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Connecting through music

Yemenite singer from Tenafly to take stage in Dumont

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“The Seal of Solomon” album cover Illustration by Dina Bova

An Israeli who has lived in Tenafly for almost two years and a Los Angeles native who has lived in Israel for the past seven years are teaming up for a series of area concerts featuring contemporary arrangements of Hebrew, Arabic, and Yemenite songs.

One of the concerts is set for next Saturday night in Dumont.

The duo is promoting the record they released in February: “The Seal of Solomon,” which they recorded as “Shlomit and Rebbe Soul.”

Shlomit is Shlomit Levi. She grew up in Kiryat Ekron, a largely Yemenite community in central Israel. Her parents came from Yemen as teenagers in the 1950s. Her singing career included recording with Orphaned Land, an Israeli heavy metal group, and performing with Boaz Sharabi.

Rebbe Soul is Bruce Burger. A veteran session musician, one Yom Kippur, more than 20 years ago, he was struck by the beauty of the hymn Avinu Malkeinu. He recorded a version in his home studio – and it found radio air play. He released his Rebbe Soul album in 1993, and continued producing what he calls Jewish roots music.

Ms. Levi and Rebbe Soul were introduced by a business manager to whom Mr. Burger had turned for help setting up shop in Israel. On the album, and in the upcoming concerts, Mr. Burger accompanies Shlomit’s singing with guitar and balalaika. (“It seemed fitting musically and sonicly,” Mr. Burger said of the balalaika. “Not that there’s anything Yemenite about it.”)

“I heard two kinds of music growing up: Western and Yemenite,” Shlomit said.

“Yemenite mainly came from weddings and family bands, and from my grandmother singing to herself while cooking and making baskets. I would sit with her as a little girl.”

Ms. Levi’s mother was clear about which kind of music she preferred.

“When I was a little girl, I used to practice and sing to her something in English at the top of my voice. She would say, ‘That’s nice.’ I would sing my heart out and she would say, ‘That’s nice.’

“Then one day I sang to her in Yemenite. She said, ‘Now you sing beautifully.'”

As a teenager, Ms. Levi turned away from Yemenite music. “I didn’t feel that connected to it.” But when she grew up, “I kind of rediscovered my Yemenite roots.

“I heard Ofra Haza, her arrangement of Yemenite music to Western music. Suddenly everything changed. I started training my voice to sing Yemenite. It’s very hard to learn. It’s all vocal. People in Yemen did not use instruments since the First Temple was destroyed. I dived into the Yemenite world and found treasures in it.”

Some songs on the album will be familiar to most American Jews: Avinu Malkeinu, and the Havdala service. Others, though, dive deep into Yemenite tradition. There are piyyutim, sacred poems from the Yemenite prayer book. And there are new Arabic poems composed in classical language composed by Aharon Amram, who is at the forefront of the movement to keep Yemenite Jewish culture alive in Israel. (He is also the author of one of Ofra Haza’s hits.)

“He’s one of the greatest poets still alive,” Ms. Levi said. “I heard his music when I was a little girl. I was really lucky to meet him and let him listen to the new arrangements we made of his songs. I got his approval. It’s not every day you meet your idol.”

Her first public performance came when she was 6. “I stood up in front of the whole school and sang,” she said. “I remember thinking, it’s not so scary standing in front of all those people. It’s kind of fun.”

Musically, she’s largely self-taught. “When I compose, I just do it by singing,” she said. “You find your ways. Sometimes it turns out special because I do stuff other musicians wouldn’t do – I break the rules because I don’t know the rules of keys and stuff.”

She studied cognitive psychology at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; her master’s degree focused on user interface design. She toys with returning for a Ph.D. in the field – but for now she is happy to be working full time in music.

“When you learn about human behavior, you can learn about it in a lot of aspects,” she said. “I spent six years learning human behavior through science. It didn’t explain that much to me. I really felt I needed to develop the emotional side after putting so much effort into the scientific side. Music is a great journey. It takes you to the deepest places and brings out things that really connect people together,” she said.

She counts herself lucky to have experienced how music and feelings can change things. Because she sings in Arabic, “We have fans from Arab countries, enemy countries to Israel, which is pretty amazing. I communicate with them through Facebook.

“One wrote to me that he was brought up to hate Israel and the Jewish people, but listening to our music he started to have tolerance. He said: ‘If that nice music comes from those people, they can’t be that bad. They can’t be that different from me.’ He actually had his friends listen to our music and gradually they changed their hatred and became more moderate.”

Mr. Burger is working on another border-bridging project. He is producing songs for George Simaan, a Christian Arab oud player who has played with major Israeli artists but has performed little on his own. One song combines Hebrew and Arabic versions of the classic Israeli love song “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” with Ms. Levi singing the Hebrew. Another track has the lead singer from Mashina, one of Israel’s biggest rock bands, singing the Hebrew. That guest appearance has brought air play on Israel radio.

Ms. Levi came to Tenafly with her husband, Boaz Arzi, a software engineer for a video surveillance firm. “I found great friends here,” she said. “The community is so – it felt like somebody gave us a huge hug, and helped us with everything. I was so amazed.”

“She’s a wonderful singer,” Mr. Burger said about Ms. Levi. “I’ve worked with great studio singers who can do anything and she can hold her candle to any of them.

“She’s got such a nice stage presence. She just lights up a room.”

“The Seal of Solomon” is available on iTunes and Spotify and other online music stores. For more information, go to www.shlomit-rebbesoul.com.

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