If you travel down the main thoroughfare of Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem, you might not see Ronen Jembe, but you will probably hear him playing his jembe drum. Almost every night, Ronen is out there with his jembe drum, sometimes alone but usually surrounded by a group of fellow drum disciples and a circle of onlookers. His intensity and energy are as striking as his long shoulder length hair, large knit kippah, long tzitzit and often in all white clothing.
Ronen spoke with Israel National Radio's Ben Bresky about what he sometimes refers to as "Afro Hassidic percussion."
Born into a secular family in Tel Aviv as Ronen Kernerman, his jembe journey started in Africa in the mid 1980s. It continues today at weddings, bar mitzvah parties and festivals throughout Israel.
Tucked away in a small alley near Ben Yehuda Street is the Tof Yerushalmi drum studio, where Ronen sells and repairs drums as well as teaches percussion. The room is filled with drums stacked from floor to ceiling. Other strange and exotic musical instruments including several eight-foot long shofars adorn the studio.
"The drum is a simple instrument that holds a lot," says Ronen. "That's what made me look for the drum that I would like best. I traveled in Africa for two and a half years searching. I already knew it could be found in West Africa, but I decided to search in other countries just to be sure that was the drum. I planned a long trip searching through east and central Africa. I ended at the Sahara desert in what was a final and spiritual experience.
"When I came back to Israel about 18 years ago, I became a baal teshuvah [became religious]. I came back with drums. I found lots of references to the drum in the Torah-in Genesis, in the months of the year, in the holidays and the body and soul. Everything has Torah in it."
"Miriam the prophet is mentioned dancing and playing the drum," notes Ronen. "There are ten types of genres or miney negina, there are ten types of heartbeats, and there are ten different types of drum beats you can make on a jembe. There are the ten sefirot of the kabbalah."
Most of the drums have a Jewish star carved into them. It was Ronen's idea originally and he used to carve the symbol into each drum himself. Now he has them carved by the African drum makers that he works with. Ronen also personally chooses the wood and skin of each drum. Another unique feature to his drums are the metal plates with bells attached to the rim of the drum. They also proudly feature Jewish stars.
In terms of the Jerusalem connection to the drum, Ronen relates: "It is written in the Shulchan Aruch that the drum is the only instrument that's allowed to be played in weddings within the borders of ancient Jerusalem. Three things are left in Jerusalem since the two temples were destroyed: The even sh'tiyah which is related to the First Temple; the Western Wall, which is related to the Second Temple; and the drum, which is related to the Third Temple which will be rebuilt."
"Everyone can relate to the drum," comments Ronen. "Whether he's religious or not, or young or old, everyone can play the drum."
"I didn't meet other drummers when I first started playing on Ben Yehuda Street," Ronen remarks. "I had some battles through the years about noise, but I always played. I can come back from a wedding and play on the street. It's outside. It's on the same eye level as the people. It's not on the stage. It's informal. I can do my learning and performing. I remember tourists coming to me and telling me they toured the entire country and that I was one of their best memories."
For more information on Ronen Jembe and the Tof Yershalmi drum studio visit http://www.jerusalemjembe.com.
Ben Bresky is a music journalist and host of The Beat on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio. His blog and show archive can be found here: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Radio/Author.aspx/1180. All photos by Ben Bresky unless otherwise noted.