This New Album Celebrates Mizrahi Jewish Music

Kedmah, a new band formed through the Rising Song Institute, releases its debut “Simu Lev" today.

“Simu Lev,” the debut album by the newly-formed Kedmah takes its name from the piyyut (liturgical poem) “Odeh La-El,” written by Shamayah Kosson in 16th-century North Africa. It asks us to “pay heed to the soul.” In Modern Hebrew, “Simu Lev” translates to “pay attention,” and this album is a passionate call to pay attention and celebrate the depth and beauty of Mizrahi Jewish music. With piyyutim from across the Arab world, the album brings the poems and melodies into the arena of communal singing cultivated by the Rising Song Institute.

The Rising Song Institute describes itself as “a meeting place and incubator for creative musicians and prayer leaders who hope to reinvent the future of music as a communal Jewish spiritual practice.” Kedmah, led by Yoni Avi Battat and Rabbi Yosef Goldman, met through Rising Song and “Simu Lev” is their first album on the label.

The album draws on texts and melodies from across the Arab world, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Morocco, reflecting the heritages of the stellar line-up of musicians. Yoni Avi Battat and Rabbi Yosef Goldman created the project after bonding over their shared mixed Mizrahi and Ashkenazi heritage and the fact that they were both working to reclaim Mizrahi repertoire into the music they create. They co-produced the album along with Joey Weisenberg (founder and director of Rising Song Institute) and were joined by Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer, Anat Halevy Hochberg and Yahala Lachmish as vocalists and April Centrone on percussion.

The opening track, “Adon Olam,” begins with an electric bass and oud intro, setting the tone for a distinctly collaborative take on the repertoire. But it would be wrong to think of this as an “East meets West” musical melding of cultures. Instead, Kedmah is celebrating the diversity of diasporic Jewish music as Mizrahi Jews living in America. The melodies use maqam — a system of modes used across the Middle East and North Africa. Maqam has a long and rich history, and different maqam conjure up different emotive or affective states to the informed listener. Perhaps the most obvious difference between Western scales and maqam is the use of microtones. Where Western music since the late 18th century has divided the octave into 12 equal parts (known as equal temperament), maqam makes use of finer distinctions of the octave, which fall in between the Western half-tones. This difference is one of the things that can make the music sound unfamiliar to Western ears.

I spoke to Yoni and Yosef ahead of their album release, and they emphasized how important it was for them to stay true to maqam tuning, and not to flatten out the microtones when bringing the music into an American context. They made a choice to highlight the communal singing and so opted for a more stripped-back instrumentation, with Yoni on oud, violin and viola, April Centrone on percussion and Joey Weisenberg on fretless bass. They’ve gone for a live-off-the-floor feel, keeping overdubbing to a minimum in order to capture the heightened feeling of communal singing in the room, which you can see on display in the excellent videos by Shmulie Lowenstein and hear in the mixing of Don Godwin.

At Rising Song, a big emphasis is on communal singing, and whilst the maqam tuning makes “Simu Lev” a little less immediately accessible than some other Rising Song albums, a commitment to the genre’s intricacies and the engagement it fosters mean the album is poised to enter the communal song repertoire popular in America. The more you familiarise yourself with the music, the deeper your appreciation of it can be.

Yoni and Yosef also said that the album represented a shift in their own position among this song repertoire. Having studied the maqam and Mizrahi song, the release of this album also marks the beginning of them becoming transmitters. They spoke of envisioning a future where this music is accessible to all Jews — where Israel is not the only place this music is championed — where it is felt as an important part of diasporic Jewish culture.

Mizrahi pop has been growing in popularity outside of Israel, with groups like Yemen Blues and A-WA making their way onto many a Spotify playlist of young Jews around the world. But “Simu Lev” is heavily grounded in tradition, with subtler percussion and balancing the more upbeat tracks like “Agadelkha” and “Ya’alah Ya’alah” with slower, more introspective tracks like “Odah La-El” and “Ana B’Hasdekha.” A particular highlight for me is the mawwal introduction to “Yedid Nefesh,” sung with stunning virtuosity by Yahala Lachmish, accompanied by dulcet drones from the bass guitar and violin.

The album has 14 tracks, including 2 short miniatures (a taqsim and a mawwal) that serve as structural introductions into the following song. The tracks are carefully ordered so that they harmonically relate and carry the listener through the expansive world of Mizrahi culture. Most of the tracks are in the 5-6 minute range, allowing for emotional complexity that really takes you on a journey, making space for expressive and virtuosic moments of solo singing interspersed with the compelling exuberance of communal singing.

So far, Kedmah has had two live performances, and the feedback has been remarkable. People with Mizrahi heritage have been so excited to see that their culture, identity and history are being represented in the mainstream Jewish world, especially in the context of Rising Song, which already has a great following and broad listenership. Having this music celebrated in a space committed to gender egalitarianism also marks an exciting embrace of the variety of diasporic Jewish musics. In a time of fraught politics within the American Jewish community, a rich celebration of Arab-Jewish music is significant. In making the album, Yosef said they are asking: “What does this cultural and spiritual heritage mean to each of us? How do we orient ourselves with this part of our family’s identity, of being Jews from Arab lands, and how do we situate ourselves within Global Jewry and think about the place of Jewishness in the Middle East today?”

“Simu Lev” by Kedmah, the Rising Song Piyyut Ensemble, will be streaming on all platforms on April 9. For those who listen to the album and want to hear more, Yoni’s album “Fragments” and Yosef’s “Abitah” and “Open My Heart” are great accompaniments, too.

Adam Possener

Adam Possener (he/him) is 20 years old and is a composer based in the U.K. He is studying music at university and in his free time can be found cooking, reading or geeking out over Japanese hip-hop. Adam is a 2021-2022 Alma College Writing Fellow.

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