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Songs in a Different Key

Barbara Bensoussan

For Chazzan Yehezkel Zion, plumbing the richness of Sephardic music isn’t just another job; it’s an avodah — a way to preserve a magnificent liturgical heritage, pass on a generations-old family tradition, and, now that the wedding season is back in full swing, joyfully enhance the mitzvah of gladdening the hearts of a new troupe of chattanim and kallot.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

People who live in Israel or visit frequently often think they know what Sephardic music is all about. After all, they hear it blaring from taxi radios. What they don’t realize is that comparing Israeli pop music to traditional Sephardic chazzanut and orchestra-accompanied classical singing is like comparing, l’havdil, the Rolling Stones to Beethoven. Far from frenzied, thumping dance music, traditional Sephardic music is stately, exalted, and as demanding to sing as any Western opera — with a repertoire equally as vast.

Chazzan and singer Yehezkel Zion has been immersed in this tradition since he was a baby; today, he is at the top of his form. Watching him perform in concert is transfixing. He has a relaxed, unhurried, self-assured presence on stage, despite the fact that Sephardic music demands the ability to perform runs and trills, to hold notes for lengthy intervals, move between scales, and hit half and quarter tones with a precision beyond the reach of most Western-trained ears. His masterful tenor is backed up by an orchestra that includes both Western instruments (keyboard, violins, flutes) and Arabic ones: an oud (a sort of guitar resembling a balalaika), darabukas (bongo-type drums), and a kanun (zither-type instrument that makes wonderfully celestial rippling chords). The music ranges from joyous to solemn, and while strongly rhythmic, it always contains great dignity and expressiveness.

At his home in Brooklyn, Mr. Zion’s manner is equally relaxed and welcoming. Despite its location in Kensington, the Zion residence evokes a sense of Middle Eastern elegance with its spare, airy decor and gracefully carved furniture. Large framed photos of Chacham Ovadiah Yosef shlita and Rav Nissim Yagen ztz”l hang conspicuously in the hallway; a small piano sits in a corner of the living room. Today the house is quiet; the older boys are still at work, the younger ones in day camp, Mrs. Zion tackling a summer project in the basement with one of her daughters.

“I have a big brachah in my job,” Yehezkel says as we sit down. “Most of my work takes place at simchahs. This week I have four weddings. There was one year I performed at more than seventy weddings. If you take away Shabbat and all the days we don’t make weddings, that’s a lot.”

He takes his responsibility as a wedding chazzan very seriously. “I think a wedding is the most important day in a person’s life. And when all is said and done, what makes the simchah is the music. People don’t remember the food or the flowers so much; it’s the music they remember.” To illustrate his point he relates that once he got a call the day after a wedding made by a wealthy Syrian businessman. The baal simchah called to say that he wanted to pay Zion more than the price they’d agreed upon. “That was a million-dollar wedding. This guy spent $200,000 just on flowers, but he told me after the wedding all the compliments he got were about the music!”

Whatever opinion one might hold about the appropriateness of spending a million dollars on a wedding (“Those people give lots of tzedakah,” Zion feels compelled to add), it’s true that music plays a starring role in Sephardic weddings. Unlike many an Ashkenazic wedding, in which the chuppah is a relatively cut-and-dried affair and the family walks down the aisle to the strains of the chassan’s best friend struggling through “Mi Adir” or “Eishes Chayil,” a Sephardic ceremony is long on pomp and circumstance. It often takes a full hour, beginning with the chazzan striding magisterially down the aisle in full regalia of robe and toque (sometimes a suit, depending on family preference), his voice filling the hall.

While many families can afford to pay handsomely for a good chazzan, Zion doesn’t mind revealing that he does some weddings pro bono. “In the Syrian community, the bride’s side pays for almost everything, but the chattan’s side pays for the music. If the bride’s family is making a lavish wedding and the groom’s side can’t afford to pay for a chazzan at the level of the rest of the wedding, sometimes I accommodate them. Baruch Hashem, the community is wealthy enough that I make enough parnassah from other weddings.”   

Zion’s talents have taken him all over the world, to Europe and South America and, most recently, Singapore, where he and his two sons spent Purim in order to sing at the wedding of the daughter of Iraqi coffee magnate Victor Sassoon. But the international, glitzy, million-dollar weddings that Zion often performs at these days are a far cry from his origins as the child of impoverished Iraqi immigrants to Israel.


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