UW World Series
University of Washington
October 11, 2003
Many vocalists have been compared to songbirds and singing like a songbird is the best compliment we can give vocalists. We only need to listen to songbirds sing their morning songs to attest to this observation. Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo has been called a songbird, Edith Piaf was once called a sparrow and various male tenors (usually from North Africa or South Asia) draw comparisons with nightingales. Moroccan born Israeli cantor Emil Zrihan is one of those fortunate musicians to earn the title of nightingale.
Similar to the late Qawwali performer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Emil’s vocal range, labeled counter tenor on earthly terms, actually soars reaching stellar heights as I witnessed at his Seattle performance. And while Emil was billed as the main attraction that evening, the ensemble including Suissa Meyer (ud), Zaid El Bachir (nay), Semlali Bouibcha (violin), Samuel Sebbag (darbuka) and Milouvi Shahiba (frame drum tar) were also worthy of the standing ovation they received.
Emil has proven himself worthy of applause on more than one account. Not only has the performer been granted a superb vocal gift, but he has also acts as a human bridge between the Arab and Jewish cultures.
He’s not the first Israeli performer to embrace Arab musical traditions and other groups and performers include Bustan Abraham and Trio Ziryah (Turkish classical and Arab) have married Arabic and Jewish music while employing oud, violin and Arabic percussion. And other Moroccan born cantors Haim Louk and Jo Amar have sung in synagogues and on recordings. Emil backed by oud, violin, nay and Arabic percussion has successfully brought his ensemble to concert halls where he performs a variety of music, both new and old, both sacred (Biblical liturgies sung a cappella) and secular (love songs dating back to Jewish occupation in the Andalusian region of Spain). He sings his repertoire of
Andalusian, Sephardic, Arabic and religious text in Hebrew and Arabic while drawing on similarities instead of differences between cultures.
Emil’s Seattle performance proved no exception to the rule. The concert began with an instrumental which felt like an overture for an opera or musical. The violin and nay (flute) sang in tandem embellished by ud (lute) and Arabic beats played out on a frame drum and goblet drum, otherwise called a darbuka. After this gorgeous instrumental played itself out, Emil, a short, but slightly stout
man dressed in black made his entrance onto the stage while igniting a burst of applause. Without much fanfare he launched into an Arabic song while delivering pitch perfect vocals that sent shivers up spines. His second song followed a similar formula then Emil stepped away from the microphone and delivered Biblical liturgy at the edge of the stage, again with unwavering vocals. Throughout the first set, I allowed the waves of nay, ud, violin and vocals to wash over me in the same way I might take in a majestic mountain.
After the intermission, Emil and his ensemble performed a couple of Andalusian songs with the ud substituting for flamenco guitar and Emil performing flamenco cante. Emil’s vocals took on a new timbre and the ensemble musicians also let loose. As the set wore on, the musicians and Emil mutated into playful children and drew on their solemn qualities when needed. They pulled audience members
into a musical vortex which led to a standing ovation. The first song of the encore, a Jewish composition, Yiddishe Mame enraptured some audience members and then the ensemble topped off their performance with Andalusian fare. As the concert ended, I felt grateful to have witnessed one of the world’s human nightingales and hopefully the nightingale will herald a new dawn in which world
peace isn’t just an option, but reality.