Toronto cantor brings Moroccan flavour to Ashkenaz
Former Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Cantor Aaron Bensoussan said his latest musical release, A New Journey, pays homage to his rich Sephardi roots.
Although Moroccan-born Bensoussan is part of a prominent Sephardi rabbinic dynasty that dates back to Rabbi Yehuda Bensoussan, who is believed to have taught the medieval philosopher Maimonides, he has been immersed in the world of Ashkenazi chazzanut since his early teens.
As a child, Bensoussan had every intention of following in his ancestors’ footsteps to become a rabbi. Bensoussan’s father taught him about the art of Sephardi liturgical music and poetry, and he also studied with prominent Moroccan musicians.
But when he moved to New York at the age of 13, enrolled in yeshiva and was exposed to the cantorial music of Yossele Rosenblatt, he knew he wanted to be a chazzan.
“Even though it was a different culture, the Jewish neshamah [soul] is the same,” Bensoussan said.
“The Jewish cry inside of the heart is the same, but I knew that it was a challenge because one culture is falafel and hummus, and the other is herring. Two different worlds. But I was intrigued by this cantorial art. It seeped into my soul and I wanted to know more about it, and it eventually became the work of my life.”
Bensoussan has since served as cantor at three North American synagogues, and two years ago, he ended an 11-year stint at Beth Emeth.
“I wanted to be more independent. I wanted to make the world more of a stage for me,” said Bensoussan about his departure from the shul.
He said working at the synagogue meant he had to cater to the needs of many others.
“We had 1,400 families and I couldn’t do a lot of what I had inside of me… As I was doing the cantorial work, I was missing my background,” he said.
“It was like a void because [the Ashkenazi style] was not totally home for me.”
Although Bensoussan said he is grateful for the years he spent as a cantor, he’s looking forward to the opportunity to pursue his latest musical passion.
“I remember one time in the middle of a prayer, I caught myself in a flamenco mode – a real Moroccan, Tangiers, Spanish sound. And it sounded so wonderful. I was intrigued. I tried it another week and another week, and I found that the synagogue was very warm to it because it was something real that came out of this combination,” he said.
“Now I’m coming back to my piyutim [liturgical poems] and to what I grew up with. I’ve missed it so much that I’m really finding the love again.”
At 58, Bensoussan said his career has come full circle and feels it’s never too late to start on a new path, or a new journey, as his latest album suggests.
“I’m a bit nervous [about starting over] but it’s a good adrenaline. Part of performing is the nerves that go with it,” he said.
He’ll be launching the album with a performance at the Ashkenaz Festival on Sept. 2 with a band from New York directed by Adam Morrison.
The annual Ashkenaz Festival is North America’s largest festival of Yiddish and Jewish culture and runs from Aug. 28 until Sept. 3 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.
“What is interesting and great about the festival is that even though it’s called Ashkenaz, it features many Sephardi acts, like Yemen Blues,” he said.
He said he’s looking forward to promoting his latest CD, which he described as very unusual.
It contains 11th- and 12th-century poetry and prayers set to music that Bensoussan wrote.
“I wanted to use the poems in my own way. I wrote music to the poetry of these great sages. I used the influence of blues – Moroccan music is very influenced by blues,” he said.
He credited a father-son jazz duo he worked with, Jaroslav and Daniel Jakubovic, for the album’s distinct sound.
“Daniel brought the young side to it, and his father brought the jazz element. I brought in the Middle Eastern and cantorial element. The combination of these three elements is what made this record.”
For more about Bensoussan, visit www.aaronbensoussan.com.