You might say Jack Kessler and his band mates in Atzilut, [At-zee-loot] an Arab-Jewish folk music group from Philadelphia, are on a mission. If we look at history, Kessler, a freelance cantor from Mount Airy, contends we find long stretches of time when Arabs and Jews lived peaceably together and even collaborated together.
Atzilut was formed in 1991 at the Middle East Restaurant in Philadelphia where Arab and Jewish musicians gathered together. They will perform on Saturday, April 24, at 12:30 p.m., at the New Jersey Folk Festival at Woodlawn on the Douglass College campus.
“What we’re doing isn’t exactly new,” Kessler says in a phone interview from Philadelphia, “but it’s very important for our time, because of all the horrible things that have happened in the Middle East in the last 100 years. What we’re saying as musicians is, we’ve done this before, we can do it again, and we’re doing it now.” In Europe his group is known as the Middle East Peace Orchestra and has toured several times in Scandinavia, Germany, France, and Denmark.
In southern Spain, from about 900 A.D. to 1492, says Kessler, “there was a very large Jewish community that was part of the Arab high culture of southern Spain, and there was tremendous cross-fertilization and cross-culturalization. Musicians from both cultures performed together all the time, and Jewish poets often used Arabic characters to write poetry. This all came to an end with the wars of the Catholic monarchs of the north, and in 1492, with the complete defeat of the Arabic armies and the eventual expulsion of all the Arabs and Jews from Spain.”
In concert, Kessler says, you won’t find any members of Atzilut making speeches about how nice co-existence can be, but rather, “what we try to do is not talk and just do the thing itself, which is musicians working together, creating something beautiful.”
Maurice Chedid of Hasbrouck Heights is Atzilut’s oud [rhymes with food] player and Arabic singing counterpart to Kessler, who, in his work as a freelance cantor, sings around Philadelphia synagogues in Hebrew, of course. His wife, Marcia Praeger, is a rabbi in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia.
At their New Jersey Folk Festival appearance Kessler and Chedid will be joined by the other members of Atzilut, which includes Stan Slotter on trumpet and flute; Aaron Kessler, Jack’s son, on electric violin; Bruce Kaminsky on bass; Lenny Seidman on tabla; Yusef Tayoun on dumbek and Roger Mgrdichian on oud.
Arabic singer and oud player Chedid has been with the group since 2003, when their previous singer became ill and could no longer perform. Kessler says the genesis of the group came about innocently enough at the Middle East in Philadelphia. “The group just sort of unfolded, kind of like life itself,” Kessler says.
Kessler had worked as a cantor since graduating from U-Mass-Amherst in 1965 and then attending the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Born in Montclair, Kessler lived a few years in New Jersey and then moved with his father, a rabbi, to various locations around the East coast. His mother was a historian, he says, and both escaped Hitler by way of France in the early 1940s.
‘I was a cantor in traditional congregations for 20 years and that lasted until the end of the 1980s, and then I wanted to stretch my options a bit, so I kind of went freelance,” he says, adding he had done significant research into Middle Eastern music and was familiar with Arabic music as well.
“What I set out to do in 1990 and ‘91 was to create a world music ensemble that would serve as a combination of musical styles. The cantorial style I learned was a very strong style and had a strong identity from Hungary and Eastern Europe. What I wanted to do was create an amalgam of that style with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jewish music.”
In 1990 and 1991 at the Middle East Restaurant, “we were performing Jewish music with a Middle Eastern ensemble and we did that for a few years. We heard a lot of similarity with the styles, because Jewish Middle Eastern music and Arabic music have quite a lot in common. We tried out a few concerts and it was pretty successful for a number of years,” he says. Initially, it was one band of Arabs and one band of Jews, with both performing together on stage at the end of the show, Kessler says.
“It dawned on us one night, and it felt silly. We said, ‘Let’s all stay on stage together, all the time,’ and that was the beginning of Atzilut, as a concert for peace, as a brotherhood of Jewish and Arabic music and musicians,” he explains.
“One day in 2004, I got a call from Henry Goldschmidt in Copenhagen,” Kessler says. He describes Goldschmidt as a phenomenal oboe player who started an ensemble that combined Arab and Jewish musicians in Denmark.
“But, Europe is different, and some of the Arab musicians were afraid for their livelihoods if they were known to play with Jewish musicians,” Kessler explains, “so he made a trip to Philadelphia, followed by a film crew, and we had him sit in with us.” As a result of the band’s ongoing friendship with Goldschmidt, “we’ve had a few Scandinavian tours, a tour of Germany and of France last summer,” Kessler says.
As for the music itself, it makes use of ancient drums like the tabla and dumbek, old guitar-like instruments, the oud, and both Kessler’s Hebrew singing and Chedid’s Arabic singing. “Our material is strongly based on traditional classic Arabic and Jewish folk music,” he says. “Some of our stuff is original material but it’s all written in that style.”
The band has an original piece, “Yachad-Sawaa,” that it will perform at the folk festival. The title means ‘together,’ in Hebrew and Arabic, and the song is sung in Hebrew and Arabic, though thankfully, Kessler introduces each tune and provides some background, since none of the singing is in English. “Basically the text of the piece is: we all work the fields together, we have to work the fields together, and in God’s fields, there’s room for everybody.”
Not surprisingly for Atzilut as an octet, “there’s a jazzy, improvisational edge to what we do,” says Kessler, though there may be less of that at the folk festival, where time constraints are always a concern. “There will be some material where people can just get up and dance, and then there is some material where audience participation is encouraged and invited. My job is to give some background on the pieces we play, and Maurice just stands there being cool while I do all the talking.
“Unless you know Arabic or Hebrew, you’re not going to understand the language very much, which is why we do need to give a little bit of an introduction as to what each piece is about,” he says. “You are going to hear an ensemble that is a bunch of strong personalities who are there to play, so everybody should get caught up in the good vibrations and infectious spirit that we put out.”
36th Annual New Jersey Folk Festival, Saturday, April 24, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Woodlawn, Douglass College campus, Rutgers University, Route 18 and George Street, New Brunswick. www.njfolkfest.com. Free performances by Atzilut, Ballet Folklorico del Peru, Cesar Cisneros and Eco del Sur, Carla Ulbrich, David Field and Cheat Mountain Gathering, Ensemble Contratiempo, Csurdongolo Folk Ensemble and others.