Music in the Night

It was several years ago when this incident occurred. I was on the Light Rail, probably heading to the shuk for my weekly Thursday shopping excursion, when a European tourist asked me a question. (I somehow have an “English-spoken-here” look about me that any world traveler can recognize.) “How do I get to Old Town?”

Old town, old town, old town…… You could have heard my brain go into overdrive. Until, click. She means The Old City! Now I could help her with precise directions. I decided to make it simple. I didn’t ask her which Old City she wanted: the Christian tourists Old City, the Arab locals Old City, or the places where these days we Jews hang out. (Enter through the Jaffa Gate into the large plaza; hang a right past what’s called the Tower of David, past the Christian Visitors Centers and the Armenian shops; take the first left and snake your way around, down to the Cardo, and then you know where you are; or don’t take the first left, but continue past the Armenian churches, past the Zion Gate until you come to Chabad St., where you go left…)That’s really three separate destinations, even though The Old City is one fairly small area.

There are only a few times during the course of a year when these areas merge into one Old City, and that’s when there’s some kind of a festival going on. Every year, there’s a light show, and for that there are carefully laid out routes (the blue trail, the green trail, etc.), which take you, whether you like it or not, through the different areas, including the ones you normally don’t get to see.

The truth of the matter is that, except for these festivals, I rarely venture into the Arab shuk. There’s nothing I need or want there, and I don’t feel particularly welcome – except as a potential cash-dispensing machine – even though statistically I’m safer there than standing and waiting for the Light Rail at Ammunition Hill. Might I add that this area is always well-patrolled, but even more so when there’s an event with lots of people.

This past February (I’ve been intending to write this post since then!) was a festival of music, which ran for four nights. Very simple premise: get the best local talent available, place them strategically throughout The Old City, each group playing a set on one of the evenings, and invite everyone to wander around serendipitously to enjoy the sounds on a late winter evening.

When I first read about the festival, I had to ask myself if I wanted to go to hear an evening of “Israeli music.” Not if it’s the stuff you hear on the street. What the average Israeli gets to listen to every day is not as offensive as Rap or Hip-Hop in The States, it’s just lame – half-hearted swill sung by men who all sound the same and should stick to warbling in the shower. But with a little effort, you can find a lot of wonderful music here in The Land– just as there is almost anywhere else. So let’s give it a try.

Barbara wanted to take it one step further and invite some friends to go with us. Maybe Ron and Esther? Of course, we would have to have dinner together first. Of course! Café Rimon in Mamila: fine food, excellent coffee, and a stone’s throw away from the large plaza in front of the Jaffa Gate, where we headed after an excellent meal.

And there we came upon a large throng of people listening to a fifteen piece (count ‘em!) orchestra playing traditional Mizrachi music, and they were swinging and rocking. We could have stayed all night to hear them; I would have even paid for the privilege. But then we wouldn’t get to hear anything else, and that was the whole point of coming: to hear everything else – even though, truth to tell, nothing else was quite as good.

Swinging by the Jaffa Gate

And so we began wandering around. First in the area inside the Jaffa Gate to hear an American rock group.

American-style rock

Then to one of the alleyways where you could make your own music by stepping on the slats of an amplified oversized xylophone.






Then looking down into the Cardo.

Swinging at the Cardo








Then the huge plaza by the Hurva synagogue, where there was a huge bandstand with a lone Israeli singer and a bass player.

Soul music by the Hurva Synagogue

Then, following the signs, all the way to the end of an alleyway. There we found a collection of young people wearing headphones and dancing to the music that no one else could hear.

Dancing to your own music

From there into the heart of the Muslim quarter. In one small street were three musicians sitting on plastic chairs, performing traditional Arab music.

Arab musicians in the Muslim Quarter

Then on to one of the plazas in the Quarter for a young woman singing in Persian.

Lighting up the Muslim Quarter

Then back again to the where we started for a frenetic young woman singing in Hebrew and French.

Plenty of energy!

And when we thought we were done, finished for the night, after walking up the hill to what is called Kikar Tzahal, right before we reached the street to get to the Light Rail station on Rehov Yaffa, were two jazz musicians.

Last, but not least…..



Serendipity. Depending on when you showed up, what hour, what day, there would be different musicians playing their music for you to like or not like. But there was no charge; you could stay as long as you wanted, listen to your heart’s content, and then move on. And you got to experience the magic of The Old City on a late winter’s evening: Music in the night.

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