I haven’t sung before an audience since the 1976 spring concert of the Yonkers All-City Choir. But that didn’t stop me from lending my voice last week to the coolest choral group on earth — Koolulam, an Israeli social-musical initiative whose goal is to strengthen society through mass singing events.
If you haven’t seen a Koolulam video, go to YouTube or Facebook and watch one or two. As many as 12,000 people participate in each sing, which usually marks an occasion such as Israel Independence Day or Holocaust Memorial Day.
The chosen song is arranged in three-part harmony, with lyrics in Hebrew, English, and/or Arabic. The ragtag singers are conducted by an energetic, dreadlocked 27-year-old Tel Avivian named Ben Yefet, on whom I have a major crush.
“Koolulam” is a mashup of the English word “cool,” the Hebrew words “kulam” (everyone) and “kol” (voice), and “kululu,” the celebratory ululation of Middle Eastern and North African Jews. I’ve been a hardcore fan since Ben Yefet and cofounders Ori Taicher and Michal Shahaf Shneiderman kicked off Koolulam in April 2017 under the motto is “Singing is believing.”
The organization has won the Jerusalem Unity Prize and several other awards, and it has captured the hearts of many Israelis as well as millions of viewers far and wide. Among the dozen or so mob-sung songs Koolulam has recorded so far, in venues ranging from hospitals to arenas to parks, several have included large contingents of visitors from places such as South Africa, Indonesia, and Miami. Christian and Muslim clergy were among 800 people who showed up at midnight for a Koolulam mass singing of Bob Marley’s “One Love” last year in Jerusalem.
Tickets for Koolulam sing-alongs sell out within minutes after going on sale, especially when the event is held at a smaller venue like the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City, which accommodates hundreds rather than thousands. Luckily, I was able to get a pair of press tickets, so my friend Debra and I were able to go to the March 8 sing at the Tower of David.
On that gorgeous sunshiny Friday morning, some 550 of us packed the stone bleachers in the courtyard of the ancient citadel-turned-museum of Jerusalem history. Uniquely, this Koolulam event, which was dedicated to Israeli-American unity, was held entirely in English.
We sang a three-part arrangement of the 1967 Four Tops hit song “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” Many of the 18,000 participants at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington will record the other half of the mass duet on March 24.
Koolulam describes the concept as “intertwining the Israeli and American vocals in harmony.”
“Now if you feel that you can’t go on
Because all of your hope is gone,
And your life is filled with much confusion
Until happiness is just an illusion,
And your world around is crumblin’ down;
Reach out, reach out!
I’ll be there with a love that will shelter you.
I’ll be there with a love that will see you through.”
Rony Stav, formerly a member of the IDF Orchestra, was the co-conductor for our third of the group, dubbed the Blue Team. Lilach Krakauer led the Purple Team, and Ben led the Yellow Team (probably because the Yellows had to master the most complicated part of the harmony).
“You will become the voice of the event, all of you together,” Rony encouraged us in her mellifluous voice. “You guys are going to be celebrities, so give it all of your heart!”
Koolulam member Yonatan Gruber got us pumped up with vocal and physical warmups. He asked each of us to turn to the strangers to our right or left and introduce ourselves. To my left was a couple originally from Colombia, who’d traveled in from Ra’anana to take part.
“If you’re liking the vibe, let me hear you say, ‘Yalla, let’s go!’” Yonatan shouted out to the crowd, using the Arabic/Hebrew slang word for “let’s go.” And were we ever liking the vibe! The responding roar was deafening and exhilarating.
After a few quick rounds of rehearsals, we did five takes. Each had a higher level of passion and energy than the previous one. The video editors will work their magic, splicing together the best of each take for the final video.
Now, I won’t claim that our group effort sounded anywhere near as polished as, say, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — or even the Yonkers All-City Choir back in 1976. You can’t expect 550 random people, many of whom could never pass a voice audition, to pull off a flawless performance less than an hour after learning their parts.
But whatever we may have lacked in vocal talent we made up for in enthusiasm. I expect it will be the same for our AIPAC singing partners. When the finished video is released sometime before Passover, find it online and give it a listen.
Truly, singing is believing.