Jewish, Arab music ensemble — to perform

Jewish, Arab music ensemble — to perform

Atzilut is a half-Jewish, half-Arab ensemble that performs classical Middle Eastern music in the cause of peace.
Atzilut is a half-Jewish, half-Arab ensemble that performs classical Middle Eastern music in the cause of peace.

The band is called Atzilut, a Hebrew world meaning the fourth and highest world or realm in Kabbalistic lore.

As far as Cantor Jack Kessler is concerned, the 10 member ensemble — half Jewish, half Arab — couldn’t have picked a better name.

“We say it’s the world of pure spirit, where the creative process arises,” said Kessler, one of its two lead singers. It’s a “nice hubristic title for a band.”

But according to Kessler, this Middle Eastern music ensemble also walks the walk. Not only do its members play hot music (if they do say so themselves), culled from classic Jewish and Arab traditions, they’re also making peace in the process.

And that is the ultimate goal of Atzilut, which will perform one of its “concerts for peace” Wednesday, Oct. 2, 7 p.m., at Washington & Jefferson College in the Olin Fine Arts Center.

“The subtext of this [ensemble] is the power of art to affect the world, affect how we think and feel,” said Kessler, who lives in the Philadelphia area. “Art is a very powerful force in the world. Art may be more powerful than politics.

“We don’t make speeches,” he added. “We don’t need to because we’re doing the real thing, which is working together. You might say we’re working for peace, but peace is working together.”

After 20 years of performing together, playing large and small venues, Atzilut can claim some impressive audiences:

• They did a concert at the United Nations for the combined diplomatic delegations.

• And they played the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen, Denmark, for an audience of some 1,500  schoolchildren — Christian, Jewish, Arabic and Turkish.

At both gigs, Kessler beamed, the band rated “a standing O.”      

“We’re a hot band,” he said. “We have three drummers. How can you go wrong with three drummers? So it’s not some new wave meditation innovation; it’s a group of guys who want to rock the room.”

And make some peace.

They do so by combining Jewish and Arab melodies — forget most of the harmonic rhythms. Sometimes Kessler and the Arab vocalist, Maurice Chedid of the Beirut Conservatory of Music, are on stage together singing simultaneously in Hebrew and Arabic.

“We have to be careful about that,” Kessler said. “It’s easy to throw it together [so] it sounds messy, but we’ve worked on it quite a bit. The fact is, the two languages are similar in sound, so it works.”

The 60-something Kessler fronts an ensemble with members in their 40s and 50s. No synthesizers in this group; you’re more likely to hear traditional instruments like the oud — a pear shaped string instrument similar to a lute.

The idea is for musicians from two ethnic groups that have rarely known peace to create a solid musical sound that the audience will walk away thinking peace is possible.

“There’s probably some people who are not going to come to this kind of performance because their politics are so strong, and that’s the unfortunate reality,” Kessler said, “but our experience is when they do come, not only do they have real good time they really come away with their attitudes adjusted about what is possible, because people are doing the real thing together. Not only are they working together, but it’s good.”

Sometimes band members talk Middle Eastern politics among themselves, he noted, but it never gets in the way of their music.

“We love what we’re doing,” Kessler said. “This ensemble is a band of brothers. Occasionally we talk about politics and we share our different points. We don’t necessarily agree, but we respect each other’s point of view.”

Want to go?

What: Atzilut: Concerts for Peace

When: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 7 p.m.

Where: Washington & Jefferson College, Olin Fine Arts Center

Contact: Box office at 724-223-6546 or

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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