by Lisa Traiger
Ramon Tasat wants to teach the world to sing. The Buenos Aires-born cantor believes singing is everyone’s birthright, even the guy whose high school music teacher told him he could join the choir only if he moved his lips silently. Or Aunt Sylvia, who everyone tries to hush at the family seder.
“I have noticed in my life as a musician that singing has been an outlet of enormous spiritual recognition for most people,” Tasat said last week, “because one cannot separate cleanly the fact that when one sings, one is truly oneself.”
Tasat is the founder of Kolot HaLev, a Jewish community choir that requires no audition. This weekend the group celebrates its fifth anniversary with On the Wings of Song, a program celebrating contemporary Israeli composers, which takes place Sunday afternoon at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.
Tasat, who also serves as cantor for Shirat HaNefesh, a relatively new post-denominational congregation serving southern Montgomery County, has found many American Jews are unfamiliar with the songs of Israel beyond, maybe, “Yerushalayim Shel Zehav” by Naomi Shemer or a version of “Oseh Shalom,” which, Tasat remarked, people think “came from Sinai.” “Hava Nagila,” he notes, isn’t really “Israeli music” at all. He hopes to change that with this program featuring choral settings of works by Shemer and Ehud Manor, but also music artists like Shalom Hanokh, Gil Dor, Sasha Argov and even Tasat’s own arrangement of “Ana b’Koach.”
Sunday’s concert, On the Wings of Song, will focus on Israel’s music from the past three decades, because, Tasat said, “people have a vision of Israel as a country that is mostly at war or, if not at war it’s missiles or terrorist attacks.” He wants to showcase another side of Israel: its artistic creativity. In doing that he hopes to introduce a new generation of Israeli songwriters and their songs to American Jews. Audiences may be familiar with Achinoam Nini, who opened the Jewish music festival here in the District late last month, because she sings in English as well as Hebrew, but Tasat hopes to open listeners up to the works of Israeli pop music composers like Yoni Rechter, Matti Caspi and Shlomo Gronich.
As a frequent visitor to Israel, Tasat noted a few trends in today’s Israeli music scene, including the growing number of secular Jews who, he said, have found a new sense of spirituality and are beginning to approach liturgical music in a different way. The Kolot HaLev choir will sing a version of the “Unetaneh Tokef” from the High Holy Day liturgy. But it’s a nontraditional setting created on the secular Kibbutz Beit HaShita to honor members of the kibbutz community who died in the Yom Kippur War.
“This liturgical piece has actually taken on a different meaning,” Tasat said. “When we say who will live and who will die, it’s not, in this case, a matter of what may happen. In this case it was a certainty, and this shows us how music can confront realities of our times in a manner that hardly anything else can.”
Tasat sees a trend, too, in the growing interest in and acceptance of music from Arab and African countries, including music from the Jews of Ethiopia. The choir will sing a version of a Turkish song, “She-kshenavo” by Giorgos Kalamariotis and Argiris Kounadis, that is popular in the Jewish state. Cantor Rachel Anne Hersh of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, will perform as a guest soloist, and the choir will be accompanied by five-piece instrumental ensemble featuring flute, bass, keyboards, mandolin, guitar and percussion.
Comprised of about 45 members, Kolot HaLev, which translates to “voices of the heart,” is open to anyone who wishes to sing. Unlike other choirs, Tasat doesn’t require an audition, but he does demand a commitment. Kolot HaLev rehearses weekly for two hours.
“We rehearse methodically: no intermission, no cake. The socializing comes afterwards. But the two hours are full of rehearsal time,” he emphasized. “It includes musical theory, explanation of Hebrew texts, Yiddish or Ladino or any other language in relation to what we’re singing. It means explanation of what a musical phrase is and vocal techniques.”
Chorus members range in age from their 40s through their 80s and span the gamut of denominations from secular Jews to those who are Sabbath observant. Some members aren’t Jewish.
“I tell new members, ‘Feel free to ask any questions, but you have to put the effort into it,’ ” Tasat said, “What’s very interesting is that many people who felt they couldn’t sing at all find out that they can, and they are doing it reasonably well, and that gives them pleasure.”
“Choral music is enormously beautiful,” he added, “when done well, it can also bring people together.”