Jewish Yemenite Music Sees Revival with Singer Shlomit Levi
"I grew up listening to my grandmother singing while making baskets out of straw," stated Shlomit Levi, a young Jewish-Israeli singer who is making waves in the music scene. Levi spoke to Israel National Radio's Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast backstage at the Piyyut Festival in Jerusalem. A piyyut is a liturgical poem, sometimes a responsive chant, often with a repeated refrain, and while there are Ashkenazic exemplars, the Sephardic service has many beautiful piyyutim that have traditional melodies.
"I was born in a small town called Kiryat Ekron," Levi stated, referring to an Israeli development town near Rehovot where Jewish refugees from Yemen and other countries came to live in 1948. Levi said she has many memories of sitting at her grandmother's side listening to her sing.
"Growing up, I mainly listened to rock and modern music," the singer reminisced. "But then I heard Ofra Haza's Yemenite Songs album. It was amazing, and got my back to my source and roots. I decided to combine the two things I love, rock music and my grandmother's music."
Levi has been making the musical fusion successful thanks in part to the Israeli group Orphaned Land. The band has won fame in Israel and abroad for such hits as El Norra Alila, Shira Hashirim and other Sephardic and Yemenite liturgical prayers done in a heavy metal style.
Levi appears on Orphaned Land's latest full length studio album singing on such tracks as Sapari. "This piyyut was written approximately 400 years ago in Yemen by Rabbi Saadia Ben Amram," Levi stated. "He speaks about his soul in heaven. She [his soul] tells him to be true to his own ways." Levi joked that she is not sure if Saadia Ben Amram would initially enjoy the new version chock full of loud electric guitars, but given the chance he would probably take a liking to it.
The performance group Uri Teman has been using Levi's talents as well. The dance troupe focuses on traditional Yemenite dance and song. Directed by Osnat Briadman-Sharabi and Yael Zigner Pariente, the performers, Levi included, dress in traditional Yemenite robes and head coverings.
Levi's other new project is called Shlomit and RebbeSoul. The collaboration with the Jewish musician known as RebbeSoul has resulted in a new version of an old classic, Tzena Tzena Tzena. The multi-instrumentalist and producer was born in the United States and made aliyah several years ago. An interview with RebbeSoul about the new project will be featured on an upcoming episode of the Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast.
Tzena Tzena Tzena was a popular tune written by Issachar Miron and sung by Zionist pioneers throughout the 1940s. In 1951, it hit the Billboard music chart's #2 spot after it was recorded by The Weavers, a popular American singing group.
"It's a beautiful song, catchy, lively and happy," said Levi. "It's been covered by over 600 different artists. We are making the 2012 version with new beats and modern lyrics." The Shlomit and RebbeSoul version has lyrics in English, Hebrew, Amharic, and Spanish.
To hear both the 1951 version and the new version, download the Shlomit Levi interview on the Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast by clicking here.
For more information on Shlomit Levi click here.
Ben Bresky is a music journalist living in Jerusalem. He hosts The Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast interviewing a wide range of Jewish and Israeli musicians from Carlebach to klezmer, from hasidic to trance. For mp3 archives click here. For Facebook click here. For Twitter click here.