Harmony is important to any band, but for Atzilut, a world music ensemble made up of Jewish and Arab musicians, it is essential.
“This is not an ‘interfaith’ project, it’s a cultural bridging project,” explained Jack Kessler, Atzilut’s founder as well as a hazzan, or cantor. “This is not an intellectual, ivory tower exercise in cerebral music. We do high-energy, very infectious, rhythmically-driven material. It’s accessible for children of all ages, and the response has been universally positive. We don’t need to talk about it, give speeches or have panel discussions: the music itself tells the message.”
That message — that people can work together and make something beautiful happen — is what Atzilut’s Concert for Peace, at BlackRock Center for the Arts on Sunday afternoon, is all about.
Kessler is a Jewish music specialist, originally trained as an Eastern European cantor and ordained at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A lyric baritone with a master’s degree in voice from Boston Conservatory, Kessler was born in Boston to immigrant parents, although he is now based in Philadelphia as are most of the members of Atzilut.
“The Arabic singer with whom I work is based in New York and our violinist is based in Boston,” he noted. “And we’ll all be coming together for the concert at BlackRock.”
For Kessler, Atzilut is the culmination of a lifetime of music and culture. “I grew up in a traditional Jewish home,” he said. “My father was from Eastern Hungary and happened to have a fantastic musical ear—I grew up with that.”
As a child, Kessler moved from violin to guitar, playing for a while in the folk music scene. “I was always tracked to do material that was spiritually directed,” he explained. “Not to knock the folk scene at all, but I decided what I really wanted to do was explore my roots in Jewish music.”
Those roots extended beyond Eastern Europe, as it turns out. “My father was Hungarian, my mother was English,” Kessler said. “They met in Paris in the ’20s, and got married and lived there until 1941, when they went through a harrowing escape from the Nazis, going down into Vichy territory and out through Marseilles and eventually making it to this country.”
It’s the kind of dramatic story that makes sense of Kessler’s enthusiasm for world music —and global peace. Once he had decided to go into the field of Jewish music, he moved from congregational work to concert performances, which eventually led to founding Atzilut. “The original concept was to do a crossover of Eastern European vocal style with Middle Eastern music,” he explained. “We made the acquaintance of a local Arabic band, and we thought it would be a cool idea to do duet concerts.”
That was the format for several years, with the bands taking turns onstage, playing separately until they decided to come together. “Why don’t we all stay onstage at the same time and play all of the music?” Kessler remembered thinking. “And that’s basically how it worked out.”
By 1985, they were working together all the time, fusing the folk music of their Jewish and Arabic heritages and adding jazzy, improvisational riffs. “There are some striking commonalities between Hebrew and Arabic music,” Kessler explained. “And there are some stylistic differences, so there are a lot of crossover areas.”
Similarities may be found in some of the melodies, he said, as well as the modal scales on which both traditions are based. “There’s a lot more active rhythm and use of percussion instruments in Arabic music,” he added. “And there’s a lot more free singing in Jewish music, but there’s also a lot of commonality where they all come together.”
They’ll be coming together on Sunday at BlackRock in a concert that Kessler stressed is perfect for music lovers of all ages. Kessler and Arabic singer Maurice Chedid, a graduate of Lebanon’s Beirut Conservatory and a master of Middle Eastern classical music, will sing while the band performs on various instruments including the oud, violin and trumpet. “We do a balanced program of Arabic and Hebrew pieces, with some duets where both singers are going back and forth in Arabic and Hebrew — and some Ladino, which is the ancient Sephardi dialect.”
It works on many levels: the music is exciting and well executed, Kessler said, and communicates powerfully even when the lyrics are in a language many audience members don’t understand. Most important, he added, is “The experience of having musicians from these two cultures, which are currently at loggerheads, working together and producing something beautiful.
“We feel it’s a very powerful message.”
Atzilut performs A Concert for Peace at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 13 at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 2901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. For tickets, ranging from $25 to $45, call 301-528-0180 or visit blackrockcenter.org