A Musical Calling

The father of Yemenite song in Israel, Aharon Amram, has devoted his life to preserving his people's heritage. And he's not about to stop now

In the early 1960s at the legendary Olympia music hall in Paris, there was a performance to raise money for victims of the earthquake that had struck Agadir, Morocco, in 1960. Some of the greatest French singers, including Charles Aznavour, took part, and Israel was represented by the Hapa'amonim dance troupe and singer Aharon Amram.

Daniel Tchetchik

"All the singers performed with their orchestras, and when my turn came the stage director approached and asked where mine was," says Amram. "I told him, 'I don't have an orchestra.' He didn't understand. He asked, 'So who's accompanying you?' I said, 'Nobody, I perform alone.' Then he said, 'This is the Olympia. Are you sure you want to go onstage alone?'

"Imagine, going onstage alone after Charles Aznavour and his orchestra. I sang one of my songs and was applauded. When I left the stage, the director came and said 'I didn't think you would do it, but I was wrong. It was wonderful.'"

Anyone familiar with the voice of Amram, though of by many as the father of Yemenite singing in Israel, can imagine how he captivated the thousands of spectators at the Olympia. But despite his tremendous influence on generations of Yemenite singers and his role in preserving the musical heritage of that community, and although he wrote several songs that are now part of the Israeli "songbook" (like "Galbi," famous in Ofra Haza's rendition ), most Israeli music lovers have never even heard of him.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there were two rare opportunities to see and hear Aharon Amram. One was the opening of the Piyyut Festival, which was devoted to the Yemenite piyyut (liturgical poem ), at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem (Avner Gadassi, Gila Bashari, Lea Avraham and Ravid Kahalani also performed ). The other event featured Amram as a soloist in a concert at the Jerusalem Theater, part of the Israeli Music Celebration, which brought new works by young composers, written specifically to accompany piyyutim, together with a symphony orchestra .

One of the composers, Hai Meirzadh, wrote "Ayin Velev Yahdav" ("Eye and Heart Together" ) especially for Amram. "I don't come from the world of Yemenite music; at home I listened to Persian music," says Meirzadh, 30. "When I met Amram, he gave me a tremendous number of recordings, and I simply sat, listened and was fascinated by the quality of his voice, the unique melodies, the power. I chose two songs that Amram composed and sang [with text by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi], and wrote the work on the basis of his rendition. I actually suited the work to the melodies in a very precise way."

"Then we met to work on the performance, and when I asked him to sing the songs I was very upset. He sang them in a completely different way. I stopped him and said, 'Aharon, go back 30 years. Sing the way you did on the recordings.' And he did. But that shows you something about the guy. This is a singer who didn't stagnate. He's not interested in singing the same thing all the time. He renews himself and changes. A real artist."

Amram's previous encounter with the world of classical music took place about 60 years ago. Now in his early seventies ("We Yemenites don't have exact dates," he says ), he was a young boy at the time. He had recently immigrated to Israel with his family, but his singing talent had already been discovered by MK Yisrael Yeshayahu, later a Knesset speaker and postal minister, who encouraged him to study at the conservatory in Tel Aviv.

"I used to travel there twice a week from Rosh Ha'ayin," says Amram. "I studied solfege, Italian arias, classical song. I did well, but there was a problem. Let's say I attended a lesson on Sunday. I performed the aria as the teacher wanted, but when I came back on Wednesday, I would sing it differently, the teacher didn't understand. She said: 'Aharon, you sang excellently on Sunday, why are you singing something else now?'

"That's how it went until she asked what I did when I wasn't studying with her. I said, 'I sing at events. Weddings, bar mitzvahs.' 'What do you sing?' she asked. I said: 'I sing in Yemeni Arabic.'

"She asked me to show her, and when I did she put her head in her hands. She said: 'You know, those are two totally different types of singing. In opera you open your mouth, and now you're showing me that in Yemenite singing you sing with your mouth almost closed. You have to decide - either you're going in the direction of Yemenite singing or you're focusing on classical singing. Take two weeks to think, and come back to me with an answer."

Amram thought about it and decided to choose Yemenite singing, although the Israeli culture of the 1950s belittled that genre. "It wasn't the direction of the radio broadcasters, or of the Jewish people in general," he says. "But I continued."

When he is asked why, Amram picks up a recently published collection of his songs, "Shirim Eshorer" ("I will write poems" ), and reads from the introduction: "I don't want to say anything bad about Israel, but I could not rest when I saw that the heritage of my great love, which I had brought with me from Yemen, was gradually disappearing, abandoned by its young people who should have continued it."

Do you understand them, your contemporaries who immigrated to Israel and shrugged off their ancestral heritage?

Amram: "Of course I understand. They were ashamed. They said, 'No, forget it, why are you going to the old things? That was in Yemen, it's not suitable for here.'"

Amram was not the only singer to preserve the musical heritage of Yemenite Jewry. The ethnomusicologist Prof. Uri Sharvit, who 30 years ago published the pioneering book "A Treasury of Jewish Yemenite Chants," mentions, for example, singer Yehiel Adaqi, who came before Amram and co-edited the book.

But Amram did something no one had done before. He sang in the most authentic way, and was also the first to record Yemenite music using instruments from outside its tradition. According to this tradition, the singer accompanies himself by beating on a tin drum. Amram was the first to record Yemenite music with a guitar, violin, qanoun [a kind of zither], trumpet, trombone and percussion instruments.

"On Israel Radio [programs] for Yemenite immigrants, they didn't want to broadcast it," says Amram. "They said that authentic Yemenite music is only with tin. But that's not true. After all, we left here 2,500 years ago with the music of the Levites, and which instruments were used in the Temple? The kinor [a string instrument], the trumpet, as well as the gitit and sheminit. To this day we don't know how these instruments sound. After 2,500 years we restored the singing of the Levites to Israel, so why not play it with the original instruments?"

The pioneers of Mizrahi (North African and Middle Eastern) music, who started their careers in the the 1970s, grew up on Amram's songs. "He performed at my older sister's wedding, I think in 1966," recalls Rami Danoch, the soloist of the Sounds of the Oud band. "I remember being next to the stage, watching him admiringly. He was the ambassador of Yemenite music, and his singing was very aristocratic. In the style of San'a."

"Aharon Amram is the Israel Prize," says Yair Harel, an expert on piyyut and artistic director of the Piyyut Festival. "It's a one-man preservation project. He's a renaissance man: a composer, a poet, a wonderful singer of course, a wild drummer, by the way - ask any Yemenite drummer, everyone follows in his footsteps. And in addition to all those things, he is also a researcher who has carried out a tremendous project of documentation and recording. It's amazing to think how one person can make such a great contribution to the preservation and teaching and continuity of his culture. I don't understand how he had the strength to do it."

Amram makes a total distinction between Yemenite music and Mizrahi music. "When they place me in the category of Mediterranean music, I say: If any sea, I'm a Red Sea singer. My origins are not in the Middle East. There is Yemenite song that stands on its own. It belongs neither to East nor to West. It's entirely different."

"Sounds of the Oud," for example - isn't their music influenced by Yemenite music?

"What are you talking about? 'Hanale Hitbalbela' (Hanna got confused ), is that a Yemenite song? That's Mizrahi music. Where did the Sounds of the Oud come from? They were born in the Kerem [Kerem Hateimanim, a neighborhood in Tel Aviv]. What do they have to do with Yemenite music? There's no contact."

They were born in Kerem Hateimanim but have no connection to Yemenite music?

"There's no connection. When they sat together in the Kerem, what did they sing? Songs of Eretz Israel. They're native Israelis, and Israeli song was imprinted in them. It's true that they sang the songs of Eretz Israel with a Yemenite color, but that's not Yemenite music. Their parents did not bequeath Yemenite music to them."

Why didn't they?

"What do you mean why? Because they came to a different world, a new world. They didn't want to remember the past."

Admired by Zohar Argov

For many years Amram was the only one who sang authentic Yemenite music in a modern way, with modern instruments and original melodies. In the late 1970s additional singers appeared, a generation younger than he. Amram mentions Zion Golan, Moti Nahari, Moshe Giat, Gila Bashari and Aharon Yarimi. "I served as a model for them," says Amram, "I taught them not to be ashamed."

Zohar Argov admired Amram, and before he became famous, when he was still working as a plasterer, he would wait for the older singer before performances in Rishon Letzion and Tel Aviv and ask to be taken onstage. "At first I hesitated," says Amram, "but when I brought him up for the first time I was very impressed by him and I told him: 'Every time you come I'll bring you onstage, because I see something in you.' After he became a star he asked me to write a song for him. I told him: 'If you go back to being Zohar of the transit camp and the neighborhood, if you stop with the drugs and the issues, I'm willing to write a song for you.' He kept on asking, and in the end I wrote him the song 'Ahavat Ra'aya Retzouni' [The love of Ra'aya Retzouni].'"

In the mid-1980s, one of Amram's songs, "Galbi," became an international hit in a rendition by Ofra Haza (this was several years after Izhar Cohen took the same melody and turned it into a song in English). When Amram is asked if his financial situation improved thanks to the tremendous success of the song, he smiles bitterly. "Many people told me at the time: 'Look how your song has caught on, you must have become rich from it.' Far from it. But let's forget about that. The fact that people listen to 'Galbi' gives me satisfaction."

Amram continues: "I did my work modestly. There were many temptations. 'Expand into a wider territory, get into Mizrahi music.' I wasn't tempted. They also suggested that I sing Farid El Atrash, because the color of my voice is identical to his. I wasn't tempted into that either."

Why not?

"Because I considered what I do a calling, as though I was created just for that. I have a direction in life and I'm not leaving it."