Emil Zrihan | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Emil Zrihan's countertenor is so powerful and wide-ranging that it's earned itself a nickname: "the voice of the mockingbird." And indeed, while Arabic music usually stresses high-flying melismata, I've never heard a singer of any kind hit such heights with the same velocity, finesse, and soul. Zrihan was born in Rabat, Morocco, 45 years ago and moved to Israel when he was only nine; he's now the head cantor at the preeminent synagogue in Ashkelon, a storied city thought to be the birthplace of King Herod. But as heard on his new album, Ashkelon--Moroccan Mawal (Piranha), Zrihan's North African past is still very much with him. The music he performs can be traced back to ninth-century Andalusia, in southern Spain, where a fusion of Sephardic and Berber traditions developed; when the Reconquista pushed the Moors into the Maghreb, the music followed, becoming a wellspring for many classical North African styles. Zrihan dutifully sings with the Israel Andalusian Orchestra, founded in recent years to preserve the music and introduce it to Israeli Jews, but on the album he takes creative liberties with it, playing up the flamenco-like sonorities of the oud by featuring great flamenco guitarist Baldi Olier on many cuts and allowing producer Yossi Fine to accent the hypnotic grooves with subtle Brazilian and African percussive flourishes and sturdy electric bass. Flanked by the musicians on the album--including Olier--Zrihan will make his U.S. debut this week in Chicago with two performances. In the first, which will be broadcast nationally (on WFMT locally), he'll focus on cantorial music backed by different groupings of musicians; in the second he'll present the gorgeous music from the CD. Both, amazingly, are free. Tuesday, 12:15 PM, and Wednesday, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. PETER MARGASAK

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