Music with a Sephardic soul and an Ashkenazi heart
By Cindy Mindell
Tenor Cantor Aaron Bensoussan was born in Mogador (now Essaouira), Morocco to a prominent rabbinic dynasty that can trace its lineage back to Maimonides. His grandfather, Rabbi Haim Bensoussan, was the chief rabbi of Morocco in Casablanca.
At age eight, Bensoussan taught himself to play the ‘oud (lute) and darbouka (goblet drum). Around the time of his bar mitzvah, his mother took him for lessons with Moshe Afriat, one of the great Moroccan masters of the ‘oud and piyutim (Jewish liturgical poems).
In 1968, the then 14-year-old was sent by his parents to join his older brother in New York and to study at yeshiva with the intention of entering the rabbinate. After attending several yeshivot there and the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago, he graduated from Queens College in New York and began to explore a musical career, studying at Yeshiva University Belz School of Music and enrolling in the Cantors Institute (now the H. L. Miller Cantorial School) of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
At age 24, Bensoussan began his cantorial career as chazzan at the Sephardic Jewish Center in Forest Hills, N.Y., a position he held for five years. After graduating from JTS in 1986, he served as cantor of Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, N.Y. and then as cantor of Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. for 11 years. From 1999 to 2010, he was cantor of Congregation Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda in Toronto, ending his tenure to do more performing and recording.
A prolific composer who blends the Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, he has toured extensively throughout the United States, Israel and Europe performing in synagogues, festivals, and concert halls including Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv.
Bensoussan will be guest cantor in West Hartford on Friday and Saturday, Apr. 25 and 26, at Beth El Temple and Beth David Synagogue.
He spoke with the Ledger about how a nice Sephardi boy developed a passion for Ashkenazi music, and how he unites the two.
Q: What is it about Ashkenazi chazzanut that impresses you?
A: When I first came here, my brother played me a record of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, the king of all chazzanim, who sang in a unique way, like Caruso. His compositions were different from the others; they were like operatic arias. He was a frum (observant) guy with a beard who was living his life as a chazzan and not doing it for fame. He meant what he was singing, which was a special thing. I had goosebumps from the singing and I said, ‘With God’s help, if I ever grow up, this is what I would like to be.’
I went to yeshiva and university for a few years and I wanted to go to a more serious program, so I enrolled at JTS. That’s where I met Joseph Ness [cantor of Beth El Temple in West Hartford]. I’m trying to learn about nusach ha-tefillah [musical modes for prayer] and he was writing scores by ear and was a great musician. It was like the ABCs for him. I didn’t know music and I took a whole year to learn the basics and then studied four years to become a full-fledged chazzan. [It was] the best four years of my life.
I had really good teachers: Cantor David Koussevitsky, brother of Moshe Koussevitsky, a famous chazzan; Cantor Moshe Ganchoff, and Cantor Jack Mendelson. There’s nobody like them today; authentic chazzanim who bring the tradition from the shtetl. Instead, today there are experts in chazzanut as an art form.
Q: What are some differences between the two traditions?
A: I used to go to shul with my father very early on Friday morning for he used to wake me up very early for bakashot piyyutim, poems that belong to the parsha of the week. The paytanim [Jewish poets] took Arabic, Andalusian, and classical Moroccan music and put the holy text into them. It’s not necessarily Middle Eastern music because it has Western tonations, especially in the nusach. When the Jews came from Spain during the Inquisition, they brought typical Spanish-Jewish music with them – flamenco and others – mostly from Andalusia. This gave me a flavor of that kind of music – going to shul and loving the piyutim.
When I first heard Ashkenazi chazzanut, I didn’t know how they made those sounds. I thought, how can the voice cry like that? There were grace notes all over the place and I was very moved by the sound. As a Moroccan, I was not trained to sing with the diaphragm, but with the throat, which is a different technique. Ashkenazi is more operatic. To sing chazzanut is very hard on the throat; you have to maintain a high tessitura [musically acceptable and comfortable range]. You do not find this in Morocco, except Moroccan tenors can go higher because they are not stiff like an opera singer and have an easier technique to do so.
I listened to those chazzanim and how virtuosic their voices are; it’s like a Broadway show. You have to know music and piano and harmony, which is not in existence in the Moroccan world. We don’t sing with harmonies but everybody sings in unison. It’s beautiful, but it’s not like a show.
I’m more [in sync] with the Ashkenazi tradition than the Sephardi. I went to yeshivot for six years, where I learned Yiddish and then continued taking classes and listening to Yiddish for most of my life. I also sing in Yiddish.
Q: How have you bridged the two traditions?
A: I was cantor in an Ashkenazi Conservative shul with an organ and a mixed choir. One time I was davening and all of a sudden I ended up in Morocco. Afterwards, people gave me a lot of compliments and asked, “What did you do?” I said, “I just stepped out of the building and into Morocco.” It started naturally: I missed my davening and branched out, and it became a style that I do every Shabbat because that’s how I daven. Coming from a rabbinic family in Morocco, I wanted to go back to my traditions and to something I lived before and left. I wanted my children to be brought up in a modern Orthodox yeshiva, in a kosher community with a synagogue nearby. The opportunity came in 1999 at Congregation Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda in Toronto, when Cantor Louis Dento retired. I sang with him many times and wanted to follow somebody I knew with a cantorial tradition and a male choir, the way the Conservative movement was 50 years ago; it’s really “Conservadox.” I also help at the Lubavitch synagogue on the High Holidays and on Shabbat.
Now, the only chance I have to use the Sephardi cantorial tradition is in concerts. My specialty is to intertwine both traditions. It’s somewhat original; it’s been done before but not in a big way. Cantor [and musicologist] Leib Glantz lived in Israel in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and listened to the Arabs singing from the mosque in the morning, and composed a lot of music during that time, using those motifs. Now I’m trying to make this scientific, and I’m studying the Sephardi mode to understand why it’s interesting and see if it’s possible to teach it as a form of cantorial music. Everything evolves, and so do cantorial styles, so why not say that there’s a hybrid style of Ashkenazi-Sephardi chazzanut that people can enjoy, that includes some of the style you grew up with?
I’m also taking ‘oud lessons with a Palestinian teacher living in Toronto who also speaks Hebrew. I want to sing with Arabs and in Arabic. The koach [power] of music has no end; in fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that the Mashiach will come because of singing. I teach the Andalusian-style piyutim a little to men and women and want to do more; it’s in style now.
I’m happy to see that Beth El and Beth David are doing a program together. Music can bring peace, and this is our work. We know we won’t always get along with words, but if we sit down together to listen to notes and the neshama [soul] of the music, we can get along.
West Hartford Sephardic Shabbat collaboration: Soul Songs Sephardic Friday night services: Friday, Apr. 25, 6 p.m., Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford | Optional dinner following services: $16/adult; $10/child 12 and younger | Prepaid reservations by 4/23: (860) 233-9696 / email@example.com.
Annual Sephardic Shabbat: Apr. 26, 9:30 a.m., Beth David Synagogue, 20 Dover Road, West Hartford | Full program: bethdavidwh.org / (860) 236-1241.
Comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.