Yoni Avi Battat / Fragments (2022)

really distinctive wash w/nice calligraphy and type

Yoni Avi Battat / Fragments, 2022

CDs, MP3s available available from Bandcamp and from fine vendors and streaming services everywhere.

If there is a common theme in current Jewish roots music, whether klezmer, Sephardic, Iraqi, or other, it lies in the process of reclaiming. In that sense, Battat's biography: growing up "American" with little access to the music, language, or traditions or his Iraqi-Jewish ancestors could apply just as easily to members of the Klezmer revival, or to the recently reviewed album of new Ladino music by Lily Henley. The important ingredients are the reclaiming: learning Arabic, learning the music, learning the traditions, and then making them personal.

To my ears, there is little to distinguish this recording, stylistically, from new Mizrahi music from Israeli artists reclaiming the same traditions (Dudu Tasa, say, a discovery from a recent trip to Israel). What is different, of course, is that some of these lyrics are in English, and that this recording was funded by Boston's own Jewish Arts Collaborative. Indeed, my introduction to Battat's music came from the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music last year. (Thank you, Laura Mandel, Nat Seelen and crew!)

The result is a rich tapestry of Middle Eastern music featuring not just "ancient" music, but recent pieces set to music by Battat. One excellent example is a poem by Iraqi poet Anwar Sha'ul, celebrating the common Iraqi culture. Sha'ul was born in Bagdad at the turn of the last century, represented Iraq at an International conference of Arab writers in 1969, and left only in 1971, long after other Iraqi Jews had left: "My childhood blossomed on the waters of the Euphrates/And the days of my youth drank of the Tigris...." Battat keeps things contemporary, and oh so Jewish, in "What would you say," a song, of course, about food, and which begins with the voices of community members who submitted food memories to this project. The words of the song may be in English: "Our histories are torn like shards of mint, each piece perfumed with memory," but the music, of course, is clearly from the same tradition as his setting of Anwar Sha'ul, as is his setting of poem by the unnamed "wife of Dunash ibn Labrat," (circa 990 CE) recovered from the Cairo Geniza. A mother's lament, it is one of the few poems of this era thought to be written by a woman: "Will her love remember his graceful doe/her only son in her arms as he parted...." Here, sung by the graceful Laura Elkeslassy.

Battat also features piyyut, but even here he weaves. In "Vapor" he sets arabic text from Mansur Al-Hallaj from 1000 years ago with Yiddish by Arn Zeitlin - a contemporary of Anwar Sha'ul who migrated from Warsaw to New York in 1939, and includes Hebrew from the Jewish morning liturgy (Shaharit). To hear all of this strung together organically in a modern piyyut setting is wondrous. It may even be a first. The result is no less prayerful than his setting of Psalm 98, "Zamru" (Praise).

Instrumental pieces such as "Sheikhat Al-Hara" stand on their own. Elsewhere on the recording, he shares verses with his great uncle Razi, making the continuity clear, even on an innovative, thoroughly traditional recording such as this, and despite the questioning in the closing song, "Fragments," a simple lament which incorporates voices from workshop participants, as well as words from the Arabic poet Samir Naqqash. They close: "From the fragments of the voices, I can sing my own song—I’m singing my song". So we build our roots. You can get your own copy at Bandcamp and from fine vendors and streaming services everywhere.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 10 September 2022.

Personnel this recording:
Yoni Avi Battat: lead vocal, violin, viola, oud
Jamal Sinno: qanun
Naseem Alatrash: cello
Dr. Ann E. Lucas: nay
Fabio Pirozzolo: riq, frame drum, karakeb
Jesse Chevan: darbuka, frame drum
James Heazlewood Dale: bass
Dena El Saffar: joza
Laura Elkeslassy: lead vocal, background vocal
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell: background vocal
Leah Carnow: background vocal
Yosef Goldman: background vocal
Razi Battat: lead vocal

Song Titles

  1. Water and Air (Music: Battat; Words: Anwar Sha’ul) 4:57
  2. Vapor (Music: Battat; Words: Mansur Al-Ḥallaj, Arn Zeitlin, Hebrew liturgy) 4:15
  3. What would you say? (Music: Battat; Words; Yoni Avi Battat, Leah Carnow, Sivan Battat) 5:23
  4. Sheikhat Al-Hara—شيخة‭ ‬الحارة (Music: Battat) 4:06
  5. Zamru—זַמְּרו (Music: Battat; Words: Psalm 98) 5:02
  6. Will her love remember?—הֲיִזְכּוֹר‭ ‬יַעֲלַת‭ ‬הַחֵן‭ ‬יְדִידָה (Music: Battat; Words: the wife of Dunash Ibn Labra, ca. 990 CE) 4:27
  7. El Eliyahu—אֵל‭ ‬אֵלִיָּהו (music: trad. Iraqi; text: R. Abraham ibn Ezra; arr.: Battat) 5:02
  8. Hatha mou insaf minnak (It's not fair of you)—هذا‭ ‬مو‭ ‬انصاف‭ ‬منك (Saleḥ Al-Kuwaiti; arr. Battat) 5:08
  9. From the fragments (Music: Battat; English: Yoni Avi Battat, Leah Carnow, Sivan Battat; Arabic: Samir Naqqash) 5:45

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