Psalms, Makamas and All That Jazz

The Ras Deshen duo is one of the best things that has happened to Israeli jazz, and maybe to Israeli music in general, in recent years.

The Ras Deshen duo is one of the best things that has happened to Israeli jazz, and maybe to Israeli music in general, in recent years. The encounter between saxophonist Abate Barihon, who immigrated from Ethiopia six years ago, and Jerusalem pianist Yitzhak Yedid, has given rise to a surprising and tempestuous combination of jazz, African music and modern classical music.

One of the exciting parts of the performances of the pair in the last three years, and in its debut album released last year, is an Ethiopian Jewish prayer, which Abate Barihon sings in a way that movingly illustrates the African roots of blues and Gospel. "Both we and our audience felt a very strong connection with this piece," says Yedid. "And when we thought about what to do in our next program, we decided to focus on passages from the prayers, and specifically on prayers from Psalms. One can find a very strong symbolic connection between them and the Ethiopian aliyah [immigration] to Israel."

That was the origin of the work "Mizmorei Tehillim - Hodu Lashem Ki Tov" (Psalms - Give thanks to the Lord for He is Good), which will debut tomorrow at the Zionist Confederation House in Jerusalem - a strong supporter of Ras Deshen from the beginning.

Abate Barihon, Yitzhak Yedid and singer and voice artist Esti Kenan-Ofri, who has joined the two, based the new work on recording of Ethiopian kesim (religious leaders), which can be found in the National Sound Archives on Givat Ram. The recordings of the kesim served as raw material, from which the members of the group created original music. "We preferred to stay away from the original renditions, because if we had recited the prayers exactly like the kesim, there was a fear that they would be insulted," says Yedid.

`Playing around'

"Mizmorei Tehillim" is a type of suite with nine sections that are performed in sequence. Each of the three musicians was responsible for several sections, and their work methods were very varied.

Abate Barihon composed original melodies, and to them added texts from Psalms sung in Amharic. Yedid based himself on the melodies and the scales of the kesim, but "played around with them" as he puts it, added new melodies to them, and sometimes gave them a more modern slant. Kenan-Ofri also "played around" with the prayers of the kesim, and added melodies of her own and musical colors taken from her field of expertise - vocal music from the Islamic countries.

"We did the adaptations together," says Yedid, "and in my opinion, the result is very open and flowing music, with many hues." As an example he mentions one of the sections, which begins with a recitation of a part of a prayer in Amharic, after which Kenan-Ofri does the same text in Hebrew, while improvising the music on the basis of makamas (an old form of Arabic poetry). Later the vocal performance makes way for an instrumental improvisation by Abate Barihon, Yedid and the contrabassist Ora Boazson-Horev. Also participating in the performance will be drummer Tegan Zeneba and dancer Tazata, "whose dance pieces are very alluring and sensual," says Yedid.

After the debut in Jerusalem, "Mizmorei Tehillim" will be performed twice more - on Shabbat at Tzavta in Tel Aviv and next Thursday at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa.