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Mor Karbasi

Mor KarbasiRob O’Connor

Diva with gorgeous, exceptional voice and looks to match, breathes new life into ancient language.

Singer Mor Karbasi was born April 23, 1986 in Jerusalem. Her mother was born in Nazareth of Moroccan descent and her father in Jerusalem of Persian (Iranian) ancestry. Mor is a young woman whose music is influenced by several cultures, though mainly by her Jewish heritage.

A child with parents like hers no doubt carries a great deal of cultural baggage. As already mentioned, with Jewish influences, but also Persian, Moroccan, Spanish and of course Israeli. All of which is discernable in her outward appearance, but also in her lovely, effervescent music and many stories. Mor’s biography might very well read like a novel by Isabel Allende where history, magic, joy and hard reality are all interwoven. A story that is told with her music. In which you are taken on a journey around the Mediterranean, to Morocco and her native Israel. To an age and civilization that is long gone, and yet still in the here and now.
Mor’s first album Beauty and the Sea received rave reviews. She was immediately ranked alongside such globally renowned singers as Mariza and Estrella Morente. A splendid comparison, but one that does not describe her unique style of singing and compositions that breathe new life into an ancient language.

Karbasi has already performed in several countries: Italy, Great Britain, Portugal, Poland, Spain, France, Morocco as well as the United States. According to the press always to great popular acclaim.

All her roots come together in her predominately Sephardic Jewish repertoire: from traditional 15th century Jewish songs from Spain to her own contemporary compositions in the Ladino language. Sephardic Jews are Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain and Portugal, and who were forced to leave Spain in the 15th  century. They spread out all over the world in a Sephardic Diaspora. Their language is Ladino, closely related to Spanish, interspersed with Hebrew words, a Judeo-Spanish tongue. This language has almost died out…And Mor sings in this language for a wide audience. “Ladino is not some incomprehensible, dead language. I am a young woman of this day and age and to me Ladino is the most beautiful, melodic and magical language I can imagine. I make it accessible and bring it within reach.”

Karbasi was inspired at an early age by her mother. She always used to sing Moroccan pyuttim (holy poems) and Jewish ballads from Andalusia. Mor was literally fed these magical songs and melodies with her mother’s milk, in keeping with the centuries old tradition of orally transmitting these songs from mother to daughter. Her mother remains a constant source of inspiration for her to this day.

The singer’s great grandmother was a mekonenet, a woman chosen by the congregation to sing laments to mourn the dead during funeral ceremonies. Mor’s great grandfather was known everywhere as prominent rabbi, a very wise man who was called an angel, with a great knowledge of the Kabbala. He blessed and helped quite a few people in his day.

 “My grandfather considered me the grandson he never had. I was the only one who took an interest in Judaism, the Torah, Ladino and piyuttim. He is still alive and is enormously proud of his granddaughter. He too is one of my greatest sources of inspiration: he hums all day long – ever since I can remember – old poems and melodies. I always sang duets with my granddad during vacations in Israel, and the feeling grew ever stronger of an invisible boundary being opened. The moment I started singing Piyuttims, everything fell into place. My love for and deep connection to the Jewish faith and my love for Spain and Morocco. I feel a profound connection to my roots.” In so doing, you can hear the unmistakable influences of both flamenco and fado. The women in the family were responsible for Mor’s feeling for music, the men for its religious content. Musical influences outside the family included such great musicians as Bob Dylan, Um Kulthum, Amalia Rodrigues, Madre Deus and Mercedes Sosa.

Israel: country of  hope and fear

Mor was born in Israel: a country involved in several wars and long standing conflicts. Israel is a country that has given a home to many Jewish people from all over the world. Says Mor: “ If God has a house, then that house is in Jerusalem. A city that constantly keeps putting on yet another set of clothes. The colours, the diversity of the people, the smells and the climate. Every house has its own kind of synagogue. Something magical hangs in the air during Shabbat. The city exudes expectations. I didn’t realize how much I would miss it, but I really do.” That too can be heard in a number of her songs.

Like every other young person in Israel, Mor was called up to fulfil her military service. Luckily for her she was allowed to audition to become a singer in the Israeli army. Mor was selected and sang for her fellow Israelis. This included performing in the Gaza strip. Mor: “It was and still is frightening to be involved in a war in anyway whatsoever. We performed everywhere and naturally that was extremely dangerous. I was not allowed to sing my own music, but instead I had to sing covers and popular pop songs.  I didn’t like that, and even found it hard to do. But like my other young friends, I knew it was a temporary period. ”

Fear was not just in the army, but the city as well. “My grandmother almost died in the biggest bus bomb explosion ever in Jerusalem. Taking the bus is always like playing the lottery. There were always warnings for attacks and explosions, but very few safe places. I have quite often seen and felt fear around me, just like my family who still live in Israel. My greatest wish is that the reality of the situation will allow us to live in peace, free from menace.”

After her time in the army, Mor went off to London with her boyfriend Joe. Her musical ambitions blossomed and her past became her future.  I asked myself: “What do I really want to do, what do I want to sing and how? And I chose Ladino, a language that has practically disappeared and 500 year old songs handed down from mother to daughter.  And so songs my mother taught me. And that is what I wanted to sing, for a wide audience. Even more than that, I felt it was my mission to convey the power of those 500 year old melodies and lyrics.  Ladino is a language full of vitality – and as far as I’m concerned – Ladino is a perfect vehicle to express every aspect of being a woman.”

The Holocaust too has influenced Mor’s life, and naturally her Jewish music. “My mother used to live in a street in Nazareth where Moroccan Jews lived on one side and survivors of the Holocaust on the other. So there were no children on that side and the feeling of suffering was palpable. We Jews from Israel (and everywhere in the world) all bear this pain. I have also been to Auschwitz in Poland because I had to see and feel for myself how horrible it must have been. An unbelievable and painful experience. I bear that suffering, it has shaped me.”

For all this, Mor’s music is not melancholic or heavy going. “What I really want is for people to hear, see and feel the beauty of Judaism. And for people to actually take away something  from this religion that regards life as sacred. Furthermore, I want my audience to forget everything when they hear my music and for it to give them power and strength. But most of all I want people to enjoy themselves!”

In the meantime, Mor has been living in London for the past couple of years where together with her partner, the guitarist Joe Taylor, she is working on her second album. “A lot of songs have already been written, also by my mother. Maybe I’ll sing a duet with her, that way our family will again come full circle.”


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