Simha Arom, itinerary of an exceptional ethnomusicologist - From Düsseldorf to Jerusalem, from Central African music to those of Ethiopian Jews

A radio program of the European Institute for Jewish Music hosted by Hervé Roten


On the occasion of the screening of the movie Simha by Jérôme Blumberg, at the Mémorial de la Shoah, thursday 27th june 2019, Hervé Roten invites the ethnomusicologist Simha Arom, along with the producer Gabriel Chabanier.

The story of Simha (name that means « joy » in Hebrew) seems to come from a bad book. Born in 1930 in a Jewish family from Düsseldorf, Simha is forced to exile with his family after the Crystal Night (1938). After a period in Belgium, and then in France, his brother and his parents are deported to Auschwitz in 1942. They will never come back. Simha, aged then 12, succeeds to cross the Pyrénées mountains and finds refuge in Spain. In 1944, he boards for Palestine. He studies the violin in a Kibbutz, but wounded in the arm during the Independance war in 1948, he gives up the violin to play the horn, the only instrument that can be played only with the left hand. After successful musical studies in Jerusalem, then in Paris (First Prize of horn at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris in 1954), he becomes soloist on the horn in the Symphonic Orchestra of Jerusalem in 1957.

In 1962, the President of Central African Republic, David Dacko, while visiting Israel, hears a brassband, formed by young people, that he enjoys greatly. He asks the State of Israel for one musician to create an identical orchestra in his own country. Simha is volunteer and leaves for one year.
When he arrived there, fascinated by the traditional Central African music, he convinces the President Dacko the need of recording the country’s music. He creates, in Bangui, with his friend Geneviève Dournon, a museum of Popular Arts and Traditions : the Boganda Museum.

A few years later, Simha is hired at the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) and becomes one of the best known ethnomusicologists. His recordings and analysis of music from the pygmies traveled all over the world. Contemporary musicians such as Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti or Herbie Hancock and Madonna found inspiration in the polyphonies he made known.

In 1986, after the massive arrival of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, Simha starts to gather around him a staff of French Israeli searchers to collect the music of these African Jews before it gets lost. Between 1986 and 1989, hundreds of hours are recorded among the main holders of the tradition. These recordings, accompanied by a rich documentation, were released in 2018 in a boxset called The Liturgy of Beta Israel.

During his long and tumultuous life, Simha Arom never lost his sense of humor. And it is with joy (Simha) and good mood that this exceptional ethnomusicologist will tell us on Judaïques FM his adventures. And all of it accompanied with music of course !

Subscribe for the screening of the movie Simha (27th June 2019)
Watch an excerpt of the movie Simha
Read the biography of Simha Arom
Listen to excepts and purchase the boxset The Liturgy of Beta Israel
Listen to the radio program by Olivier Tourny about Ethiopian liturgical chants
Read the feature article about the music of Ethiopian Jews

Simha Arom, itinéraire d’un ethnomusicologue hors du commun

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