Magic in the Air

Nekudat Mifgash unites two groups of veteran musicians. This joint ensemble is the fulfillment of musician Shlomo Bar's dream: a group that performs songs composed by poets, in styles that combine ethnic elements with Western music.

In Shlomo Bar's rehearsal space near Herzliya, it seems as if the members of Nekudat Mifgash have known each other for years, even though they only began playing together six months ago. "Did you know these strings are made of catgut?" says bassist Miki Shaviv, as he strums on an exotic instrument one of many in Bar's musical temple. Drummer Meir Israel seems apathetic. A bottle of homemade arak is passed around.

Nekudat Mifgash unites two groups of veteran musicians. One is the Habrera Hativeet trio: soloist Bar, guitarist Ilan Ben-Ami and poet-percussionist Yael Offenbach. The second group comprises Shaviv, drummer Meir Israel and keyboardist Adi Rennert. Their joint ensemble, due to debut on January 9 at Zappa Herzliya, is the fulfillment of Shlomo Bar's dream: a group that performs songs composed by poets, in styles that combine ethnic elements with Western music.

"We have known each other and have had a high regard for one another for years, but there wasn't any real collaboration between us," explains Bar about the six musicians. "Each of us comes from a different world; together we are knitting together different musical bits. This encounter gives birth to the most interesting things, with Hebrew texts being at the core."

The concept of placing language at the center, and putting poetry to music, is not new for Habrera Hativeet, but "we've pushed it to an extreme here," adds Bar.

"It's true, because here there is a meeting of more things; each one of us has his own style," says Israel. Although the styles trickle one into the other, it can be said that Israel is the rocker, Shaviv the blues musician, while Rennert adds the jazz.

Israel, who was in the rock band Tamouz and since the mid-1980s has performed with Shlomo Artzi and others, recalls a formative and emotional experience about 30 years ago, at a sunrise concert at Masada a performance that sowed the seeds of the collaborative effort that is now germinating.

"Samson [Khamkar] passed away a few years ago," says Israel, referring to Habrera Hativeet's Indian-born violinist, with whom he says he had a deep connection. "I saw Shlomo at his funeral, which maybe made him consider playing with me again."

"I had already gotten to know Miki, who Meir brought to play with us, through his wife, [singer] Mika Karni," says Bar.

"The truth is that it is Meir who is responsible for my return to Israel ,after my big exile to America," says Shaviv, looking at Bar. "I remember him from [the TV show] 'Zehu Zeh,' when he made a cameo appearance and I played in the [show's backup] band. He was young back then, with a stormy and sharp-tongued temperament. At the time, there were two truly harsh musicians in Israel, him and Shmulik Kraus ".Bar smiles and mutters, "Ahhh, yes, the rage period," and everyone laughs.

"Kraus," Shaviv adds, "was the Israeli response to Western pop. In the other corner was Shlomo Bar, waving the flag of ethnicity and authenticity. I remember he came up to me during the TV show, and I was certain he was about to yell: 'What is this, what is this shit you guys are playing?' But he came up and said, 'I love you.' For me, Nekudat Mifgash is an opportunity. But I am on the sidelines in Shlomo's project. "

In any event, most of the lyrics of their songs were written by poets, including Haim Nahman Bialik and Esther Raab. In addition, a text based on classical Arab poetry from "Tales from the Thousand and One Nights" was put to music with lyrics translated into Hebrew (the song was originally performed by the famed singer Umm Kalthum). Two songs were written by Yael Offenbach ("Low Clouds" and "Da-Re"); others are culled from the solo careers of other members, including Ben-Ami's "Ships," Shaviv's "Sane of War" and Israel's "Right Before Her Eyes."

"There are no liturgical poems in the playlist," says Offenbach, "and there aren't any typically Jewish texts. For example, the text of 'The Night Drips Gold' by Yosef Tzvi Rimon, who was a great poet revered by religious and secular Jews alike, is lyrical, not religious per se: 'The night drips gold / I will fall asleep under the apple tree / I will dream love.'"

Asymmetrical and unpredictable

Asymmetry characterizes Shlomo Bar's vocals and instrumentals. He is also unpredictable and that is what fascinates and challenges the Western-oriented half of Nekudat Mifgash. Offenbach and Ben-Ami, who've been playing together for over 20 years, helped the others learn how to work with him.

"Shlomo relies heavily on the untamed nature of music; that is what provides the harmonic movement," explains Shaviv. "This is very foreign to the world of Western music. These are elements some people would say are astonishing, even though they have no idea how to listen to or understand them, and certainly not how to play them. Sometimes this creates discomfort, because it catches you unprepared. But that's what elicits the emotion. "

"From the start, there was magic in the air," Israel comments about the new ensemble. "We came here with no objective, simply to jam. I realized already at the first rehearsal that I needed the text in front of me, because that is what determines the course of events. "

Shaviv, who has played with numerous musicians and in the bands Tango and Charisma (along with Meir Ariel), says that in the first rehearsal, "I looked at Meir and Ilan with a question mark in my eyes, and both pointed at Shlomo,saying, 'That is where you should be looking.'"

Rennert, who was a member of the army's Armored Corps band and went on to play with the likes of Arik Einstein, Shlomo Idov and Gidi Gov, agrees: "You have to stick close to Shlomo, get to know the songs, the words, because in the way he sings, there is always something that is constantly changing. "

This is how Shlomo Bar has always operated; he admits he doesn't know where he is going with the music. "When you know where you are going," Bar says, "you are a clerk, not a musician. "

Israel says he's used to jam sessions in which "you start playing but don't know what. Here, we are doing the same thing through Shlomo. He takes us to all sorts of places. "

"His expressions are what guide us," Shaviv adds. "You have to watch him. With him, you cannot be careless, apathetic or asleep. We are satellites and he is the mother ship."

Shaviv and Israel note that iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis had a similar modus operandi with his band. These dynamics were problematic in the preliminary stage of musical communication between the members of Nekudat Mifgash.

Bar: "Miki said, 'I will play what I want to play, when I want to play, and it will come out right, "But I was against it. I asked Ilan for help. "

"They are guests in our world," says Ben-Ami about Shaviv, Israel and Rennert.

"I and Yael are links in this chain ... At the beginning we threw out ideas, rough drafts. Afterward we started to sand them down with increasingly less coarse sandpaper

"People talk about certain jazz styles as being free, but free of what? ... We are not playing jazz here. We are accompanying music that is very characteristic, the style of Shlomo is very distinctive, and we want to bring ourselves into it."

Ben-Ami notes that all of the texts they perform were already set to music (most of them by Bar), but that the new, unified band has come up with original musical arrangements and execution. Until now, the liveliest debate among the members revolved around the concept of music serving the words, but not the meaning of the songs. Furthermore, by and large, the group's members were unfamiliar with the poems chosen by Bar.

"There are some amazing texts," says Israel. "You cannot deny the power of the poems. "

"Shlomo tells us at certain points in a text that we have to 'humanize' them through our playing," says Shaviv. "In other words, personify the words."

Adds Israel: "There are places where we play in a way that in Shlomo's opinion does not adequately complement the text."

Bar laughs: "I have never once in my life said the word 'personify. '"

In the song "Question and Answer," a poem by Avigdor Hameiri which the band put to music, there is a discernible reference to the social protests of the summer of 2011. "The purpose of poetry is not only to bring about prosaic satisfaction, but also to ask questions," Bar explains. "Until the social demonstrations, I was beginning to think we were a sterile people. "

Some of the texts are also very spiritual; some have a religious element. At first, Shaviv says he had a very hard time with that, because he maintains a certain distance from religion: "It turns out that a sudden acceptance of belief makes my home collapse around me. I cannot explain it, and you'll have to excuse me for this show of apostasy, but at age 60, I am a prisoner of my beliefs. "

Nevertheless, Shaviv adds that as opposed to other contexts in his life, with Bar he is capable of speaking about God. For his part, Rennert says he experiences spirituality thanks to Bar: "I have never heard him say anything that is coercive or restrictive. The first impulse of [some] musicians is to be opened up to spirituality, [although] in the past few years, there has been great contempt for the word 'spirituality.' But I can easily imagine Bar setting up a band with a priest or Buddhist lama."

Nir Kafri
Daniel Hakim