Shai Tsabari is an Israeli singer whose music has been called Mizrahi-indie. His debut album and live performances, fusing traditional oriental music with rock, pop, electronic and world music, have attracted some of the most enthusiastic audiences to be found both in Israel and abroad. Tsabari and his band, the aptly named Middle East Groove All Stars, are now embarking on their first mini-tour of the United States. They will perform at Joe’s Pub in New York on Aug. 23, and give a free concert at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles two days later.
In a recent interview, I asked Shai Tsabari about an extraordinary video I had seen online of him performing with his band at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, to an audience of 15,000 ecstatic Poles. It’s a performance of a song called Shalom Lecha Dodi by Solomon ibn Gabirol, the 11th-century Jewish poet and philosopher from Córdoba, set to a tune by Muhammad Wahabi, an Algerian Muslim.
“I introduce the song by saying that I pray for the day that there will be more music made together by Jews and Arabs,” Tsabari told me. “You come to a land where one out of every 10 people was Jewish, and they were exterminated, and you see how the Poles, especially the young ones, insist on bringing Judaism back to Poland, because they realize that something is missing, something was uprooted and their Polish identity is not complete without it.” Their first concert at the festival was at the Temple Synagogue in Kazimierz. “It ended with eighty-year-old Polish women dancing barefoot with bearded hipsters to music from the Middle East.”
The open-air concert that followed attracted the largest audience that Tsabari had ever had. The grandfather of Itamar Ziegler, Tsabari’s bassist, was a Polish Jew who survived the war. Ziegler dedicated a solo to him. “It moves me so much, you wouldn’t believe it,” Tsabari said, tearing up. “It taught me about the power of music, how it can bring things back to life. And it was such a great victory. If we had been there 75 years ago, they would have tried to exterminate us. And now, 15,000 people jumping in the air. Fuck it, the world isn’t deterministic—things can change!”
Tsabari is loath to pin down his style. “In the heaven of songs,” he told me, “they ask the songs that ascend whether they were good or bad. And I love good music, I don’t care about genre.” Tsabari’s heterodox style is rooted firmly in his childhood. He grew up in a religious home in Bat Yam, a working-class city on the coast of the Mediterranean just south of Tel Aviv. The second of three siblings, his parents immigrated from Yemen before he was born.
Bat Yam has its miseries, but Tsabari’s childhood hardships weren’t financial. “We lived there for the community,” he said. “In synagogue, my dad would sit next to his friends from the cheder [religious school] in Sana’a. Community was very important to him, because immigrating was so difficult. I grew up feeling that there was us—the community—and outside there was big, Western Israel. ‘Be careful of them, they’re wolves, they’ll gobble you up!’”
It was a deeply musical home, though Tsabari did not realize it at the time. His father is a cantor and a mori, the honorific Yemenite Jews give to those who teach young boys how to read from the Torah (Yemenite Jews traditionally don’t celebrate Bar Mitzvahs as the children participate fully in services years before they hit 13). “He taught me a lot about Yemenite prayer, about the Yemenite reading of the Torah,” Tsabari said. “It’s a very precise sort of reading; you can’t make one mistake—of melody or pronunciation—because everyone is an expert.”
Tsabari’s paternal grandmother was a singer, but not in the typical sense: She was a mourner for the community. “She would lament the dead. It’s a freestyle art with its own internal logic,” Tsabari said. “You console the bereaved until he cries, so that he will get out of his state of shock.” She would also sing at births, Henna (engagement) parties and weddings. “It’s a very different sort of singing. In Arabic, not in Hebrew. She would take a darbuka or a platter, drum on it with her ring finger or a spoon, find her groove and make up words. She sang songs about me, how much she loved me, how happy my parents were when I was born. Or about the bravery of Moshe Dayan and how we won the Six-Day War!” he said. “She was the best singer I’ve ever heard. She was complete freedom.”
After completing his military service at 21, Tsabari began attending classes at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music north of Tel Aviv. Only then did he realize how organically musical his childhood was. But he also realized that the Israeli music scene of the mid-’90s had little room for his style. His grandmother’s singing, it turned out, was completely unrelated to Western musical scales he was learning. In class, he was given modern lyrics to compose a melody to. He sang it as he would verses from the Torah, complete with the traditional Yemenite phrasing. “That’s your safe space,” the teacher told him. “Leave it.” Tsabari felt that that space was his calling. He left the music school instead.
Tsabari spent his 20s struggling with the desire to make music. He worked as a cook and a magazine editor, always flirting with music on the side. Crucially, he worked as an assistant to Nitzan Zeira, head of the music label Nana Disc. Zeira published albums by some of Israel’s top recording artists, while Tsabari knew exactly how much milk they took with their coffee. In 2007, Berry Sakharof, the closest thing to rock royalty that Israel has, was looking for someone to do back-up vocals for a project he was working on with the musician Rea Mochiach. Called Adumey Hasefatot, or Red Lips, it was an evening of poetry by Solomon ibn Gabirol, set to music by Sakharof and Mochiach. Zeira recommended Tsabari, who showed up for a week of rehearsals.
“That week changed my life,” Tsabari told me. “It was like opening a door and stepping into paradise. I was working with world class musicians on real Jewish avant-garde.” The trend of rock musicians using piyutim – classic Jewish liturgical poetry – whether as raw material or inspiration was at its height by that point. Red Lips took the trend to the next level, fusing rock, jazz and a thousand flavors of Middle Eastern music into the mix for what was to become a landmark concert tour and album. Rehearsal week ended with the triumphant Red Lips premiere but left Tsabari feeling that he couldn’t just go back to his day job. He’d rediscovered his passion.
Tsabari became a fixture of Sakharof’s band of gypsy-rockers, singing backup vocals and pounding away at an oversize can (that is how I first encountered him some years ago; as the band’s larger than life MC, he would home in on audience members who were not dancing and, with a combination of facial expressions and hand movements, compel everyone, myself included, to get with the groove). He collaborated with whomever he could—a song he recorded with Idan Raichel was a radio hit—and began working on his own material. He hunted down lyrics that moved him: contemporary lyricists, poets like Yehuda Amichai and ancient prayer books were all fair game.
For musical inspiration, Tsabari returned to the soundtrack of his youth, what he calls “transparent music”: the music he learned from his father and grandmother and that he never gave much thought to at the time because it was his life, his DNA.
“My music is the sum of all of my loves,” Tsabari said. “It starts with my Yemenite roots but continues with my other passions: groove, psychedelics. People don’t think of Bat Yam as a place of culture, but it was so pluralistic. I’d listen to music from all over the Middle East, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen of course. When my neighbor would clean her apartment, she’d play Kurdish music at full volume. Another neighbor had a boyfriend who was a Turkish singer. When he would shower I’d go to the adjacent room and listen to this amazing shower-concert.” From the radio, Tsabari also got a healthy dose of rock (the Beatles, Hendrix, Pink Floyd) and ’80s Euro-pop (George Michael, Culture Club, Wham!). “It all sounded cool,” he said.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Tsabari assembled his Middle East Groove All Stars, many of them Sakharof alums, and began touring with songs of his own. “Our gigs are a mix of all of our passions,” Tsabari said. “Nir Mantzur, the drummer, grew up on Bollywood films and Greek music. Then he studied jazz. It’s all in there. Itamar Ziegler, on the bass, is the champion of groove and funk—he used to play with Balkan Beat Box.” Assaf Talmudi, the bandleader, learned Moroccan music from master oud player Nino Biton, and helms the punk-klezmer band Oy Division with his saxophonist brother Eyal, another of Tsabari’s All Stars. “Gershon Vayserfire can play anything: we have him on electric oud, but also on a trombone with an effects unit,” Tsabari said. “It’s really flamboyant— peacockish!”
Tsabari’s concerts are designed to break down barriers. He spends a significant portion of each show on the dance floor with the audience, dancing and singing with them. “But it’s not just for the hafla, for the party,” he said. “It’s to say that there is no stage and artist, there is us, together. I’m not the artist, I’m the shatz,” leading the community in prayer and breaking down the obstacles that kept his father from overcoming his traumatic immigration and experiencing togetherness. He likes to think of his tours as a traveling synagogue, where some of the most heterogeneous audiences around—young and old, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, religious and secular and everything in between—come and worship together. “It’s an hour of grace where we can all forget our daily troubles, the bills and the stress,” he said.
After dozens of live shows, Tsabari’s debut album, Shacharit, took only a day and a half to record. Like Tsabari’s live shows, the album was a quick success. Radio DJs took to its catchy oriental tunes that had a sophistication missing from typical Mizrahi pop. Artists of every genre began inviting him to sing at their concerts, and would return the favor by performing at his gigs. At 42, Shai Tsabari’s hard work has paid off.
“After 60-something years, truly local music is finally starting to take shape, and it’s wonderful; a sound that reflects the fusion that is so deeply Israel,” Tsabari said. “Something on the boundary of West and East, with all the technology but also the impossible temperature. The weather, the sea, the desert, the bustling cities. The bustling nature of the people, the crazy diversity of the people! Those connections create a sound. People are born into it, they don’t live in their own ghettos anymore. It’s the soundtrack of life here. All we do is translate the sum of what we hear into a very minimalist thing, into a song.”
Tsabari told me a story about growing up in Bat Yam. “I remember walking to the sea,” he said. “From one café I’d hear Greek music, a bouzouki. From another, I’d hear electronic music. And blended with the rolling of the waves and the whacks of the paddleballs, it made beautiful music. That’s what Israel has to offer the world, this mix of people that are part of a huge cultural renaissance.”
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Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.