Israeli Instrumental Albums Strike Multiple Chords

A listener who wishes to give the language center of his brain a rest while he enjoys instrumental music will be gratified by two fine new CDs.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Israeli music sometimes acts as if it were a branch of Israeli literature. Texts, texts, texts. Are the lyrics in some Mizrahi music utter rubbish? Why do three-quarters of the indie singers around here sing in English, and not in their mother tongue? These are interesting questions by all accounts, but the excessive preoccupation with them reflects the problematic tendency of local pop music - and of the public discourse that surrounds it - to focus on verbal, rather than musical, content.

For music aficionados who listen first of all to the sound, the beat, the melody, the harmony, the dynamics, this tendency toward over-verbalism can be especially upsetting. How delighted we would be to listen occasionally to Israeli musicians who tell their story without opening their mouths, solely through sounds. In bumper-sticker terms, we're talking about musicians who get "sentimental over instrumental."

Yair Yona. His starting point is still thoughtful instrumental blues.Credit: Noa Magar

So here are two new albums that have just that quality: "World Behind Curtains," from guitarist Yair Yona, and "The Tel Aviv Session," a collaboration between Vieux Farka Toure, a Malian guitarist, and Idan Raichel. These two albums differ from each other in many respects, but a listener who wishes to give the language center of his brain a rest while he listens to music will find that the CDs also have quite a bit in common. In a rather odd way, this shared essence is reflected also in the two album covers: Though the details are completely different, both have a similar general format - both are colored a shade of beige with a black stain in the middle. Interesting.

"World Behind Curtains" is Yair Yona's second album. His first disc, "Remember," consisted entirely of acoustic guitar music and contained thoughtful bluesy bits that sounded like they were taken from another place, another time, another existence. Much as I tried, however, I did not manage to get sucked into that existence, even during a live performance. It seemed as though Yona had adopted a highly specific musical aesthetic, but while he seemed to be well versed in it, he still didn't create an interesting voice.

Now Yona's second CD is out, and what fun it is to discover that his voice (in the sense of a musical-artistic statement - there is no singing on this album ) has grown very sophisticated. The nucleus of his music remains unchanged - the starting point is still the thoughtful instrumental blues - but the development of the bluesy phrases has become rich, interesting, subtle, full of color and branching out, with nods to parallel musical universes, some of them even Israeli.

On one track, "Kottke and the Orchids" (an homage to American blues guitarist Leo Kottke ), I heard clear influences of Ehud Banai's guitar playing, and not in its bluesy moments but rather the Oriental ones.

The loveliest thing on Yona's album is his patience. Every piece has a narrative, and a sense of development. We begin with a certain melody, suddenly the landscape shifts and another melody pops up, later a complementary melody joins in, and then the guitar moves to the background, and wonderful string and wind instruments come to the fore - and we return to the original melody but only in preparation for the arrival of another, richer one. And all this is woven together with great delicacy, wisdom, and at times even vision.

On rare occasions the music loses some of its melodic vitality, and sounds like a harmonic base waiting for a song that never shows up. And sometimes it seems like Yona's rhythmic sense could have been a bit more flexible and developed. But these are negligible criticisms. "World Behind Curtains" is a very beautiful album.

Raichel surprises

"Tel Aviv Sessions," the new CD featuring Vieux Farka Toure and Idan Raichel, was recorded when Taure - a superb guitarist, and son of one of the greatest African musicians of recent decades, Ali Farka Toure - visited Israel about a year and a half ago. Taure appeared in the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center's World Music series, for which Raichel serves as artistic consultant, and the duo took advantage of the opportunity to record an instrumental album, with local bassist Yossi Fine, Malian percussionist Souleymane Kane, and several guest performers.

I admit that my expectations from the encounter between Raichel and the Malian guitarist and percussionist were not particularly high. Raichel's songs generally meander about in a cautious, square, dull way; they are not energetic or dynamic. Indeed, this is his greatest downside, in my opinion, and in a situation of spontaneous jamming, like the one in which the new album was recorded, I assumed this disadvantage would surely stand out. At best, I thought, Raichel's contribution will pale in comparison to that of the two excellent African musicians; at worst, he will make them play beneath their usual standard.

I was completely wrong: Raichel emerges in this album as not only a good musician, but also as one who knows how to listen and to improvise. And the other main musicians offer a feast for the ears: Taure's twisting guitar phrases; the percussionist Kane's wonderful, subtle taps (so tiny that it sometimes sounds as though he were playing with toothpicks ); Fine's flexible and dynamic bass.

In utter contrast to Yair Yona's music, which always has a sense of linear development, the pieces on this album are more circular. Evidence of this development is not found in every piece, but rather in the transition from one track to another; throughout the album there is a wide enough range of tempos and moods to leave the ear primed and intrigued.

Speaking of Raichel and musicians from Mali, the fantastic vocalist Oumou Sangare is coming to Israel late next month to perform as part of this year's World Music series. Sangare was supposed to appear here at the end of last year, but had to cancel because of illness. Let us hope that this time she will arrive as planned, because her performance should be something that is not to be missed by any means.