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Yemenite Tradition Meets Musical Soul

Soulful music and new beginnings

PHoto by Julian Voloj

From the moment they met, it was a musical match. RebbeSoul is an American Jew of Hungarian descent. Shlomit Levi is an Israeli of Yemenite origins. Even though they come from very different musical backgrounds, the moment Levi stepped into RebbeSoul’s sound studio and began to sing, he was drawn by her voice. They both knew that they would need to play together.

The duo’s shared vision of modern Jewish music that connects with the past shines in their most recent collaboration, Bereshit, which focuses on opening verses of the Torah. The musical setting is new, as are the lyrics. While based on the Torah text, the words draw from Yael Kanarak’s Toratah project, which regenders the language of the Torah. The project places women right at the center of the foundational Jewish narrative.

Bringing together familiar and innovative Jewish musical expressions characterizes all of their collaborations. Some of their pieces, like Avinu Malkeinu, draw on the traditional sounds of the Ashkenazi musical cannon. But often, their partnerships, like this Yemenite wedding song or the title track from their album Galbi bring western instruments like the guitar and modern musical arrangement to classic Yemenite songs.

For Levi, singing is tightly tied to her Yemenite heritage. “My mother says I was swinging on the swing which was made of rope on my grandmother’s porch and singing -a lot,” explains Levi. Her grandmothers were both Yemenite, and from the time she was young, she spoke the language with them and heard traditional music at family gatherings and celebrations. The Yemenite music and culture existed in a sort of “bubble,” as Levi explains it. Yemenite is a dialect of Arabic, so she  did not speak it or play it out loud “because it was Arabic and I was worried what others would think of that.”

As a university student, she connected with OrphanLand, an Israeli heavy metal group known for bringing together traditional Mizrachi music with beats and sounds of heavy metal. With OrphanLand, Levi began singing Yemenite music in large public venues and creating the first Yemenite hard rock song, Sapari. Levi has been promoting and celebrating her Yemenite heritage ever since.

Even as she represents Yemenite Jewish culture, Levi is aware that this is not always a role women have played. “As I was working on Beresheit,” she explains, “I realized that many of the songs I present in my Yemenite experience program are men’s songs.” The Beresheit project is helping her embrace the roles women have played in Yemenite Jewish life and her family in particular.

Levi’s grandmother Zohra was a mother of three in Yemen when she was widowed. Orphaned children in Yemen were subject to kidnap and forced conversion, so she was on her guard, staying home day and night protecting her children. Around the time the State of Israel was founded, Zohra woke one morning to find that the Jews of her town had got up and left, making their way to the Holy Land. Her neighbors left Zohra behind, fearing that this single woman with children would be unable to survive the journey. Undeterred, Zohra set out with her children on the treacherous journey by foot on her own. She overcame many obstacles to get to the port of Aden, from which they were able to go to Israel.

Shlomit Levi & RebbeSoul BY Dina Bova

RebbeSoul similarly comes from a line of strong Jewish women. His first summers were spent at Camp Jened, a groundbreaking camp for people with disabilities, featured in the award-winning documentary Crip Camp. His mother and aunt were 24 and 21, respectively, when they founded Jened. It empowered a generation of people with disabilities and helped launch the disabilities movement. They were pioneering visionaries who made and inspired change.

RebbeSoul also sees a shared spiritual connection; it comes from how they play music. It transcends shared religious heritage or family values. As he explains, “I’m convinced that if you play from your soul or sing from your soul like Shlomit does, that is something we all have in common.  [It does not matter if you are] Jewish or not, Hungarian like me, Yemenite like Shlomit, …if you strip away all the stuff and just sing from your soul, I found in my studio days that we all have the common soul that connects us.”

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