It has been an unexpectedly hectic day for Emil Zrihan and the members of his band. They were unfortunate enough to land in a snowy New York City and everything has taken longer than expected. Their hotel rooms are being readied and Zrihan has already been checking around the neighborhood to buy food for their Shabbes meals, but when the group alights in the hotel lobby near the Flatiron Building, they are chipper, if a bit subdued.
Zrihan is one of the great voices in world music, a Moroccan-born Israeli cantor who has upheld the traditions of the Jewish music of his native country while incorporating flamenco, Western classical and other influences. Right now he is sitting in the moodily darkened lobby, a stocky figure in a black turtleneck and black kipa, poised and quiet. Only his soft tenor voice is animated as he answers questions in Hebrew, with an occasional phrase of French or English throw in for emphasis. When he makes one of his infrequent American concert appearances on Saturday, Jan. 17, that voice will ring out, bell-like, over the pulsating rhythms of his accompanists; it will be a plangent and often plaintive reminder of the riches offered by the spiritual and musical heritage of his two countries.
Zrihan came to Israel when he was “about 10,” he says, with several band members taking turns translating. “I have strong memories of Rabat from my childhood. I went to an Alliance Israélite Universelle school and to a Talmud Torah. I remember that we received a lot of support from American Jews who sent us clothing for school and even food. I remember the …” — he struggles for the phrase — “powdered milk.”
He still returns regularly to Morocco and performs there to enthusiastic audiences.
“Moroccan Arabs and Jews were all the time together,” he says. “The Moroccan Arabs are not fanatics. They’re open, they have the culture and mentality of the French, in a positive way.”
Even so, Zrihan says, from the moment of the founding of the Jewish state, Moroccan Jews were educating their children for a future in Israel, and when the state was finally declared, he says, “Everyone left everything behind and went to Israel.”
Of course, the singer admits, it wasn’t quite that simple.
“So many had to change professions, you had doctors who became security guards,” Zrihan says, shaking his head. “They didn’t know about the army [obligations]. It was a very young country, everything was more difficult. Their perspective was that they came to contribute to the country, and that made it easier.”
One could say the same of the cultural situation in which the new olim found themselves. When Zrihan and thousands of North African Jews like him arrived in Israel in the 1950s, they found a cultural world dominated by the Ashkenazim who had created the Zionist movement, just as was the case in the political realm. There was little interest in their music or arts.
But with time, Zrihan says emphatically, that has changed.
“What is unique [about Israel] is that it is a country of a lot of cultures,” he says, leaning forward with a puckish smile. “People come from all over the world to be here. You hear French, Polish, Arabic, Russian on the streets. Jews, they all coming bringing their food, their rituals and their music.”
He sits back in his armchair and gestures with a downward swooping hand to indicate Israel’s place in the Mediterranean basin.
“We’re in the middle of all these cultural areas [and], like a crossroads we get all of them,” he continues. “So people are more open-minded in Israel to hear the culture of the Other.”
His own musical evolution is a reflection of that reality. Although its base remains the swirling, haunting melismas of Moroccan piyutim, religious poetry often dating back to the medieval period, Zrihan has added the staccato hand-clapping and guitar rhythms of flamenco, the lilting accordion of the bal musette and both Western and Arabic classical instrumentation.
“Today, we all collaborate,” he says with obvious satisfaction. “I have sung with all the main Ashkenazi singers. [Audiences] are more accepting, have a more open mind. We all deliver our cultures to each other.”
His smile grows as he warms to his subject.
“It’s like taking two colors as a painter,” he concludes. “You mix them and create a new color. And we have so many colors to choose from: young, old, Arab, Jewish, Orthodox, non-religious, Moroccan, European.”
Emil Zrihan will be performing on Saturday, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Peter Norton Symphony Space (Broadway and 95th Street), under the auspices of the World Music Institute. For information go to http://worldmusicinstitute.org/event/emil-zrihan or to www.symphonyspace.org.