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From Performance to Protest, the Conflict Resonates in Philly

July 23, 2014 By:
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Flutist Itai Kriss and bassist Tamir Shmerling, both from Israel, and trumpet player Dennis Hernandez, from Cuba, perform July 18 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A few songs into his Friday performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Israeli flutist Itai Kriss introduced the members of his six-piece band, Telavana. On the bass, he said, was Tamir Shmerling from Ashkelon.

The crowd in the packed atrium erupted into its loudest cheer yet. In recent weeks, the southern Israeli city of Ash­kelon has been a prime target for rocket fire from Gaza.

“Yeah, Ashkelon!” Kriss responded to the show of support, raising his hand in the air.

While the flutist made a point of addressing the violence during the show, the music mostly served as a reminder that Israel is more than just a part of a never-ending conflict.

The band’s signature blend of Carib­bean and Middle Eastern music popped with energy, taking the crowd from Havana one minute, to the Mediterranean the next. Peruvian percussionist Paulo Stagnaro maintained an enticing rhythm on the congas while Kriss, who is from Tel Aviv, and Cuban trumpeter Dennis Hernandez traded solos — each consistently raising the bar for the other. Adding in drummer Dan Aran from Jerusalem and pianist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman from Cuba, the band is comprised of equal parts Israeli and Latin musicians.

Before playing one of his new compositions, a seductive ballad titled “Buttered Scones and Tea,” Kriss addressed the situation in Israel and Gaza.

“As musicians, we express ourselves, we listen to each other, we try to make something together — and that’s kind of the opposite of what’s happening right now over there,” said Kriss, who now lives in New York. “There’s a lot of destruction and not a lot of listening going on. We hope that maybe this is our small contribution to resolving the conflict, to let people take a breath and try to calm down and relax and bring about some peace.”

In an interview between sets, Kriss said he usually refrains from discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while performing and even off-stage.

“Today, I felt like I should say something,” he said. “It’s really a crisis right now. I mean I know it’s been going on forever, but it seems like it’s worse than ever.”

He also said he felt he should say something because the concert was sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia.

“I don’t want people to get the wrong idea, like either I blindly support Israel or I am blindly anti-Israel or that I just want to avoid the subject altogether or I’m trying to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes.”

Sitting at a table a few rows from the band was a jazz fan who knows more than he’d care to about problems in the Middle East: Jacob Fattal, the father of Joshua Fattal, an Elkins Park native who spent more than two years in an Iranian prison.

Fattal, who is originally from Israel, said he had not known about the group’s Israeli ties.

“I have many family members in Israel and even though they live in Raanana and Tel Aviv, which are safe places, it’s not a comfortable situation when the sirens are over your head.”

He said he hopes the Israel Defense Forces are able to drive Hamas out of Gaza and that the government can then restart peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

“We gave Hamas a chance for a cease-fire, and they did not accept it, so I support the ground invasion,” said Fattal.

He spoke calmly as he waited for the band to come back on stage, but earlier in the day there was plenty of the sort of anger that Kriss described between Israel supporters and pro-Palestinians protesting in front of the consulate at 19th Street and JFK Boulevard.

At first, there were more police officers than Palestinian supporters. But as more trickled in, a heated back-and-forth with those carrying Israeli flags and “We stand with Israel” signs developed.

Among those who took turns holding a bullhorn and addressing the crowd was 23-year-old Aliza Green, who had advocated for Israel while attending Temple University. She is preparing to make aliyah and join the IDF in the next few months.

“The advocacy aspect of it is amazing, and I commend everyone for doing it, but for me personally, I felt like I needed something extra,” said Green, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia.

Ari Carroll, a 20-year-old IDF soldier from Plymouth Meeting, stood nearby, on one of his last few days before returning to Israel at the end of a monthlong break. He guards a checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank and said his job is to prevent violence, “whether from the Jewish side or Palestinian side.”

“I could define things with my actions there right now, but I’m here,” said Carroll. “And that means my responsibility is to come to things like this and support Israel. And not just yell ‘Israel, Israel’ but to tell the world to open their eyes and ears and find out what’s going on and not just blindly support one side or the other.”

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