Uncovering Hidden Treasures

It is no wonder that Jill Rogoff is so interested in intercultural differences.

Haggai Hitron
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Haggai Hitron

It is no wonder that Jill Rogoff is so interested in intercultural differences. Her father was born in the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw, her mother was born in New Zealand, and her mother's parents came from England. She was born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand and came to Jerusalem in 1979, where she has lived since.

Her vast and varied repertoire includes songs in English, French, the Celtic languages, Ladino and even some Arabic and Persian. She accompanies herself on lap harp, guitar, and a few percussion instruments. Rogoff's musical interests include the medieval period, the Renaissance, 18th-century Scotland, and the Golden Age of Jews in Spain. Like many of her colleagues who study such music, she is an investigative singer. She is motivated by more than just an urge to perform. She strives to uncover hidden musical treasures and to share her discoveries with others.

Heart, soul, and gut

Jill Rogoff, a married mother of two, left the land of her birth because of the sense that she would only truly develop elsewhere. "I left one of the most beautiful places in the world, a land that looks like the scenes in the movie `The Lord of the Rings.' But I had to leave to become truly myself."

Folk music and multicultural music are family traditions. Rogoff inherited her singing talent from her parents. Her father earned his living as a tailor, but played accordion for pleasure. Rogoff remembers her parents' tendency to connect with foreigners.

"My father and mother really collected friends," she says. "They liked to get to know people of different cultures, and they influenced me and my sisters to do the same. One could say that we learned to admire difference. Not to fear difference - but to wonder at it. Until I was 18, I thought that everyone was that way - that they loved the other."

Rogoff is still enchanted by the multifaceted nature of human culture, and by the rich array of pronunciations, pauses, and emphases inherent in different languages. Rogoff performs in more than 30 languages from the Celtic family of languages, alone. In addition to exotic Celtic tongues known mainly in language preservation circles, like Irish, Scottish, Manx (from the Isle of Man), Cymraeg (from Wales), Cornish (from Cornwall), and Breton (from Brittany in France), Rogoff sings in German, Spanish, French, a bit of Czech, a bit of Arabic, Yiddish, some Persian, Kurdish, and, of course, English, her mother tongue. Her Hebrew is fluent, but she only performs in Hebrew in concerts overseas. "I'm not trying to add water to the sea here."

Her repertoire spans a 1,000 years, but the Baroque period is not a part of her expertise. "The style does not suit someone like me," she explains, "who always sings with all her soul, gut, and heart."

Ladino and Dowland, too

In recent years Rogoff has been engaged in a passionate affair with Ladino and the culture that it represents. The tradition, called "Sephardi" in English, is now an integral part of her programs. She has also begun to flirt seriously with a completely different world, songs by John Dowland, accompanied by lute.

Jill Rogoff's style does not suit large auditoriums. Her clear, soft soprano is natural rather than operatic. Hers is a voice best expressed in limited spaces like the Crusader's Church in Abu Gosh. Rogoff avoids artificial amplification. She is concerned that mechanical distortion might damage the intimate impression of her art.

She leaves Israel annually to appear in concerts abroad. The market for international folk songs is quite limited in Israel, and most of her performances here are in private homes. Rogoff's programs always present a panorama: "It is important to me to show the audience that human concerns may be expressed very differently around the globe, but that the concerns are really the same."

Even experienced singers continue to receive lessons and advice from avid instructors. Rogoff studied singing with Judy Axelrod in Jerusalem, and interned with tenor Neil Jenkins and early music expert Anthony Rooley. Her current coach is soprano Poppy Holden, who teaches in London and conducts the annual Czech Early Music Festival. "This isn't voice development. I learned enough of that from Judy. I really never wanted to become an opera singer. In my opinion, some of the special color and personality that is so important in folk songs is lost when the resonance is improved. For example, I admire New Zealand singer Kiri Te Kanawa, but I think that when she sings the folk songs of our common homeland, she sounds too professional and international - not authentic enough."

Beauty born of defeat

Jill Rogoff's love of folk music began with hearing a Jacobite song, "The Skye Boat Song," which was the first Scottish she heard in her life.

The Jacobites tried to return the descendants of James VII, the Catholic king, to the throne. The king's heir James II (the Duke of York) was deposed in the 17th Century (1688) when his own daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange were invited to rule. The Jacobite Uprisings, which continued for 60 years after the deposition, ended in a total collapse and in a massacre, in 1746, led by the notorious "Butcher of Cumberland," who later prohibited the wearing of the kilt on pain of death. The hill-dwelling Jacobites scattered throughout Scotland, and their leader was spirited off to the Isle of Skye dressed in the costume of a female servant.

Curiosity about the sounds of ancient languages, some almost extinct, are a great concern to Rogoff. This became a crucial factor when she attended an early music workshop in Languedoc, France three years ago. Two French singers from Brittany participated. They planned to include the explanation of songs in Breton, in addition to French, in the closing concert. "When they announced this intention to the workshop director, a Jew from the U.S., he absolutely forbid them to speak Breton. His peculiar excuse was that it is not an officially recognized language in France. When I heard about this, I got mad, and I actually incited the women to do it. So they spoke a little in Breton, and it was translated. The audience was very enthusiastic. In general, since I heard from people in Ireland that they were beaten as children when they dared to speak their ancient Celtic language, I stand up for people's right to preserve their culture."



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