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Press Kit

Roots are tricky. We all want to idealize where we came from; to let time sift our memories, and to think of our roots as nourishing anchors in a hard world. But sometimes roots are tangled and messy; intertwined with the things we've buried.

When it comes to roots-music things get even trickier. Sharing and borrowing are vital parts of any musician's education, so that exact provenances become forgotten and boundaries become blurred. Yet still we feel the need to pay our respects and honor the originators and pioneers. As the founder of New York-based Sultana Ensemble, Yoel Ben-Simhon delves deep into his personal roots to strike that right balance -- drawing on the sounds of his Moroccan-Jewish heritage, while using his experiences as a professional musician in the United States to reconnect this music to the Arab classical tradition.

As a child, Ben-Simhon was immersed in the Sephardic culture of his parents and grandparents, who had emigrated from Morocco to Israel in the late 1950s. Jews have lived in Morocco for millennia, coming first as traders to the Phoenician settlements along the North African coast, where they prospered, living side by side with everyone from Romans and Carthaginians to Berbers and Arabs to the French and Spanish over the long course of Morocco's history. When Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, many Sephardim found a home in Morocco, where they found echoes of the gracious, vanished lifestyle of Al Andalus. When Moroccan Jews joined the post-World War II exodus to Israel, they brought with them customs, culture and attitudes that were radically different from those of the European Jews who dominated Israel in this era. The new arrivals received a mixed welcome and were concentrated together into communities closer in flavor to the mellahs they'd left behind than the secular mainstream culture of Israel.

In towns such as Kiryat-Gat, the "Moroccans" were able to preserve the unique culture of such traditional strongholds as Casablanca, Fez, and Essaouira. The impact of growing up in such a tight-knit community was tremendous on Ben-Simhon, as he remembers: "back then Kiryat-Gat was a ghost town - all tents and metal huts. My family lived in a metal hut for a year until they moved to a small apartment. My grandmother Sultana was always my babysitter when my parents were working. At my grandparents' house, I was exposed to the Moroccan and Arabic heritage. It was in the tobacco my grandfather Mimon sniffed, the food they ate, the language they spoke and the music they listened to. They listened to radio broadcasts from Morocco, instead of Israeli radio, so Moroccan music was always in their house. We also went to a Moroccan synagogue, and there I heard the music, both liturgical hymns and secular songs. When Mimon died, Sultana moved in with us, I became very attached to her and we developed a special bond. Thanks to her, I speak Moroccan today."

But despite this remarkable cultural cohesion, there was tremendous pressure to assimilate. "Moroccan music was all around me, but I rarely heard this music on Israeli radio when I was growing up. In school they never taught us the history or heritage of the Moroccan Jews."

It was only after his own emigration to the United States that Ben-Simhon felt free to explore his cultural identity and musical roots. He arrived here in 1991, to study Classical music and Opera; first at Santa Monica college in Los Angeles, and later at Mannes Conservatory and Hunter College in New York City, where he expanded his repertoire to include jazz, drums, voice and guitar; eventually earning a Masters in music composition.

Ben-Simhon also studied non-Western music and, towards the end of his two-year program had the good fortune to attend a master class with New York's own Palestinian virtuoso-in-residence, Simon Shaheen. "He played oud and violin and explained why Arabic music has such a unique and reach sound. He helped me make sense of so much of the music I heard in my childhood. When Simon played the oud I felt something in me resonate, and I knew it was the beginning of a new musical journey. I approached Simon immediately after the lecture and I asked many questions."

These questions led Ben-Simhon to reconnect with his roots. Since so much of the music he heard in his childhood is directly connected to the Arab classical tradition, he began to seriously study Arabic music. This, in turn, led to deeper understandings and respect for the role music played in people's lives. "Music was one of the few spaces that Jews and Muslims in Arab lands could come together and share their creativity without boundaries," he says. "One of my goals is to preserve and promote Judeo Arab and Middle Eastern music in general, to create a dialogue between the two old traditions again."

His 1998 Master's Presentation, "Mediterranean Collage," his first step on this journey, was an Arabic nueba, or dance suite, scored for seven musicians (and two dancers!), that fused traditional Middle Eastern melodies and Western harmonies. In 2001 he bought his first oud from Shaheen's brother Najib and began attending Simon's annual weeklong Arabic Music Retreats. Now, with the Sultana Ensemble - named in the memory of his beloved grandmother - Ben-Simhon comes full circle, with a deeply personal album that was a lifetime in the making. Leading an all-star squad of international musicians that build an aural bridge between East and West.

Jazz and Latin music fans will recognize the prolific, two-time Grammy nominated Jay Rodriguez, who contributes saxophones, flute and clarinet to the project. The Colombian-born musician has long been a fixture on the New York scene, collaborating with the likes of Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Miles Davis, Elvis Costello and Wynton Marsalis - not to mention The New York Philharmonic and the Mingus Big Band, among many, many others. Jay is also a founding member and musical director of Groove Collective, and has even tried his hand at electronica, on the groundbreaking Batidos project for the Six Degrees label.

Bassist Emmanuel Mann comes to the Sultana ensemble via France - where he studied jazz composition in Paris - and Israel, where he made a name for himself as one of the country's top bassists; joining acclaimed ethnic ensemble Habrera Hativeet and co-founding the Bustan Abraham ensemble, which brought together Arab and Jewish traditions. He's collaborated with such notables as Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Zakir Hussein, and Andy Statman. Since 1998 he's been living in New York, bringing his uniquely rhythmic style to a whole new audience.

Rachid Halihal hails from Fez, Morocco, where he entered the Conservatory of Music at the age of fourteen, studying both Western and Arabic classical music. Halihal is an accomplished vocalist and multi-instrumental threat, playing both the oud and the violin, which he plays upright resting on the knee in the classical Arabic manner. He's collaborated with singers Michel Cohen and Mohamed Abdo, and played everywhere from the Ivory Coast to Finland to Denver. For the last seven years he's managed his own band and a nightclub in Agadir, Morocco for seven years.

Hicham Chami, who keeps Sultana on track with his accomplished qanun playing, was born in Tetuan, Morocco. Chami has studied qanun at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in Rabat at the age of eight! He currently resides in Chicago, and was named "Best Instrumentalist" by Chicago Magazine in 2002. His own group, Mosaic, performs traditional instrumental music from the North African, Sephardic, Egyptian, Levantine, Greek, Turkish, and Armenian repertoires. Hicham's first CD, Promises, recorded with percussionist Catherine Alexander, was released in January 2003.

Percussionist Yousif Sheronick, who plays darbuka, riqq, and frame drums here, is a world music specialist who appears internationally as soloist, chamber musician and collaborative artist. He's worked with such luminaries as Philip Glass, Foday Musa Suso Yo-Yo Ma, and Branford Marsalis; as well as performing companies such as the New York City Ballet, Battery Dance Company and Music from China. Sheronick has been called upon to premiere works by leading contemporary composers; including Michael Daugherty, Zhou Long, and Glen Velez. He has recorded for film and commercials as well as for the Ellipsis Arts, Koch International, PGM, Newport Classics and Interworld Music labels. Mr. Sheronick currently serves on the faculty of Concordia Conservatory.

Tomer Tzur, who contributes darbuka and riqq drumming to Sultana, came from Israel to New York, where he received a BFA from the Mannes Jazz program at New School University. In New York, Tzur has played with several Judeo-Arabic ensembles and is a co-founder of The Sway Machinery, which combines elements of klezmer and Blues/Rock.

With these talented collaborators, Ben-Simhon has composed a rich and satisfying listening experience that draws together the many divergent strands of his life. Listen closely and you'll hear a lot going on here. While the Arabic classical tradition underpins everything here - with ouds, qanuns, and darbukas ruling the roost - plenty of other traditions inform the music. "Yigdal" reconnects Morocco to Spain with a subtle flamenco flavor reminiscent of Radio Tarifa, while "Lord of Pardons" is a traditional Sephardic hymn, sung by an Iraqi cantor, and "Qasidat Essaouria" has a flute-driven Latin jazz flavor. There's even a recording of Ben-Simhon's grandmother herself that can be heard at t he end of "Sultana."

The Sultana ensemble definitely fulfills Ben-Simhon's goals of re-uniting Arabs and Jews through music; but that's not the only thing you hear on this recording. Mostly what you hear is the sound of accomplished musicians having a great time, reviving old connections and making new ones; tending their roots while shooting off fresh branches in new directions. As Yoel sings on "Berber Blues":

"No need for worry, so sing with joy and happiness/ Come witness how to live without fear"

One thinks Sultana herself would be proud.

Tom Pryor, Global Rhythm Magazine, 2004


Yoel Ben-Simhon 2004 Sultana Music - iBox Powered