In 1992 singer and composer Gerard Edery, a native of Casablanca who had sung opera professionally for 10 years, was invited to perform Sephardi music in programs commemorating the quincentenary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain.
Through these concerts, “the music of my heritage grabbed me by the heart. I began getting back into it and finding my artistic soul,” he told NJJN Jan. 16 via Skype from Warsaw (he was on a family visit to Poland, where he has done several concert tours, two sponsored by the U.S. embassy there).
The confluence of Edery’s Sephardi heritage — Judeo-Spanish on his mother’s side and Judeo-Arabic on his father’s — the commemoration, and the birth of his first child prompted him to begin a journey of gathering, performing, and composing Sephardi music. The fruits of his musical awakening will be on display when he serves as artist-in-residence at the Jan. 30-31 Union for Reform Judaism regional Shabbaton at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield.
The climax of the event, on Saturday at 5 p.m., will be a premiere performance of Edery’s and Noa Ain’s reformulated Song of the Turtledove, a musical theater adaptation of the biblical Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) that centers on the unfolding of an erotic relationship that becomes the doorway to spiritual transformation.
Ner Tamid’s Cantor Meredith Greenberg, who will perform the role of “She” in the piece, told NJJN she had known of Edery and his work and heard him many times in recording, but had never worked with him before.
“He is an extremely gifted musician and oozes musical experience,” Greenberg said.
Speaking of the co-composers, she added, “The combination of the two of them is a very intense work environment, with lots of improvisation, discussion, insight on the best use of which piece, which text, which order.”
Both Edery and Ain, who wrote the libretto and music, “are bold,” said Greenberg. “They have written beautiful pieces of music, but if one doesn’t work, they are willing to throw it out.”
When Song of the Turtledove was written 10 years ago, it was selected to be developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., and was later performed at a musical theater festival at Lincoln Center. For lack of a producer, the work was then moved to the back burner until a year ago, when the composers decided to revive it.
In addition to the original “He” and “She” characters, they created an additional role, the “Spiritual Caller,” which, Edery said, “hearkens to the very spiritual basis to all love.” The work has influences from Sephardi, flamenco, jazz, and classical music, and well-known South African stage director Hilary Blecher was brought in several months ago to strengthen the dramatic side. In the piece, Zack Mayer plays sax, Edery guitar, and both will do percussion.
Edery, whose family moved to Paris when he was four, then to New York City when he was close to nine, said of his multicultural experiences, “It took me a long time to reconcile all of the various influences in my life.”
As a young adult he worked for about five years in the family textile business, which, as eldest son, he was expected to take over. But in his early 20s he decided to pursue the music he had been performing since age three. He auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music, was offered a scholarship to study opera, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in operatic performance.
After his 1992 epiphany, Edery embarked on his exploration of Sephardi music. He amassed “a pretty important library of Sephardi music,” he said — given to him from colleagues, remembered from his childhood, and published works. He also approached veteran Sephardi musicians after concerts. “The older generation would pull me aside and literally sing me certain songs they had grown up with,” he said.
He picked up his guitar once again and undertook serious study of flamenco, classical, and folk guitar. He also collaborated with world-class virtuosos Aaron Bensoussan and Alberto Mizrahi.
Edery acknowledged wide influences in his “el-Andalusian” composing style, from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to the flamenco music of southern Spain to music created by the Mizrahi population (Jews from Muslim countries like Algeria, where his grandmother is from). He is also drawn to Sephardi liturgical pieces that use Arabic melodies and go back to the time of Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, doctor, and Torah scholar who left his native Spain and settled in Fez, Morocco, then the heart of the Muslim world.
“The beauty of the Golden Age was the interchange of ideas, music, and culture,” Edery said. “There are a lot of Arabic street songs that were adapted to the Jewish liturgy; whatever melody inspires the soul to pray to God was fine according to Maimonides.”