Berkeley’s Jewish Middle Eastern ensemble Safra makes its Ashkenaz debut on Sunday
Berkeley’s Jewish Middle Eastern ensemble Safra makes its Ashkenaz debut on Sunday. Photo: courtesy Safra

If only coexistence was as easy in the Holy Land as it is on the bandstand. The East Bay ensemble Safra, which makes its Ashkenaz debut on Sunday, has developed a sumptuous body of Sephardic music drawn from North Africa’s intermingled musical traditions, combining Hebrew lyrics, Middle Eastern instrumentation, and popular melodies from the Middle East and beyond. The band’s vision isn’t so much utopian as a refraction of an increasingly riven region’s shared cultural heritage.

Launched in early 2013 by two Berkeleyans, vocalist Eliana Kissner and oud player John Ehrlich, Safra quickly took shape with the dynamic percussion tandem of Debbie Fier on dumbek, riqq and bendir, and

Susie Goldenstein on dumbek and riqq. For Sunday’s show, the quartet will be joined on violin, oud and percussion by the Bay Area’s great Moroccan musician Bouchaib Abdelhadi, a master of cross-cultural collaborations (Bruce Bierman teaches Yemenite dance before the concert).

Much of Safra’s music is drawn from Ehrlich’s last trove of cassettes documenting rare recordings made around the Arab world. “The zippiest songs that we find, the ones people really enjoy, are pizmonim, songs in Hebrew written to fit well known Arabic, Turkish or Persian folk melodies,” Ehrlich says.

Not so much prayers as praise songs for God, pizmonim were often works commissioned to celebrate a wedding, bris or bar mitzvah. The music flourished in the ancient Jewish communities of Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo, Smyrna, and the Maghreb, though the tradition has continued after political upheaval forced those communities to flee to Israel.

“Some of our melodies are taken from Arabic pop songs of the 20th century,” Kissner says. “These songs aren’t some secretive borrowing. They come from the larger history of Jews in Arab countries, and some of them were written by living composers in Israel.”

The band’s origins can be traced to the copyroom at Congregation Netivot Shalom, which is where Ehrlich and Kissner first met (several years earlier Ehrlich encountered his future wife at the temple, so who needs J-Date and Craigslist?).

A long-time student of the oud, the pear-shaped Middle Eastern lute, he was on the lookout for new musical collaborators after the breakup his band Za’atar, which specialized in the music of Middle Eastern Jewish (or Mizrahi) cultures.

“At the time I was just kind of scanning the horizons to see who was out there,” says Ehrlich, who works for the city of Albany’s Building Division. “It’s really about finding a lead singer, that’s the most challenging component. The first or second time Eliana and I got together to play we realized we had similar interests and vision. Both really wanted to put together a professional quality working ensemble.”

The band suffered an early setback with the death of Daniel Eshoo, a musician of Assyrian ancestry who played in numerous Middle Eastern ensembles (including Za’atar) on oud and the Middle Eastern zither known as a kanoun.

“Daniel was an integral part of our band and he was a real pillar of the Bay Area’s Middle Eastern music scene who played in a lot of different groups,” Kissner says. “The kanoun is a beautiful Turkish and Arabic instrument, like a trapezoidal zither, and it’s pretty rare. It’s expensive and difficult to play, so it’s not part of the mix now.”

Bruce Bierman
The Ashkenaz evening will start with a dance lesson for all levels led by master teacher Bruce Bierman. Photo: courtesy Bruce Bierman

Given Kissner’s upbringing in an observant Jewish family in South Orange, New Jersey, it’s not surprising that she grew up to sing liturgical music. She diverged from the well-trod path when she discovered her affinity for Sephardic music, rather than the sounds of her Eastern European heritage. Apprenticed to a cantor as a child, she describes herself as “the nerdy kid who loved synagogue. I went to a very traditional Conservative congregation, and the cantor was such a wealth of knowledge.”

After graduating from Hunter College, where she studied opera, Kissner enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s cantorial program. During her first year in Jerusalem, she quickly became sidetracked for her coursework in Talmud and Ashkenazi liturgical music when she found herself “spending a huge amount of time bouncing around Syrian synagogues,” she recalls. “I was going to all these Sephardic musical events, and I became mesmerized by the Middle Eastern style of music.”

Upon returning to New York, she took a leave of absence from JTS and spent a year doing an arts fellowship at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education for women, focusing on Talmud and Jewish law, and exploring intersection between text and music. Though reluctant to leave New York City, she moved to Berkeley a few years ago with her fiancé and was substitute teaching at Netivot Shalom when she met Ehrlich.

When she’s not rehearsing or performing with Safra, Kissner does a lot of bar and bat mitzvah tutoring, and commutes to New Jersey where she leads an unaffiliated congregation. She doesn’t have a ready explanation for her passion for Sephardic music, but loves its supremely permeable nature and the way it flows into and out of the cultures of overlapping peoples.

“There was less musical exchange in the music of Eastern Europe,” Kissner says. “We didn’t have this globalized musical tapestry. This music really speaks to me in this deep, primal, essential way. Especially because of all the turmoil in Israel and Palestine, this common lineage appeals to me. Jews and Arabs and other peoples of the region are very connected in this bone-deep way. It’s inherent in our language, the sounds we make in speech, our food and our music. That’s really compelling.”

Andrew Gilbert writes about music for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....