WOMADelaide 2017 Exclusive Interview: The Piyut Ensemble

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-7-35-53-pmThe Piyut Ensemble. Photo credit: OLAMALÉ

WOMADelaide 2017 brings you the Piyut Ensemble. They are a 14-piece group, with a sound inspired by synagogue melodies and Jewish Liturgical poetry from North Africa and the Middle East. These two influences are blended with their own international musical experiences, creating an original and entrancing style. Collage seized at the opportunity to interview Yair Harel about the formation of the ensemble, and their transformation into a respected form of artwork taking them around the world to Australia.

Q: Being such a dynamic and diverse group of people, how is it that you all found each other to form this ensemble?

A: This is part of an existing phenomena that is happening in the last decade in Israel related to the longing and passion for spirituality and the need to search for a deeper connection to our Jewish roots and identity.

The modern Israeli culture in many ways was a revolution against tradition. Nowadays, there is a new revolution emerging from an understanding that we have to reconnect to our ancient roots that predates the Zionist Israeli context in a sincere and meaningful way in order to  meet our identity. This need shows itself in many faces crossing generations and social boundaries.

Practically, we started to meet around 10 years ago. We gathered  together to study with the most important master singer of the Jewish North African tradition of our times, Rabbi Haim Louk.

It was fascinating to see who came and why. So there were traditional people from various ages, many of them cantors who grew up with some kind of a relationship with the tradition and wanted to learn more from the greatest. There are young Israeli musicians who are deeply inspired by the art and spirituality of this music and poetry; the prayerful essence is also an important effect.

Q: Please describe the transition your ensemble has experienced, from it being an after work activity, to a current day “respected piece of artwork, taking you around the world”, and in particular here to Australia.

A: It wasn’t really planned. There is a core of the ensemble that has  professional musicians who set a high standard and ambition growing from show to show. For most participants in the ensemble, their satisfaction is not from career ambitions, but the general feeling of digging deeper into the experience of the songs and hymns, and the music.

A majority of the singers are also cantors in synagogues where these things are expressed. Over the years, there is also a feeling of deep commitment and cooperation. Still, the elder participants don’t really understand how it all “happened” to them.

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-7-35-27-pmThe Piyut Ensemble. Photo credit: OLAMALÉ

Q: Your ensemble is rather large. How did you settle on that number of people?

A: It all happened spontaneously. But from the start, the ensemble has been large as we were accompanying one of the greatest Payitanim from the Moroccan Jewish tradition, Rabbi Haim Louk.

At a certain stage we split the huge ensemble and created a new one. We added new members with greater singing abilities. So some are from the original choir and some are new. Then we started performing independently and more seriously. The friendship is strong between us all, and each voice functions as a unique instrument.

Q: Coordinating, agreeing and cooperating as a large group can be hard. So what is your creative process in regards to composing and creating a song?

A: My role as the director is complicated and I need to act with great sensitivity. The core of the ensemble has professional musicians who take part of the arrangements and apart from that, the opinion of all is important to be heard and taken into consideration.

Different members bring different ideas; sometimes from a more traditional perspective, and sometimes, from a more modern one. Naturally, some processes take time, and at times, I do need to make decisions.

Q: Are there any particular groups or musicians that have heavily influenced your sound?

A:  We are all very influenced by our teacher Rabbi Haim Louk. There is inspiration from the North African Muslim music – classical and modern.

From Gnawa music, Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, flamenco, Yemenite music, and many more.

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-7-38-55-pmThe Piyut Ensemble. Photo credit: OLAMALÉ

Q: In regards to your musical style, is there a blend of contemporary elements in conjunction with the more traditional Jewish liturgical poetry and synagogue melodies?

A: Sure, yes. The elements are conceptual and derive from a deep listening to the music. Sometimes we work to minimise the sound to give the traditional character a way to shine.

From deep searching we created polyphonic textures that were not present in the Jewish Moroccan tradition. In large, we search  to create a fusion which expose the character of the traditional music. There is a large space for creativity as we also keep the base of the music authentic – especially the rhythms.

Q: Do you have a conductor, teacher or coach during practices that aid in developing your sound as a group or is it self-directed?

A: We try to study all the time and we bring in elder teachers to teach us more and more of the Andalouse traditional practice and repertoire. We also use a vocal teacher who teach the men how to let go – to push less, to flow, and to listen. Most of the time, we know how to criticise ourselves.

Q: How do your religious and ideological stances affect your music? Is it through lyrics and foundational principles?

A: You can say that we all meet at the place of prayer. The music and the songs are prayers, and the place for many intentions and interpretations. We spend time to look at the words and certainly give them the meaning in the process of arrangement and performance. The music is a sort of trance. Something that requires most participants who are synagogue cantors to go beyond themselves. There is a free spirit in the ensemble.

Q: What has been the best performing experience for you as a group?

A: Hard to say what has been the best experience. Actually, one of the more special performances was at an outdoor festival in the desert a year ago, InDnegev. Most people in the audience were young and listening to alternative indie music. The producer had us sing on the main stage in the morning, which wasn’t an easy time to perform. Slowly, a large group of people arrived in front of the stage who never heard of this kind of music before. There were thousands dancing. The elder in the group could not believe his eyes.

The second show of great importance was at the International Music Showcase Festival in Jerusalem where all the audiences were from abroad and we received amazing responses from people worldwide. At that time, we understood that this music has the power to cross the borders.

Q: What do we have to look forward to in the future from your group, and where can we listen to more of your music?

A: In good time, we will release our first album and we are already thinking of the second one. We have plans to perform in the US and Europe; we hope we can cope with it. We are also involved in some theatre projects where we will build a format of performance where audience take part in the interactive texts.

Rachel Wong

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