And the Twain Shall Meet

'Debka Fantasia' reflects tremendous research, seriousness and cultural commitment, and is also noteworthy because of its near-symphonic sound and emotional impact.

"You do not need many words to describe a country that is torn apart. You need only describe the sounds coming from two of its hills," writes Haaretz journalist Noam Ben-Zeev in his lovely new, thought-provoking book "Mangina Yisraelit" ("An Israeli Tune"). He finds support for his claim in a comment made in 1943 by composer Alexander Uriah Boskovich: "The Galilean landscape is hilly ... An Arab shepherd watches over his herd, playing on his pipe. Across from him is another hill where a Hebrew shepherd sits, also playing on his pipe. Nature, colors, the light are all the same, and both shepherds produce their music on the same primitive instrument, made of a reed. And yet their reactions are different, because each comes from a different spiritual background."

By sheer chance, the publication of Ben-Zeev's book has coincided with the stage revival of "Debka Fantasia." The music featured in this thrilling and compelling series of performances not only illustrates Ben-Zeev's claims, but with sophisticated artistic tools, it attempts to build a bridge over an ethnic rift - if only for a moment, and if only on the stage. Indeed, during a recent performance in Herzliya, that effort was so successful that the rift seemed for a moment to be a mere illusion, a kind of forgivable error of history.

This feeling may paint "Debka Fantasia" in somewhat naive colors, since it ignores very real political injustices, but on the other hand, perhaps it is also a source of optimism, highlighting the power of music and its love to build a bridge over an abyss.

The man behind the project, Yisrael Borochov, originally set out to trace the historical roots of the pioneers of Israeli song - Nachum Nardi and Mordechai Zeira, Moshe Wilensky and Sasha Argov, Emanuel Zamir, Emanuel Amiran and many others - and discovered them in the music of the native-born Arab shepherd. This insight may not be anything new, but Borochov did not stop there: Working with Bedouin musicologist Muhammad Abu Ajaj and jazz musician Omer Avital, he decided to link the pioneering songs to their sources while also infusing them with a new sound. The result, "Debka Fantasia," reflects tremendous research, knowledge, seriousness and cultural commitment, and is also noteworthy in terms of its near-symphonic sound and emotional impact.

Borochov and Avital surrounded themselves, physically and musically, with a young and vibrant array of instrumentalists and vocalists who span various fields and cut across the East-West divide. On the left was the classically trained Israel Contemporary String Quartet; on the right were percussionists Yochai Cohen and Avri Borochov, with Itamar Borochov on the trumpet and Eyal Sela on the wind instruments. Between the groups were two excellent singers, a man and a woman, whose disappearance after these few shows would be a real shame: They were the refined and moving Yigal Mizrahi, and Haya Samir, who returned to the stage as a cross between a truly operatic soprano, and a noble, captivating folk singer (at some moments, it seemed as if we had finally found an heir to the legendary Shoshana Damari).

Among all the performers sat Borochov. Avital, the charismatic giant of the double-bass, was unable to remain seated for more than a few minutes. He alternately roared, walked around, sang, conducted, turned the occasional oud he picked up into a musical weapon, and led the whole ensemble in an evening of creativity, relevance, wisdom and inspiration of unusual beauty - a masterly tribute to tradition, combined with a critical approach and a truly innovative performance.

True, the foundation of the show is nostalgia, or maybe historical research. Borochov and Avital did not stop dressing up well-known Hebrew songs in Middle Eastern maqam modes in order to give authenticity to their insights. Yet it also wasn't enough for them to return a song based on a Bedouin folk tune to its original Arab text. They also imbued these songs with a contemporary validity, using energetic orchestration embodying jazz, pop and contemporary classical musical motifs, as well as older, traditional types of music that do not come from this region - such as that played by Sela on the Kurdish zurna (double-reed wind instrument) or the Gypsy melodies performed by the ensemble.

All these combined to make an evening packed with much information and color. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, the performance was also somehow cohesive, coherent and tight, proving that one's ear can adjust to seemingly impossible juxtapositions and situations - like a composer born in Russia or Hungary learning music anew from a Galilee peasant. Even more than the enthusiasm and talent of the musicians, the strength of the performance could be attributed to the wonderful songs produced by the encounter in the early 1900s, an encounter that was for the most part a missed opportunity.

Those who did not get to see the recent impressive series of performances can look forward to a CD of "Debka Fantasia," which will be available soon. The show's beauty should be preserved there in full, with one exception: Anyone who has not seen Omar Avital onstage in a galabiya, breaking into a wild and uninhibited debka, has never seen a truly euphoric pioneer.