The Role Model, Rabbi Moshe Kuessous z.s.l.
By: Pnina Souid
Jewish Syria and Morocco came together on Thursday, March 31, with a special broadcast by award-winning host Leonard Lopate on New York Public Radio. The broadcast was aired on WNYC’s NEXT Conversation series, under the title, “Performing Piyutim: Sephardic Music, Poetry, and Spirituality.” The program was the brainchild of bandleader Samuel Thomas, ethnomusicologist at CUNY; Rabbi Joseph Dweck of Congregation Shaare Shalom and Rosh Yeshiva of Barkai; and Rabbi Gad Bouskila, rabbi and founder of Congregation Netivot Yisrael, the first Moroccan synagogue in the United States.
Mr. Thomas, a community resident and member of both Rabbi Bouskila’s and Rabbi Dweck’s synagogues, is the leader of a band named Asefa which performs, and gives educational workshops on, Jewish Spanish/Oriental/Middle Eastern music.
The first musical presentation, which followed the brief introduction, was the well-known 20th-century piyut “Habibi.” It was composed by Hacham Asher Mizrahi z.s.l. and describes the special relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem, a theme that characterizes many piyutim, a term that refers to religious poems.
Rabbi Gad Bouskila next sang the 10th-century piyut “Yedidi Hashachahta,” written by the renowned Sephardic poet, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. This piyut is sung on Shvi’i shel Pesah, the seventh day of Passover, commemorating the miracle of the splitting of the sea. Now this piyut is commonly sung also on Shabbat and all other holidays. Rabbi Bouskila noted that the melodies of most Moroccan songs were brought from the Andalus region in Spain and are quite different from the Syrian melodies.
The program included a discussion of the blending of religious poetry with the local melodies in the style called contra facta, which uses the same melody with different words. Mr. Thomas explained how the difference between the Maqam (tonal scales) of Syria and those of the Andalus reflects the differences between the regions.
The program featured a jazz rendition of “Habibi” performed by Asefa, and many other piyutim. The instruments included the Middle Eastern oud and jimri, as well as more conventional western instruments. The webcast can be viewed at www.asefamusic.com.