back to Sultana Ensemble
Roots are tricky. We all want to idealize
where we came from; to let time sift our memories, and to
think of our roots as nourishing anchors in a hard world.
But sometimes roots are tangled and messy; intertwined with
the things we've buried.
When it comes to roots-music things get even
trickier. Sharing and borrowing are vital parts of any musician's
education, so that exact provenances become forgotten and
boundaries become blurred. Yet still we feel the need to
pay our respects and honor the originators and pioneers.
As the founder of New York-based Sultana Ensemble, Yoel
Ben-Simhon delves deep into his personal roots to strike
that right balance -- drawing on the sounds of his Moroccan-Jewish
heritage, while using his experiences as a professional
musician in the United States to reconnect this music to
the Arab classical tradition.
As a child, Ben-Simhon was immersed in the
Sephardic culture of his parents and grandparents, who had
emigrated from Morocco to Israel in the late 1950s. Jews
have lived in Morocco for millennia, coming first as traders
to the Phoenician settlements along the North African coast,
where they prospered, living side by side with everyone
from Romans and Carthaginians to Berbers and Arabs to the
French and Spanish over the long course of Morocco's history.
When Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, many Sephardim found
a home in Morocco, where they found echoes of the gracious,
vanished lifestyle of Al Andalus. When Moroccan Jews joined
the post-World War II exodus to Israel, they brought with
them customs, culture and attitudes that were radically
different from those of the European Jews who dominated
Israel in this era. The new arrivals received a mixed welcome
and were concentrated together into communities closer in
flavor to the mellahs they'd left behind than the secular
mainstream culture of Israel.
In towns such as Kiryat-Gat, the "Moroccans"
were able to preserve the unique culture of such traditional
strongholds as Casablanca, Fez, and Essaouira. The impact
of growing up in such a tight-knit community was tremendous
on Ben-Simhon, as he remembers: "back then Kiryat-Gat
was a ghost town - all tents and metal huts. My family lived
in a metal hut for a year until they moved to a small apartment.
My grandmother Sultana was always my babysitter when my
parents were working. At my grandparents' house, I was exposed
to the Moroccan and Arabic heritage. It was in the tobacco
my grandfather Mimon sniffed, the food they ate, the language
they spoke and the music they listened to. They listened
to radio broadcasts from Morocco, instead of Israeli radio,
so Moroccan music was always in their house. We also went
to a Moroccan synagogue, and there I heard the music, both
liturgical hymns and secular songs. When Mimon died, Sultana
moved in with us, I became very attached to her and we developed
a special bond. Thanks to her, I speak Moroccan today."
But despite this remarkable cultural cohesion,
there was tremendous pressure to assimilate. "Moroccan
music was all around me, but I rarely heard this music on
Israeli radio when I was growing up. In school they never
taught us the history or heritage of the Moroccan Jews."
It was only after his own emigration to the
United States that Ben-Simhon felt free to explore his cultural
identity and musical roots. He arrived here in 1991, to
study Classical music and Opera; first at Santa Monica college
in Los Angeles, and later at Mannes Conservatory and Hunter
College in New York City, where he expanded his repertoire
to include jazz, drums, voice and guitar; eventually earning
a Masters in music composition.
Ben-Simhon also studied non-Western music
and, towards the end of his two-year program had the good
fortune to attend a master class with New York's own Palestinian
virtuoso-in-residence, Simon Shaheen. "He played oud
and violin and explained why Arabic music has such a unique
and reach sound. He helped me make sense of so much of the
music I heard in my childhood. When Simon played the oud
I felt something in me resonate, and I knew it was the beginning
of a new musical journey. I approached Simon immediately
after the lecture and I asked many questions."
These questions led Ben-Simhon to reconnect
with his roots. Since so much of the music he heard in his
childhood is directly connected to the Arab classical tradition,
he began to seriously study Arabic music. This, in turn,
led to deeper understandings and respect for the role music
played in people's lives. "Music was one of the few
spaces that Jews and Muslims in Arab lands could come together
and share their creativity without boundaries," he
says. "One of my goals is to preserve and promote Judeo
Arab and Middle Eastern music in general, to create a dialogue
between the two old traditions again."
His 1998 Master's Presentation, "Mediterranean
Collage," his first step on this journey, was an Arabic
nueba, or dance suite, scored for seven musicians (and two
dancers!), that fused traditional Middle Eastern melodies
and Western harmonies. In 2001 he bought his first oud from
Shaheen's brother Najib and began attending Simon's annual
weeklong Arabic Music Retreats. Now, with the Sultana Ensemble
- named in the memory of his beloved grandmother - Ben-Simhon
comes full circle, with a deeply personal album that was
a lifetime in the making. Leading an all-star squad of international
musicians that build an aural bridge between East and West.
Jazz and Latin music fans will recognize the
prolific, two-time Grammy nominated Jay Rodriguez, who contributes
saxophones, flute and clarinet to the project. The Colombian-born
musician has long been a fixture on the New York scene,
collaborating with the likes of Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri,
Miles Davis, Elvis Costello and Wynton Marsalis - not to
mention The New York Philharmonic and the Mingus Big Band,
among many, many others. Jay is also a founding member and
musical director of Groove Collective, and has even tried
his hand at electronica, on the groundbreaking Batidos project
for the Six Degrees label.
Bassist Emmanuel Mann comes to the Sultana
ensemble via France - where he studied jazz composition
in Paris - and Israel, where he made a name for himself
as one of the country's top bassists; joining acclaimed
ethnic ensemble Habrera Hativeet and co-founding the Bustan
Abraham ensemble, which brought together Arab and Jewish
traditions. He's collaborated with such notables as Omar
Faruk Tekbilek, Zakir Hussein, and Andy Statman. Since 1998
he's been living in New York, bringing his uniquely rhythmic
style to a whole new audience.
Rachid Halihal hails from Fez, Morocco, where
he entered the Conservatory of Music at the age of fourteen,
studying both Western and Arabic classical music. Halihal
is an accomplished vocalist and multi-instrumental threat,
playing both the oud and the violin, which he plays upright
resting on the knee in the classical Arabic manner. He's
collaborated with singers Michel Cohen and Mohamed Abdo,
and played everywhere from the Ivory Coast to Finland to
Denver. For the last seven years he's managed his own band
and a nightclub in Agadir, Morocco for seven years.
Hicham Chami, who keeps Sultana on track with
his accomplished qanun playing, was born in Tetuan, Morocco.
Chami has studied qanun at the National Conservatory of
Music and Dance in Rabat at the age of eight! He currently
resides in Chicago, and was named "Best Instrumentalist"
by Chicago Magazine in 2002. His own group, Mosaic, performs
traditional instrumental music from the North African, Sephardic,
Egyptian, Levantine, Greek, Turkish, and Armenian repertoires.
Hicham's first CD, Promises, recorded with percussionist
Catherine Alexander, was released in January 2003.
Percussionist Yousif Sheronick, who plays
darbuka, riqq, and frame drums here, is a world music specialist
who appears internationally as soloist, chamber musician
and collaborative artist. He's worked with such luminaries
as Philip Glass, Foday Musa Suso Yo-Yo Ma, and Branford
Marsalis; as well as performing companies such as the New
York City Ballet, Battery Dance Company and Music from China.
Sheronick has been called upon to premiere works by leading
contemporary composers; including Michael Daugherty, Zhou
Long, and Glen Velez. He has recorded for film and commercials
as well as for the Ellipsis Arts, Koch International, PGM,
Newport Classics and Interworld Music labels. Mr. Sheronick
currently serves on the faculty of Concordia Conservatory.
Tomer Tzur, who contributes darbuka and riqq
drumming to Sultana, came from Israel to New York, where
he received a BFA from the Mannes Jazz program at New School
University. In New York, Tzur has played with several Judeo-Arabic
ensembles and is a co-founder of The Sway Machinery, which
combines elements of klezmer and Blues/Rock.
With these talented collaborators, Ben-Simhon
has composed a rich and satisfying listening experience
that draws together the many divergent strands of his life.
Listen closely and you'll hear a lot going on here. While
the Arabic classical tradition underpins everything here
- with ouds, qanuns, and darbukas ruling the roost - plenty
of other traditions inform the music. "Yigdal"
reconnects Morocco to Spain with a subtle flamenco flavor
reminiscent of Radio Tarifa, while "Lord of Pardons"
is a traditional Sephardic hymn, sung by an Iraqi cantor,
and "Qasidat Essaouria" has a flute-driven Latin
jazz flavor. There's even a recording of Ben-Simhon's grandmother
herself that can be heard at t he end of "Sultana."
The Sultana ensemble definitely fulfills Ben-Simhon's
goals of re-uniting Arabs and Jews through music; but that's
not the only thing you hear on this recording. Mostly what
you hear is the sound of accomplished musicians having a
great time, reviving old connections and making new ones;
tending their roots while shooting off fresh branches in
new directions. As Yoel sings on "Berber Blues":
"No need for worry, so sing with joy and happiness/
Come witness how to live
One thinks Sultana herself would be proud.
Tom Pryor, Global Rhythm Magazine, 2004