Released late in a year in which our individual and collective feeling of connection to other people and especially loved ones has been physically and emotionally challenged and frayed like never before, Israeli singer Gitit Shoval’s Connected arrives as the solace, comfort, healing, hope and courage to carry on that our weary bodies and souls have been longing for.
Just as secular folks and nonbelievers can joyfully sing Christmas hymns and groove on gospel music, listeners need not be of the Jewish faith to appreciate and take to heart the veteran Israeli singer’s engaging, infectious and ultimately soul-stirring musical journey into Jewish Prayers. Nor does one need to literally understand the 12 mostly Hebrew prayer texts set to music to appreciate the emotional/spiritual depth of the collection as Shoval – leading a large ensemble featuring vocals by her husband Ron Druyan (who also plays piano) and their daughter Tutti Druyan – leads us from the soaring, ethereal opener “R’Tzei (featuring a hypnotic bass solo by jazz great John Patitucci) to “Oseh Shalom,” a lush, easy flowing pop duet with a male singer she calls “our dear friend from Iran.”
Though she’s been recording for decades, Shoval released her first English language EP Autumn Leaves a few years ago, so she may be new on your radar. A little background: Considered on of Israel’s musical treasures she was first discovered at 13 at a pre-Eurovision contest. She became an overnight sensation and spent her teens touring her home country, releasing her debut solo album Taklit Rishon at 16. As part of her service for the Israeli Defense Force, she performed extensively, lifting the spirits of every soldier.
Around the time she completed her army service, she met Ron, a music producer and Berklee College of Music graduate. Over the years, in addition to a multitude of solo albums, Shoval and Ron opened Tomitoot Productions, which became one of Israeli’s top studios, catering mainly with cartoon voice overs. Shoval provided the Hebrew voices for numerous iconic cartoon characters, including Smurfette from the Smurfs and Barbie from the Barbie direct-to-DVD movie series. In addition, the studios produced four platinum selling holiday albums in Hebrew featuring Shoval.
While her deep family and musical connections (including a five piece string section) lay the foundations, the album, above all, expresses her feeling of being more deeply connected to her faith tradition and its divinely inspired prayers and musical traditions than at any point in her career. As she explains on her Kickstarter page for Connected, over the past few years, she began serving as a cantorial singer at Temple Emanuel in Andover, MA. “I do not come from a religious family,” she says, “but excellent music and beautiful lyrics always spoke to me. I do not think that I have ever come across music that affected me as much as the music at the Temple does. It deepens my ability to be emotional and vulnerable.
“Through this music,” Shoval adds, “I learned that it’s okay to break my walls in front of the world and to open a window to my soul. And this is where the name for this album came from, - because this is simply the truth, this is truly what happened to me, I became connected. And if you ask me what to, my answer is - to everything. It started with myself and continued to my surroundings, to a connection to my being which could be called the universe. A connection stemming from an emotional strength, that isn’t religious, it is spiritual.”
In essence, Connected is one extraordinarily talented, keenly intuitive artist’s ultimate gift of expression via a vibrant fusion of ancient texts and contemporary music styles ranging from pop, jazz and folk to classical, electronica, orchestral, dance and intricately textured vocal harmony music.
Shoval shares the breath of life on the lyrical acoustic ballad “Elohai N’Shama,” exhorts us to guard our tongues from evil, turn away from bad and do good on the hypnotic triple vocal harmony showcase “Mi Ha’ish,” blesses us with a prayer for God to grant peace, goodness and compassion over the sweeping strings of “Sim Shalom” and creates the Hebrew equivalent of a down home, Americana styled gospel song with “Adonai S’fatai Tifach,” complete with a vocal choir and the beautiful harmonica lacings of Roni Eytan. A dashing violin invites us into and offers kind harmonic caress for Shoval’s stirring vocals on one of the project’s centerpieces “Avinu Malkeinu,” the familiar prayer that is sung during the sacred period between Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. It’s a request made to God to “deal kindly and gently with us/And save our people” especially during those days of self-reflection.
Whether one chooses to listen to Connected all the way through, or a few triumphant musical pieces at a time, it will offer an exquisite and uplifting musical path to peace that transcends a literal understanding of the text – and will hopefully inspire the adventurous listener to take a deeper dive into the dynamic history of one of Israel’s most groundbreaking artists.