Klezmer schezmer!

Divahn differences make for heavenly music

If you think Jewish music means klezmer, think again.

Divahn, a quartet of women from Austin, Texas, plays Jewish music with a different groove, its roots in the Mizrakhi and Sephardic traditions — nothing at all like klezmer. Using the Indian tabla, cello, rabel, banjo and other instruments, plus vocals in Hebrew, Ladino, Persian, Arabic and Aramaic, the group lends widely diverse influences to traditional material. It even incorporates the Australian didgeridoo.

"When people say, 'That's Jewish music?' I love that!" says Galeet Dardashti, singer, anthropologist and leader of Divahn. "It's important to shatter stereotypes." It's also important, she says, "for people to understand how much shared culture there is between Arabs and Jews. Almost half of the current Israeli Jewish population is Mizrakhi — Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent. They emigrated from countries such as Yemen, Morocco, Iran, Syria and Iraq, where they lived and practiced their faith for centuries, so they were very much a part of the cultures of these countries in all realms of society. People don't understand this, but through music, this shared culture becomes tangible."

Divahn came together about two-and-a-half years ago when Dardashti and percussionist Lauren DeAlbert decided to start a band. Although DeAlbert did not have Dardashti's familiarity with Mizrakhi traditions, she was well-versed in Indian and Middle Eastern music, having worked with master percussionists like Anindo Chatterjee and Glen Velez. When they found cellist Michal Raizen, "the three of us clicked immediately," says Dardashti. Violinist Emily Pinkerton, a graduate student in ethno-musicology, brought to the group her knowledge of old-time American fiddle and banjo, rabel, and a familiarity with Latin American music.

"So the group came together pretty organically," says Dardashti, attributing Divahn's success to a genuine camaraderie in addition to appreciating and respecting each other as musicians. "There is a lot of openness in the way we arrange music. Our arrangements are all collective collaborations." Although theirs is hardly a narrowly purist approach to the music, the process can have surprising results.

As an example, Dardashti describes a Jewish-Iraqi religious song the band worked up. "Believe me, I never imagined that Ya Ribon Alam would end up with banjo and a gospel groove. Lauren liked how the tabla sounded with the melody, Emily whipped out her banjo, and I started improvising on the melody. It was fun! This is how most of our songs come into existence." Dardashti feels that the creative excitement is evident to their diverse audiences. "Most of our fans are attracted to our music because of its sound. They don't necessarily understand the words, but they like the message we convey."

Dardashti hails from a venerable Iranian- Jewish lineage, and her grandfather was one of the most famous singers of Persian classical music in his day. She has many reasons to share her musical heritage. "Yes, for me there is a political motivation in performing this music," she says. "I want people in the U.S. to be aware of this shared culture, rather than simply focusing on the vast differences they hear about on CNN."

When the modern state of Israel was created, its culture favored an Ashkenazic, European outlook on Jewish music. But the focus, says Dardashti, is changing. "As an anthropologist, I'm writing about the recent popularity of Middle Eastern music in Israel — where during the first few decades of the state's existence, this music was marginalized. Suddenly, tons of Israelis are [now] studying the oud, darbukka, and other Middle Eastern instruments," Dardashti explains.

"This offers hope in such a time of utter despair because it means that Israelis are coming to terms with their own Middle Eastern/Arab identity. That can only be a good thing because so much of the problem stems from lack of understanding between Jews and Arabs." And indeed, Divahn's CD is dedicated "to those pursuing mutual understanding, respect, and peace between Arabs and Jews."


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