Musicbox Resurrection Redux

Winter 2005. The auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum is packed choc-a-bloc with visitors and all the lights are on, in anticipation of the performance of the theatrical concert "Wedding In Mogador" by the Israel Andalusian Orchestra. The orchestra's director, Moti Malka, wanders around the auditorium as proud as a groom on his wedding day.

Behind the scenes, the virtuoso cantor-poets Emil Zrihan and Ephraim Yegodiav are preparing to go on stage. The atmosphere is brimming with excitement and festivity.

Andalusian music dates back hundreds of years and is classical in every respect - its special musical modes, its scales, the Arabic maqamat, and the tremendous preciseness required for its performance in song and instrument form.

True, the music is not written in notes but is instead imprinted in the memories of the performers, generations of teachers and pupils, musicians and audiences. And it is this music that is about to be played now, in 2005, according to an adaptation by musical director Shmuel Elbaz. This was the orchestra's golden era. In another year, it will win the Israel Prize for resurrecting and preserving a cultural gem.

Winter 2009. Everything has fallen apart. The small hall at the Ashkelon Academic College was also full of visitors last week, and the ambience there was one of festivity and excitement too, but they were mixed with fear and sorrow. Malka was absent, as was Elbaz. The veteran directors remained at home, characterized as hostile to the event. Yagodiav and Zrihan also did not participate.

The Andalusian Orchestra has been shut down, its striking musicians and employees have been dismissed and many of them are now on the verge of poverty. The cultural icon that brought such recognition and esteem is now in danger of extinction. Its golden era, like the golden era in medieval Spain whose musical heritage the orchestra preserved, is likely to come to an end. The concert, called "Bereishit" ("Genesis"), was produced on a completely voluntary basis by dozens of people hoping to bring the orchestra back from the dead.

The evening began with Shira Ohayon, the educational director of the orchestra, reading the opening passages from the book of Genesis. At first it sounded somewhat strange and detached until she gradually put across the message by stressing the passages of the story of creation that were relevant to the new process the orchestra is undergoing.

"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep... Let there be light. And God saw the light that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness."

Then the actor Golan Azulay, who has participated for five years in children's concerts and seen how these are being cancelled one after the other, and who has felt what it is like to have his source of income diminished, continued in the same vein.

"Today is the first day of the month of Nisan, the month of redemption," he said. "And this is our first performance as free men. Let us cross the Red Sea, the sea of oppression," he continued, ending with the song from the Passover Haggadah: "We were slaves, slaves, now we are free men, free men." Oppression and slavery, darkness, chaos, yearning for light, and an exodus to freedom - that is how the members of the orchestra perceive their experiences of the past year and a half since trouble started with management. With this in mind, they are motivated to continue at any price, even without pay; to instill new life in themselves and stand on their own two feet again. Meanwhile, they are receiving help from some local individuals and institutions.

The concert starts. For some reason, perhaps so as to increase the effect, the leaders of the orchestra decided to use amplification, which threatened to spoil the entire event.

With the poor-quality microphones of a meeting hall and without proper mixing, the special sound of this orchestra is destroyed.

Instead of the gentle colors created from blending string instruments with oriental ones like the oud, qanun, and various drums, with the banjo, oboe, flute and contrabass, a dull mixture blasts the ears.

But no one cares because just then Rabbi Haim Louk is on the stage. Born in Casablanca, he is a wonderful performer who moves the audience with his rendering of "Matrouz," alternating between Arabic and Hebrew. After him comes Benjamin Buzaglu, who is only 23 - "the Andalusian answer to Aviv Gefen" as Azulay call him - and he gives an electrifying performance.

He is followed by "the Andalusian Pavaroti", Shimon Saboni with his clear tenor.

Between performances, Yossi Shriki plays his violin - which leans on his thigh rather than on his shoulder, Elias Vakila is on the oud, and Lior Boker plays the guitar. They are all virtuosos of a level that is difficult to find even among Western classicists, and they are conducted by an extremely talented young musician in his own right, Tom Cohen.

It is clear to all that the event must have a happy ending. After all, how can such an important enterprise, of such value to its performers and audience, and to society in general, simply fold? Is it because there is no precedent for the phenomenon where dismissed performers declare their independence, claim ownership of their work place, take the reins into their own hands and in effect dismiss the management in their stead? Or is it only because of the bureaucracy?

This is a challenge to the authorities to find the funds. Let us see how they take up the gauntlet that has been thrown down by the impoverished and hard-working members of the Andalusian orchestra in the name of musical culture.

If someone were to blindfold an average Tel Avivian, fly him secretly to Thessaloniki in Greece, place him in the center of the city and then take off his blindfold, he would not notice the change. At first perhaps he will feel somewhat strange - as if the buildings on Tel Aviv's Levinsky Street have been mixed up with the small buildings of Nahalat Binyamin Street.

But the climate is the same, as are the sounds, the faces, the clothes, the cars and the sea, so he will certainly be convinced that he is still at home. Only the foreign street signs and the language would be likely to give away his actual location.

It is true that part of the similarity to Tel Aviv springs from the desire to find such a similarity because after all, "Salonica is like a net between whose threads anyone can interweave whatever he would like to remember to find a close relationship or a contradiction that will serve as a reminder at any moment." That is how the writer Italo Calvino described Thessaloniki in his book "Invisible Cities."

These words were quoted at the end of last week by the researcher Gila Hadar during an evening celebrating the music of the Jews of Saloniki held at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Hadar and the musicologist Shoshana Weich-Shahak, who specializes in Judeo-Spanish music, gave a lively description of the legendary city.

"Jerusalem of the Balkans" as Saloniki was called at various times, had even more synagogues than the actual Jerusalem. Commerce in the Greek city was conducted in Ladino. The 50,000 Jews, until their expulsion to concentration camps during World War II and the annihilation of almost all of them, were the heart and soul of the city.

They had lived there for 500 years, since the previous expulsion, from Spain, and they had brought with them not only commerce but also music. This was the music that was played by the Me La Amargates Tu music ensemble with authentic baroque instruments that included a viola da gamba, baroque recorders, a baroque guitar and baroque harp.

The young musicians came from Argentina, Chile, Israel, Greece and Mexico, and they were led by the excellent tenor Esteban Manzano. Together with Weich-Shahak, who provided the songs from her music library, they demonstrated how the Ladino repertoire had come from Spain and how it was influenced by Greek urban folk music, Rembetico, by Greek songs such as those of the shepherds, and by music from a 19th century Greek play.

The reciprocal influences between the music in Greece and Turkey and the languages spoken there, between the sounds of the Balkans and the Judeo-Spanish romansas and koplas brought back memories of a rich culture that many people, including young members of the ensemble, are refusing to let die.