Mediterranean Orchestra Scales Arabian Heights

You don't need to understand the language to marvel at the music in a tribute to Moroccan singer Samy Elmaghribi.

The Mediterranean Orchestra's concert tribute to one of the greatest Moroccan singers of the 20th century, Samy Elmaghribi, is proof that you can be moved without understanding the words. At the end of the concert, an elderly man from the audience approached Liz Maman, Samy's granddaughter. "This was a splendid concert," he said. "Many thanks to all of you. I have just one comment: You should have said that Samy was born in Safi. I was born there, too, and had hoped you would mention it. Try not to forget at the next concert."

Maman promised the gentleman that she would speak to those in charge. She thanked him for his compliments, which were spot-on. It really was a splendid concert - a beautiful, sweeping tribute to someone who is not remembered on the Israeli cultural scene, despite the fond memories Moroccan immigrants have of his songs.

Salomon Amzallag, who took the stage name Samy Elmaghribi, was born in 1922. Members of the Andalusian orchestra say he was one of the great Moroccan singers of the 20th century. He left Morocco for Paris in the late 1950s, later moving to Montreal. In the 1980s and 1990s he lived and worked in Israel, but in his later years returned to Montreal, where he died in 2008.

Elmaghribi performed traditional Moroccan music, but also sang and composed lighter works. In his later years his music combined religious and secular themes. His greatest hit, "Omri Ma Ninsak" - which was also the title of the Mediterranean Orchestra's tribute concert - is familiar to people who have never heard of the singer.

The tune, written by Elmaghribi himself, was adopted in the 1970s by the Israeli groups Tzlilei Hakerem and Tzlilei Ha'oud in the song "Be'zochrei Yamim Yemima" ("Remembering Days from Long Ago"), one of the seminal works of Mizrahi music in Israel, the music reflecting the tradition of Jews of Middle Eastern descent.

It would be impossible to comprehensively describe the full gamut of music that the orchestra performed, but even those unfamiliar with it previously would have surely felt the verve, essence and free-but-cohesive style that marks the best of the Mizrahi ensembles.

The Mediterranean Orchestra was conducted by Meir Briskman, but it appeared the principal authority on stage was the wonderful violinist Yossi Shriki (who was also music editor for the evening). During one song, when soloist Emil Zrihan began improvising on the melody with his amazing voice, Briskman was about to have the orchestra join in. But Shriki gave him a slight nod of the head, signaling "Wait a minute. Let the audience enjoy a bit more of this wonderful embellishment," and Briskman assented.

Zrihan, whose glass-breaking operatic voice is familiar to anyone who has attended the orchestra's concerts, was just one of four soloists performing at the concert. It was also an absolute pleasure to hear Benjamin Bouzaglo and Albert Gigi for the first time. Gigi, who had been a student of Elmaghribi's, sang in a soft, deep and delicate manner, while the young Bouzaglo stormed the microphone with a passion that seemed almost at variance with the restrained ethos of male Andalusian song.

In the first few seconds, he seemed exaggerated in his manner. As soon as he opened his mouth, though, it was clear that everything would be all right. His singing was marvelous, his voice sharp and lean. His frenetic style as a performer was deeply grounded in musicality, and the stirring rendition of the text created the impression that he was living the songs he was singing. Even without understanding a word of the Moroccan Arabic, I believed every sentence out of his mouth.

The Mediterranean Orchestra will repeat this wonderful concert on Tuesday January 8 at the concert hall in Yavneh, and again next month in Kiryat Gat.

Ilan Assayag