26 September 2007

Israel: Making music, preserving traditions

From the Jerusalem Post, a story about one of my favorite people, Dr. Yuval Shaked, director of the Feher Music Center at Beth Hatefutsot, whose job it is to preserve traditional music of the many Jewish communities in Israel.

Here's a bit of unsolicited career advice for Yuval Shaked, director since 1999 of Tel Aviv's Feher Jewish Music Center: If you ever want to work at a commercial record label, stop saying things like, "Will it sell? No. But does that mean we shouldn't make such a CD? Also no."

The article includes information about ethnic recordings released by Beth Hatefutsoth, including those of the Bene Israel of India and the newest release, Kamti Lehallel, a double disc of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam, London and New York - a co-production with the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam.

The goal of the Center and the Museum is to raise awareness of our Jewish past and to preserve memory so it isn't forgotten when the older generations are no more.

"In this room, there are real, real treasures," Shaked says, gesturing at two walls of shelving in a windowless Beth Hatefutsoth office. The items range from a 19th-century Austrian prayer book to a Yiddish satirical recording called "Lenin and Trotsky," and indeed confirm the old maxim about one man's trash being another man's treasure.

One set of sheet music, Shaked recalls, was literally saved from the dump. "People just throw [material] away," he says. "They just consider it of no interest to future generations."

Read more here.


I have visited Shaked's office several times and his desk is always piled high with esoteric recordings from around the world, including some recorded on wax cylinders in my family's ancestral town of Mogilev, Belarus, and made available on CD from the National Archives in Kiev, Ukraine. He receives material much faster than the Center can archive it.

The music is restored, digitized and added to Beth Hatefutsoth's musical archives. Some 10,000 recordings are available now, with about 40,000 waiting to be archived.

Languages cover the Jewish world, from Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Ge'ez (Ethopia) and Juhuri (spoken by Azerbaijani Jews) and many others, while music categories include liturgical, folk, opera, classical and pop music. What is Jewish music? There's no definition of Jewish music, says Shaked, although there are scholarly definitions. While he collects music composed or performed by Jews, the archives also include non-Jewish performers singing Jewish music.

Looking for a new "Lecha Dodi" or "Adon Olam" (the archive has more than 40 versions of each)? I've never asked if he has the USY version to the tune of "Deep in the heart of Texas," or to "Silent Night," which I heard in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And if you are looking for biographical information on the performers, singers, musicians and poets, his database has some 3,000 listings.

Shaked stresses that he will go anywhere at any time to track down and record Jewish music. Israelis do contact him when they have music collections to dispose of - he's found some treasures this way. He recorded an elderly Polish immigrant at his business, and the sound of machinery is also on the tape along with his boyhood memories of liturgical melodies.

Last year, he recorded a group of elderly Egyptian immigrants, who sung at the Alexandria synagogue as young men and boys. They performed and recorded their community's unique sound for posterity.

The Feher Music Center and the museum only have about another 10 years, says Shaked, to record traditional music preserved by older members of ethnic immigrant communities.

An African proverb says that when a community elder dies, it is as if an entire library has burned down.

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