Although Yaniv Shamay can rock out, he isn't interested in doing so. He's into creating gentle, soothing melodies on his santur. Never heard of it before? Neither have most people. But Shamay is bring it back with his group Agadetah, a band he founded several years ago with fellow Israeli world beat music enthusiast Amram Amar.
The group also includes fellow Mount Meron resident Yochay Shimon Koen and newcomer Moshe Maury Epstein. The later is a jazz guitar virtuoso from Cleveland, Ohio, who recently became religious and is now living in Israel. Epstein, who previously spent time playing on luxury cruise ships, was blown away by the trio of musicians with their long payos (sidelocks) and beards playing low key music in small, out-of-the-way northern Israeli towns.
Shamay, in his thick Israeli accent, talked to Ben Bresky, the host of Israel National Radio's Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast about his passion for haunting, peaceful melodies and rapid paced drum solos played on strange and exotic Middle Eastern instruments.
INR: Tell us all about your band and your unique music. You have some instruments that I've never even heard of before.
Yaniv: The members are from the Galilee in the north of Israel near Mount Meron, which is where the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is. This is where Agadetah is creating and performing. We also perform all around the north and all over Israel. Agadetah combines instruments from ancient times reaching up until the time of the Temple, around 2,000 years ago. We have a variety of santur, kamancheh and oud, kinds of percussion, and flutes. All together we have like 17 kinds of instruments. We are four guys.
INR: Briefly, can you explain these to us? What is the santur?
Yaniv: It is the grandfather of the piano that we know today. There are two small sticks and they hit a group of strings, 72 strings all together.
INR: What is the kamancheh [also spelled qamanch]?
Yaniv: It is like the grandfather of the violin. It is played different from the violin, on the knee, as you hold a baby. You play it with a bow and it has four strings. Its skin creates a sound like a drum, but on this drum, the strings give a special sound. The source of it is the Azerbaijan area near Persia and Far-East Asia.
INR: Some of your songs are instrumental and some are singing. Do you write them personally?
Yaniv: Some are original words and melodies. The rest are from the sages of Israel throughout the generations, like Ibn Ezra, the Baba Sali, Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, different old Jewish roots. Some have original lyrics. Some are from King David's Psalms. Some, like track 10, Shome'a Tefilah, Amram wrote. It's expressed from the heart.
INR: Do you have any good concert stories?
Yaniv: I tell you, every show we do is touching. In each performance we are not playing only what's on the disc, we open and interpret. ...Each one of us learned music in different schools and with private teachers special for each instrument. So we have a lot to give. So we give some world music and also Hassidic music, but with these instruments. So it is very interesting. There's dancing also. Also there's improvising. Like you can hear on track 9 with the pantam [also known as the hang] and special drums. The improvising in the concerts lifts people up. They get inside of the music....
We perform in the north a lot. Sometimes it can be a few [performances] in a day. This is what we are living from.
INR: Can you describe Meron for us? Do you actually live there? It's such a small town.
Yaniv: I live just below Mount Meron and there are three villages there. One is Meron, one is Or HaGanuz and one is Bar Yochai. There are other graves of sages around and people visit from all over the world.
INR: What is it like on Lag BaOmer? Do you play music at the massive annual celebration?
Yaniv: No we just go to pray. We're always playing music other times. In the month of Elul, it is a time that many groups come to Tsfat to experience some connection with Jewish roots. They meet us also with our music, sometimes [out] in nature or in the old city of Tsfat. Also, we perform at weddings. We hope to spread [our name]and do weddings and simchas.
INR: Are you from a particular Hassidic group like Chabad or Breslov?
Yaniv: The group is very Israeli. In my village, we learn the Torah of the Baal Sulam, Rabbi Ashlag. The rabbi of the yishuv is Rabbi Sheinberger.
INR: What kind of music did you grow up with? What did your parents listen to?
Yaniv: Both my parents played music. Amram's father plays the oud and violin. His mom is a singer. My father plays piano and accordion and flutes. Since I was born, we heard music all the time. Our big brothers were also playing, but different kinds of music.
INR: What about rock music like Jimi Hendrix? Did you grow up listening to rock?
Yaniv: Yeah, sure I passed through it. I listened to a lot of it.
INR: But you chose this.
Yaniv: It's not a matter of choosing. It's something that you grow [into] in your life and you also grow in the inner life. You find that it is the best place to connect. This music with these instruments is very gentle on the one hand, but very powerful, powerful, deep sources on the other hand. Exactly like the Torah. So when you deal with this, it also effects you. You can put your mind in [the mood for] good thoughts and good connection, because the instruments are old and come from the source of Israel. The source of these instruments is from Jerusalem. It's connected a little bit to the Levites and the music they played [in the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple]. So that's the reason I think people can connect to this music.
We meet a lot of people who come to the concerts and it's not like people who know that they want only this. No, it's groups of people all over, from all the rainbow of Israel. The music is touching a warm place in every heart.
INR: I want to know about the Miriam's drum [tof Miriam]. You have an entire track that's just a Miriam's drum solo. Is this really like the kind of drum Miriam from the Torah played?
Yaniv: Yes. It's a frame drum. It's related to the drum that's played today. It's a classic drum. The guy that plays it is very talented. It's played with your fingers. He can do many, many expressions. He also plays on a track with a darbouka and a pantam. The pantam is another interesting instrument. But it's not old. It's from Switzerland and maybe seven or eight years old.
INR: Any final words?
Yaniv: In these days, when all around it's a little bit tight, it's best to make the connection with ourselves, with the inside and with HaShem - to make it more strong, to make it real, to make it touch, to make it life. And then it is lighting all of reality.
For more information on Agadetah, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ben Bresky is a music journalist and recording engineer living in Jerusalem. He hosts The Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast on Arutz Sheva live every Tuesday interviewing a wide range of Jewish and Israeli musicians from Carlebach to klezmer, from hasidic to trance. For archives and blog visit http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Radio/Author.aspx/1180