Moroccan singer Jo Amar passed away last week in New York at 79. Amar was an Israeli icon who emigrated to the Jewish state in the 1950s and is credited with being a pioneer of the style of music known today as mizrahi.
My friend Sam Thomas, an expert on Sephardic music, sent along an appraisal of Amar’s contributions. Here’s a sample:
It is in this last arena where Amar’s greatest passion would reside. He was a lover of hazzanut and felt a special honor in performing Jewish liturgy. One of his most important recordings was a multi-record anthology of Moroccan liturgical music. Remarking on Israeli television in 1980, "All of me lives these pieces…I love hazzanut. It’s the singing of the heart…of the neshama. Its not like a song – a popular song or a love song. You have to live it." As Nancy Amar, his daughter-in-law confided, "His prayers were very inspiring…meaningful praying." His kavannah on any given Shabbat, in the Young Israel of Five Towns or at a synagogue in Brooklyn, was truly remarkable. He kept embellishments simple, infusing his hazzanut with Moroccan traditions but making sure that anybody participating would find his role as shliah tzibur fulfilling. According to Rabbi Dahan, he felt it was his halakhic duty to do so. Further evidence of his passion for hazzanut was the many students he had and countless workshops on Jewish liturgy in which he participated in around the world.
In the mid-1990s Amar returned to his home to live full-time in Israel. His connection with Israel was always strong and he never shied away from his obligations as an Israeli citizen. He sang songs honoring soldiers, including Eli Cohen and Natan. He composed and recorded Lishkat Avodah, a song exposing inequalities in Israeli society that he felt needed addressing. He inspired bands like Lehakat Tziley Ha’ud, who in the early 1970s rerecorded his now ubiquitous version of the Sephardi piyyut Shalom L’ven Dodi. He used his voice to make traditions of his Moroccan brethren known by recording important piyyutim, the vernacular Arabic qasida Yosef ha’tzadik, and even ‘Ala Andalusit classical north African music.
Here’s a video of Amar from a wedding in 1990. The guy playing saxophone a few minutes in is the popular wedding performer Arkady Kofman, who once gave me a memorable saxophone lesson at his apartment in Queens.