Rachel Valfer (Photo/Courtesy Qadim Ensemble)
Rachel Valfer (Photo/Courtesy Qadim Ensemble)

Mizrachi music on the rise, says Berkeley musician

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Though she grew up playing Bach and Beethoven on the cello, Rachel Valfer remembers, even as a little girl, feeling deeply moved by the modal melodies of Middle Eastern music. And she thinks she knows why.

“So many Middle Eastern musicians are Jewish,” says the Berkeley native, “because we feel it. It’s in our bones in some way. And we’re interested in returning to where we come from.”

Valfer is a member of the Qadim Ensemble, a Bay Area-based quartet that specializes in the music of the Middle East and North Africa. She plays guitar and oud (an Arab lute) and sings lead vocals in many languages, including Arabic, Turkish, Farsi and Greek.

When she performs on Thursday, May 14 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, she’ll stick mostly to piyyutim (sacred songs) sung in Hebrew and Ladino, the languages of Mizrachi Jews.

Accompanying her at the free concert and talk will be two of her Qadim colleagues, percussionist Faisal Zedan and Eliyahu Sills, who plays the ney, a Middle Eastern-style flute.

Valfer, 40, knows most Jewish concertgoers are familiar with the klezmer music of Eastern European Jewry. But she also believes the music of Mizrachi Jews — Jews indigenous to the Middle East — has caught up with its Ashkenazi cousin.

“It’s becoming more widely appreciated, especially among the youth,” she says. “In Israel there’s a whole movement of returning to roots. Even here [Jews] see their roots in the Middle East.”

Zedan, her Qadim partner, is not Jewish. He is a Syrian-born Arab Druze who lives in the Bay Area. To Valfer, who grew up in a Jewish home, this exemplifies the unifying power of music.

Valfer is the latest in a long line of musicians on her mother’s side. Her uncle, Naftule Brandwine, was one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed klezmer clarinetists. She grew up on that music, but one of her teachers at El Cerrito’s Tehiyah Day School (a Jewish K-8 school her parents co-founded) exposed her to a steady diet of Yemenite and Ladino music, which stirred something in young Rachel.

“I always ran towards anything Middle Eastern,” she recalls. “When I finally got to Israel at [age] 21, I was head over heels.”

She studied ethnomusicology at a small conservatory in Jerusalem, which she describes as a ”Gan Eden of cultures.” Students came from all over the world, including the Muslim world, to study there. “There was no question of getting along,” she adds, “because we were there for music.”

Valfer took up the oud and learned to sing the evocative music of the region. She also earned a master’s degree in Jewish civilization at Hebrew University. After eight years in Israel, she returned to the Bay Area where she joined the popular Middle Eastern music ensemble Zatar.

It was in that band that she met Sills, who mastered the flute after studying in Morocco, Turkey and Israel. The two fell in love, married and have two children. They also formed Qadim, recorded two albums, and continue to perform. Multi-instrumentalist Geri Hegudus is the fourth member of the band.

The upcoming concert at the Jewish Community Library will likely draw a mostly Jewish audience, but Valfer hopes the music of Qadim will touch the hearts of all people.

“We all have this love of the music,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who it belongs to or where it comes from. We find beauty, we find God, in the music. That bond is stronger than any political murkiness.”

“Musikah Mizrahit: Music of the Near East,” 7 p.m. Thursday, May 14 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Dessert reception follows. RSVP: (415) 567-3327 ext. 703

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.