Hasefatot, or Red Lips, it was an
evening of poetry by Solomon ibn Gabirol, set to music by Sakharof and
Mochiach. Zeira recommended Tsabari, who showed up for a week of
rehearsals.

“That week changed my life,” Tsabari told me. “It was like opening a
door and stepping into paradise. I was working with world class
musicians on real Jewish avant-garde.” The trend of rock musicians
using piyutim – classic Jewish liturgical poetry – whether as raw material or inspiration was at its height by that point. Red Lips
took the trend to the next level, fusing rock, jazz and a thousand
flavors of Middle Eastern music into the mix for what was to become a
landmark concert tour and album.

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2 Comments

  • Saadia Gaon or Ibn Gevirol?

    שלמה אבן גבירול / سليمان ابن جبيرول
    שלום לך דודי
     
    שָׁלוֹם לְךָ דּוֹדִי הַצַּח וְהָאַדְמוֹן
     שָׁלוֹם לְךָ מֵאֵת רַקָּה כְמוֹ רִמּוֹן
    לִקְרַאת אֲחוֹתַךְ רוּץ צֵא נָא לְהוֹשִׁיעָהּ
     וּצְלַח כְּבֶן יִשַּׁי רַבַּת בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן
    מַה לָּךְ יְפֵהפִיָּה כִּי תְעוֹרְרִי אַהֲבָה
     וּתְצַלְצְלִי קוֹלֵךְ כִּמְעִיל בְּקוֹל פַּעֲמוֹן
    הָעֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּחְפֹּץ אַהֲבָה אֲחִישֶׁנָּה
     עִתָּהּ וְעָלַיִךְ אֵרֵד כְּטַל חֶרְמוֹן.

    O, peace to you, my love, so pure and ruddy!
      O, peace to you from her with cheeks of pomegranate —
    Towards your sister run, hasten you to save her
      And triumph like the son of Jesse o’er Ammon’s Rabbah
    Wherefore, lovely girl, do you try to waken Love
      And make your voice ring out, cloaked in sounds of bells?
    The moment Love desires I’ll draw near you with all speed
      And pour myself upon you like the dews of Mount Hermon.

    Reply

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