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Orchestre Andalou D'Israel
Maghreb II, Migdanot and Qasaidat Yossef
Magda Music, Israel (

This trio of releases from Israel's premier Sephardic ensemble is a stunning collection of traditional music from what used to be a burgeoning North African Jewish community. The sounds are an unusual marriage of Arabic melodies and Jewish liturgy, which reflected the dual notions of integration and separation that Jews experienced in Morocco over the centuries, particularly in the years following the Spanish Inquisition, when so many fled across the Iberian Peninsula.

The roots actually date back even further, though. For instance, the word qasida means story, although in a rhyming form. This originated sometime before the sixth century and was equivalent to reports carried from kingdom to kingdom by what we might call a town crier turned troubadour. Topical in nature, they naturally evolved into political and cultural forms of expresion, which Jews adopted for religious and life-cycle events.

Unlike other outfits, such as Naguila, that offer a stripped-down Andalusian sound, these discs showcase what is truly a full-bodied orchestra. There are more than two dozen musicians playing everything from banjo, guitars and violins to the accordion, oud and darbouka. And the players are expert in creating the various maqams, or modes, including some, such as "LaMoledet Shuvi Roni - Return to the Homeland and Rejoice," that have a flamenco flavor in a style known as canto jundo.

Each disc stands on its own as a wonderful example. Particularly enjoyable, though, is Qasidat Yossef, which is actually the seocnd collaboration between the orchestra and Joe Amar, a singer, poet and cantor. The songs here continue the tale of Yossef Ben Yakov, who was also known as Yossef ha-Tsaddik, or righteous one, and is based on a biblical story. The idea is pretty simple - he avoided the wiles of someone else's wife.

Despite the ancient allegory, this remains a viable form in today's Sephardic communities in Israel. And for those with Western ears, Amar turns in a spectacular performance on "Ve L'Yerushalayem Irkha," in which he combines Ashkenazi, or Western, cantorial repertoire with the Sephardi musical tradition. But play any one of these discs and it's like being transported back in time. The playing is heartfelt and the chanting cuts to the bone. - Ed Silverman

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