Cantor who changed his tune to Arab song

The religious Jew who found fame with the music he listened to in secret


He may be a sensation in Israel - his concert was a sell-out at the Jerusalem Festival of Sacred Music - but Ziv Yehezkel's one and only British performance was private event for a wealthy Dubai family.

It's not the only non-sequitur in the unlikely success story of a religious Jew who found fame with his unique twist on Arab classical song - music which he once listened to in secret while his sister practised Chasidic tunes on the piano in their strictly Orthodox household.

"My father's a rabbi, and I was only known for singing in the synagogue," explains Yehezkel, 32.

He sings arrangements of 20th-century Arab classics, infused with elements of jazz, blues and pop, which started hitting the Israeli charts a year ago. Despite these unlikely tweaks, the songs reminded Mizrachi Jews of the melodies their parents and grandparents used to sing to them. "These songs were part of Jewish culture in Israel, too, but they had become all but lost," he explains.

It is close on 20 years since Yehezkel wowed his very first audience in the Qiryat Ono synagogue where he was barmitzvah: "They said: 'this boy can sing' and, at 13, I was suddenly a cantor," he explains. "I started reading from the Torah every week, and although those notes are fixed, when it came to other prayers I had the freedom to start weaving my own melodies."

I get messages every day from all over the world

But it was not until he was 17 that he discovered the music that really spoke to him: "I heard one of my neighbours at our yeshiva in Jerusalem playing the oud. It's an instrument that relates to the Iraqi side of my heritage but which I had only ever heard in one cassette of Shabbat tunes we possessed.

"My parents both had a Sephardi background, but were born in Israel and became very religious. To give myself an education in this Arab music I suddenly felt I owned, I had to find it on the radio and listen to it with the volume down."

When he decided to go pro, Yehezkel performed religious songs in Hebrew, but when he dared to air his penchant for Arab tunes it kick-started not only his career, but that of the Arab Orchestra of Nazareth.

"Their concerts in Tel Aviv were selling poorly until I started singing with them, and somehow what we did together captivated a mainstream audience."

In the past few years, the singer has performed everywhere from France to the USA, Panama to Singapore: "My audience is Arabs as well as Jews; I get messages every day from all over the world from people aged 20 to 80 who have been touched by my resurrection of songs they barely remembered they knew."

His father the rabbi is not best pleased to hear the former cantor singing only in Arabic these days.

"But still, he knows every phrase of every song, and picks up the changes I make; he goes to sleep watching my YouTube videos," he laughs.

"I still feel like a religious Jew and I still sing in the synagogue here in my home town, but it's less and less. I'm actually helping the school in Qiryat Ono with the Arabic programme which is now part of every music curriculum in Israel. There has been a thrust of interest in Arabic music in the past few years which I like to think I've played a part in reviving."

Yehezkel has a new record out in November and is planning to finally make his public UK debut next year.

"It will be a collaborative event between the Jewish and Muslim communities," he explains.

But he pooh-poohs local hyperbole suggesting his music is capable of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ziv Yehezkel proved that the dream is possible, reads a breathless review in Ha'aretz of a concert he played in March, and goes on: "While blood flowed in Jaffa, a miracle took place at Tzavta" - referring to the name of the Tel Aviv Club where Yehezkel was playing a set with five Arab musicians.

To the star of the show, it was just music: "I'm not at all political," he insists.

"And, because of that, I have never felt inhibited about the music I chose to listen to and play. My advantage is that I come to it from a purely artistic place."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive