Playing with ‘Fragments’
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Playing with ‘Fragments’

American-Iraqi-Ashkenazi Jewish musician Yoni Battat puts the pieces together

Musician Yoni Battat has just released his first album, “Fragments.”
Musician Yoni Battat has just released his first album, “Fragments.”

Yoni Battat’s new album — his first solo one — isn’t called “Fragments” by accident.

In it, Mr. Battat, whose family combines disparate Jewish histories, whose lyrics are based on a range of texts in a number of languages, whose instincts are tempered by study and the application of intellectual knowledge, and whose music is informed by Jewish influences from all over, uses everything he knows (as he must, because it’s all inside him).

It could also have been called “Bridges,” or “Connections,” because he makes them, or “Memories,” because that’s what it’s intended to evoke.

There’s a lot there, and that’s accurate. Mr. Battat is just 30, but he’s done and learned and thought about and created a lot.

So let’s dig in.

Yoni Battat was born in Woodbridge, a small Connecticut town near New Haven, to Eitan and Stacey Battat. His mother’s background is standard Ashkenazi — his grandparents lived in Brooklyn, and the family emigrated from eastern Europe a few generation back, no longer in living memory.

The name “Battat” means “Duck,” Yoni said; that’s why there’s a duck on the cover of “Fragments.”

His father’s parents, Violet and Abraham Battat, were born in Iraq; they went to Israel in 1951, and then in the 1970s, when Eitan, their oldest, was almost college age, Abraham Battat brought his four children to the United States. Violet and Abraham had not separated, except, for the most part, physically. Violet Battat stayed in Israel for years after her husband left, “because she had a big career in Israel’s Arabic-language radio station as a radio personality,” her grandson said. “She was very good with language and dialect, so she was able to speak with anyone, regardless of their dialect. So she interview women from around the Middle East. Not just Jewish women — my understanding is that she had non-Jewish listeners from around the Jewish world.”

“I grew up with a lot of Judaism in my house,” Mr. Battat said. “A lot of Shabbat. A lot of Jewish music. There’s a lot of Jewish community where I grew up. I went to the Solomon Schechter day school in Woodbridge  — it’s called the Ezra Academy now — and I went to the JCC. We went to synagogue.” The shul his family went to was Chabad. “It’s where my dad felt most comfortable,” he said. “It most resembled what he knew in Jerusalem.”

He also grew up with music. “My family is musical, although none of them really play anything,” he said. But he started playing violin when he was 4; “my parents heard that it was good for babies’ brain development,” he said. And clearly it took.

(Photo by Leah Carnow)

And “I grew up with a strong Iraqi identity at home,” he added. “My dad’s parents were both part of my life. I heard them speak Arabic. And my dad shared a lot of Iraqi music with me; a lot of Middle Eastern pop music too. And then, outside the house, it was all Ashkenazi.”

A lot of fragments, all jostling up against each other.

“I started playing Jewish music, and I was a good violinist,” Mr. Battat said. “My parents wanted that to be part of my identity too. I had the amazing option of joining the local pick-up intergenerational klezmer band called the New Haven Kapelye — they still exist and I still play with them sometimes.

“When I went to Hebrew high school, I had the chance to play klezmer even more, and I loved it. It became a big part of my musical voice. I even started my own klezmer band with my friends. The Klezmaniacs. We played at our siblings’ bar and bat mitzvahs; we probably played at about 10 of them.

“When I was 16, I had my first engagement with Arabic classical music. It’s like my DNA; it’s the sound of what my ancestors heard in Iraq.” He’d been on a family trip to Israel, and “my grandfather bought me an oud and took me to a music school where I was about to learn about the modal system.” (An oud short-necked, pear-shaped instrument that looks a little like a lute.)

“It’s an amazing and intricate system, and from both an emotional and intellectual way I was hooked on it. It has much more melodic complexity, and it even has notes that don’t exist in Western music. It adds rich opportunities for expression. It’s beautiful, and it didn’t sound familiar to me.

“But other than having the oud and noodling around on it for a couple of years, I didn’t have much formal education with it.”

During the course of that one year, Mr. Battat got his first oud and started his first klezmer band. Fragments!

Mr. Battat went to college at Brandeis, where he majored in classical viola; he loved the school. (“Brandeis isn’t a conservatory, but it has a very beautiful, very strong musical program,” he said. “I was one of maybe five music majors. It’s a go—getter, do-it-yourself kind of place, where you had the opportunity to start whatever you want. It was cool.”)

“I had a klezmer band that I ran there, and I also studied Yiddish,” he said. “I knew that if I wanted to be a klezmer musician, I had to know Yiddish.”

Yoni Battat’s first instrument was a violin; he began playing when he was 4. (Richard Ijeh)

At the same time, “there was a postdoctoral fellow who started an Arabic music ensemble, and I had the opportunity to play oud and violin. That was Dr. Ann Lucas,” an ethnomusicologist who “specializes in music traditions of the Persian and Arabic-speaking Near East,” according to her biography on Boston College’s website; she teaches there now. She plays the ney, a flute-like wind instrument that’s used mainly in Arabic music; “she brought in amazing musicians who are experts to play with us, and this was my first formal opportunity to learn and perform this music,” Mr. Battat said.

After that experience, he began to study Arabic music in depth. He also continued to play klezmer; he started an ensemble with the marvelous name of Two Shekel Swing. “It’s a Yiddish swing group; we recorded a little and toured a little,” he said. “It was fun. And I still was tyring to figure out where there was room for Arabic music.”

While he was at Brandeis, Mr. Battat met Leah Carnow and they’ve been together ever since; they got married in 2019. They spent a year in Jerusalem; “she went to study at a liberal yeshiva” — counterintuitively named the Conservative Yeshiva, it’s a Conservative movement outpost in Israel. “She wanted to see if she was interested in learning Talmud.” She was — she’s a rabbinical student now at Hebrew College in Boston. When they were there, “I discovered an amazing Middle Eastern music school, and I studied there for a full year,” Mr. Battat said. “I met some amazing people, influential teachers, began performing, and by the end of that year I was gigging with an Arabic orchestra and playing piyyutim from various traditions — Syrian, Iraqi, Moroccan.” (A piyyut is a chanted or sung liturgical verse.)

“I left that year with a much stronger grasp of the musical language. And I also am studying Arabic. I’d taken a year of formal Arabic at college but when I lived in Jerusalem I studied colloquial Arabic.” So Mr. Battat, the grandson of a woman who could speak many languages and dialects, and did so on the radio, now speaks both formal and colloquial Arabic, Yiddish, and Hebrew, at least well enough to get by.

Now Mr. Battat is back in Israel. “I’m part of the Dorot fellowship, which is offering me an amazing chance to develop myself,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for a lot of learning and personal growth, and I’m excited about immersing myself in Arabic.

“It feels like it’s never enough.”

For now, he said, “I’m intentionally putting Yiddish music and klezmer on the back burner.” Not forever — “I like playing with Two Shekel Swing, and I have ideas for songs I want to write and albums I want to record.” But for now, “it feels like I need to make space in my life for this different style. It feels like I’m making up for lost time.

“It feels like I am coming into it as an outsider. It is part of my fragmentation.”

The album “Fragmentation” came out just a little later than Mr. Battat had planned; he’d wanted to have his first album released before he turned 30, but it didn’t happen until after that birthday. (There was a pandemic on.) The impetus was a fellowship “that gave me the kick in the pants I needed to put it together,” he said.

That kick came from the Jewish Creative Fellowship; it is funded by CJP — that’s Boston’s Jewish federation, more formally the Combined Jewish Philanthropies – and the Jewish Arts Collaborative. “It helps promote and create Community around Jewish art,” Mr. Battat said. “I was the first person in its first cohort.

“So I had the funding and the time and the administrative support and the resources to make it happen. It really was a miracle.”

He encountered some roadblocks that he constructed for himself, Mr. Battat said.

“I knew that I wanted it to be in Arabic musical style. I would write something, and I wouldn’t know if it was authentic, or good enough, or right. There are rules to this amazing, intricate, beautiful art that I really revered and felt was too special for me.

“So I had to reckon with what is my right as a half-Iraqi, half-Ashkenazi American Jew to represent Iraqi culture to an audience that doesn’t know much about it.”

Arabic music is Jewish Iraqi music, Mr. Battat said. “It’s the modal system. It’s called Maqam, which means place.” That’s fascinating, because Makom means place in Hebrew; the two languages are close. And Makom also is a name for God. It’s the musical language that all Iraqis grew up hearing for hundreds of years, he said. “Muslim music, Christian music, Jewish music — it doesn’t matter. The words are different but the music would be the same. It’s just like American Jews grow up hearing pop music. And of course there is a huge repertoire of piyyutim and nusach that’s specifically Jewish.

“In this album, my goal was to use the Arabic classical music language, Maqam, as authentically as I can, but with new melodies of my own. It’s to make sense of the experience I have with my fragmented identity, and my yearning to connect with my Iraqi roots, but having a hard time doing it.

“I didn’t grow up with these melodies. I didn’t speak Arabic. My grandmother died when I was 10 and my grandfather died when I was 18. So I had this mystery in my head. I was in the weird position of yearning for something that I couldn’t possibly grasp, and doing the best that I could do.

“How do we reach memory and history? We use our senses. The sound of water. The sound of voices. The sense of smell. Of touch. You can imagine, with the combination of senses, and you can animate your sense of ancestry and of memory.

“It’s that subconscious sense of memory” — a sense of tribal memory — “that I’m interested in getting at.”

He has a visual example of what he wants to reproduce in sound. “I had letters from my grandfather, beautiful letters that he wrote to my grandmother when they were living apart,” Mr. Battat said. “They were written in Arabic and Hebrew”; the alphabet he used would change along with the words. “It’s very beautiful,” he said.

The texts for the songs are in Arabic and Hebrew, with some English; Mr. Battat found them and set them to music. Some are quite old; some were found in the Cairo genizah, the above-ground burial site for sacred texts, he said. “Bit by bit I pieced together an album with the theme of memory, and how we work to access those memories.” It’s about how fragments of memory, fragments of sensual experiences and half-remembered ancestral images, stories, and dreams all come together.

You can hear how Mr. Battat does it by going to his website, yonibattat.com.

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