Moroccan-born cantor will open Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley

If Cantor Aaron Bensoussan were a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he might have nominated "Shine" for this year's best original score.

In chronicling the emotional collapse of a Jewish classical pianist, the film featured the dark and dramatic compositions of Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose massive chords and lyrical melodies nearly broke the composure of the Long Island tenor.

"I was in pieces," said Bensoussan from his home in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. "I told my wife, `You're lucky I didn't faint.'"

The internationally known performer hopes he'll have a similar effect on his first Bay Area audience when he opens the 12th annual Jewish Music Festival on Sunday, March 2 in Berkeley with a concert that traces his cultural heritage.

The music of classical masters has long mesmerized the Moroccan-born vocalist and rabbi's son. Bensoussan grew up in Mogador, a century-old city on the Atlantic Ocean, "with walls like Jerusalem…and 50 or 60 little, tiny shuls" serving the 25,000 Jews who lived there until the Six-Day War.

While his playmates listened to popular music at local restaurants, Bensoussan sat alone at home straining to catch every note of the operatic-like Andalusian music coming out of the radio.

"I didn't even want to hear [the buzz of] a fly," he said. "I was concentrating…on the ancient Arabic music that originated in Turkey" and traveled to North Africa with the Jews when they were ousted from Spain in the 15th century.

Yet what etched the soul of a 7-year-old more profoundly than the music of his homeland was the beat of distant drummers. Traveling minstrels who crossed the Atlas Mountains from Sudan gave street performances in Bensoussan's neighborhood.

"They went from window to window," he said. "People would give them pennies."

There was no way he could maintain a polite distance from the hypnotic rhythms. "I liked the drumming," he said. "I came out [of the house] and danced with my shoulders."

Some family members thought the rabbi's son was making a spectacle of himself.

Others said, "Leave him alone, he's just a kid."

When his parents moved to Israel, Bensoussan left Africa at 14, moving with a brother to New York. He distinguished himself at several U.S. schools, including the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he received his cantorial training.

Now at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, a Conservative, predominantly Ashkenazi synagogue of 1,200, he approaches the challenge of merging his Sephardic roots with a European-American culture as an actor might prepare for a role.

"How does Tracey Ullman do all those characters?" he asked. "It's training."

It's also knowing that "all Jews are Jewish," and intertwining the two worlds is no big deal "when it comes to spirituality.

"I feel like I can fit the part of a Jew in Poland," he said. "How can this be?"

Moroccans don't want gefilte fish, he said. They want their own food, their own music.

But because he studied so much Judaism — first with his father in Morocco, later at several yeshivas in the United States — he is able to focus on the commonalities in both cultures without difficulty.

Having performed in Russia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Israel, Canada, Australia and the United States, the cantor has built a repertoire that includes original Sephardic compositions, Israeli and Chassidic melodies, Yiddish pieces, operas and Broadway ballads. He often accompanies himself on the oud (Arabic lute) and darbouka (Arabic hand drum).

But he may not know what's going to come out of his mouth till he steps up to the mike.

"I'm just going to sing," he said.

He compared his musical style to the improvisational lifestyle of his friend, author Michel Abehsera.

The free-spirited writer's house was always open and he was always cooking. There were 15 to 17 people there every Sabbath. He had seven children.

Abehsera, who penned "The Impossible Man" as well as a macrobiotic cookbook, told everyone that his friend Bensoussan "sings the way I cook."

Spontaneity remains Bensoussan's main musical mantra. "I should never have taken lessons," he said.

"It's a good thing I didn't learn too much."