Eliyahu Sills and Rachel Valfer (Photo/Redwood Rose Photography)
Eliyahu Sills and Rachel Valfer (Photo/Redwood Rose Photography)

Berkeley ensemble traverses Middle East in atmospheric new album

After studying jazz in New York City for a few years, Eliyahu Sills found himself at a crossroads, unsure of what musical path to follow. That’s when a chance encounter with a recording that featured a ney changed the course of his life.

“The sound blew me away, like the most perfect divine music I’d ever heard,” says the now-Berkeley based Eliyahu, who performs and records under that single name. A ney is an end-blown reed flute often heard in Middle Eastern music, with a history that dates back nearly five centuries. “The only thing with the same intensity was John Coltrane’s later recordings, when he was really searching.”

Eliyahu’s own search has taken him around the world, with a particular focus on the traditional music of the ancient Jewish communities that were woven into the cultures of North Africa, Central Asia, the Near East and the Middle East.

Eliyahu has set about creating a vast, sumptuous body of music inspired by these Mizrachi communities (and Sephardic, as well), incorporating their poetry and melodies, and performing the resulting songs on instruments that are somewhat foreign in the U.S.

His latest album, made in collaboration with Rachel and the Qadim Ensemble, is titled “Open the Gates.” Rachel is his wife, Rachel Valfer, and the Qadim Ensemble is one of Eliyahu’s projects.

Released on Jan. 30, the nine-track album includes Rachel on vocals, oud, guitar and kamancheh (a Persian spiked fiddle), Eliyahu on vocals, ney, upright bass, oud and bansuri (an Indian bamboo flute) and other musicians.

Eliyahu and Rachel both say that their Jewish identities are inextricably linked to their musical expression. Their music ties them directly, Rachel says, to “an ancient people who’ve wended our way through the world. Our traditions are so rich and carry flavors from all these places we’ve passed through. At the same time, we’ve influenced those cultures, too. We were often the wandering musicians and composers.”

Rachel comes from an illustrious musical family: Her mother, Lois Brandwynne, is an esteemed concert pianist; Lois’ father was a Las Vegas bandleader who accompanied stars like Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne; and her mother’s great-uncle was legendary klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein.

Many of Eliyahu and Rachel’s songs have been collected from sources around the Middle East. For example, the opening track on “Open the Gates” — based on a poem drawn from the Song of Songs, a book of the Bible comprised of a single lengthy love poem — is set to a Yemenite melody recorded by an Israeli songwriter, with only hand percussion as an accompaniment.

In the hands of Eliyahu, Rachel and the Qadim Ensemble — all of whom are based in the East Bay — the song turns into a beautifully lapidary soundscape featuring Arabic percussion, Indian santoor, Moroccan goblet drum and Turkish strings. The song is titled “El Ginat Egoz” (“To the Walnut Grove”).

Many won’t understand the Hebrew words on the track, and that even includes Israelis, because “it’s Yemenite Hebrew, which is very ancient and very poetic,” Rachel says. “The Yemenite pronunciations are closest to the original, ancient Hebrew, so it doesn’t sound anything like modern Hebrew. There are at least five different Yemenite melodies to that poem, and a bunch of recorded versions. We decided to set it to both Yemenite and Western harmonies.”

Part of what makes Qadim an extraordinary band is the way it embodies the shared history, culture and cadences that flow through the Middle East.

At a recent album-release concert that packed the Ashkenaz, the group featured Syrian-born percussion master Faisal Zedan, Moroccan percussion maestro Bouchaib Abdelhadi, Palestinian qanun standout Ali Paris (who tours with Alicia Keys), Dan Cantrell on accordion and dancer-percussionist Miriam Peretz.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.