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Pomegranates and Figs

December 23, 2008

At the weekend, I attended a concert of Jewish music entitle Pomegranates and Figs at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. I went primarily to hear Kitka, the spunky all-female vocal ensemble which specializes in performing music from Eastern traditions. But I was equally curious about the other groups on the program -- Teslim (pictured left -- a gypsy- and folk-oriented string duo featuring Kaila Flexer on violin and viola and Gari Hegedus on a variety of plucked and strummed instruments including the oud and mandocello) and The Gonifs (a klezmer band led by Jeanette Lewicki on vocals and accordion.)

Flexer organized and emceed the concert. She managed to pull together a brilliant band of musicians, including guest string players (Shira Kammen, Julian Smedley, Leah Wollenberg and Liza Wallace), a virtuostic clarinettist (Peter Jacques) and a percussionist (Faisal Ghazi Zedan) to round out some of the numbers in her own set. What was less successful, however, was the format of the evening.

The entire first hour was devoted to some rather introspective music by Teslim & co which failed to go over in the draughty, barren and entirely unintimate setting of Zellerbach Hall. Starting off with just two musicians and building to include the extra players throughout the first half of the program didn't seem to add much excitement. Only the final number before the intermission, which featured the sprightly Jaques on clarinet ignited a fire inside me.

Thankfully, the concert changed gear in the second half. Kitka performed a gut churning set of songs from all over the Jewish diaspora. I generally identify this group by their wild, penetrating and nasal sound. But during this set, the singers demonstrated a completely different aesthetic at times, singing lightly and gracefully. The two styles offset each other perfectly.

When Kitka quit the stage, The Gonifs performed some racy and touching Yiddish songs. I could have listened to this band play all night long. The musicians were not only virtuostic but had a great sense of humor. It was hard to sit still. If only Zellerbach Hall were more conducive to dancing.

The concert ended with a grand finale in the old fashioned sense of the word. Led by Flexer, all the musicians came on stage to perform the Yiddish standard "By Mir Bist Du Schein." The Gonifs' Lewicki sang the verses. She was joined by the members of Kitka, having exchanged their ethnic-y robes for plain black dresses and flamboyant 1930s style hair ornaments, on backing vocals. If I didn't know it before, I know it now: These women can sing anything.

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