Qadim Ensemble, Ben Goldberg’s ‘Archimedes Lullaby’ and Akira Tana’s Otonowa

Rachel Valfer and Eliyahu Sills celebrate the release of the new Qadim Ensemble album Open the Gates Saturday at Ashkenaz. Photo: Courtesy of the artists

As the Trump administration’s sable rattling in the Persian Gulf brings a sickening sense of déjà vu to the morning headlines, there’s one place where Middle East conflict melts away in the face of insistent beauty. Over the past decade or so, the Berkeley-centered Qadim Ensemble has created a body of music that encompasses the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Led by oud player Rachel Valfer and her husband Eliyahu Sills on ney, a Persian end-blown flute, the Qadim Ensemble celebrates the release of the new album Open the Gate at Ashkenaz on Saturday.

They’ll be exploring some of the songs from the album, which focuses on Jewish material from the Middle East, but the concert casts a much wider net. Joined by Emmy Award-winning composer and accordionist Dan Cantrell, Syrian Druze percussionist Faisal Zedan, bassist Josh Mellinger and special guest Ali Paris, Ramallah-raised master of the 72-string qanun.

“We’re playing a collection of songs from the musical traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean, singing in up to eight languages,” says Valfer, a Berkeley High grad who also co-leads Madre: The Ladino Project, a music and dance ensemble focusing on the culture of Sephardic women. “We love to highlight and celebrate the richness of the musical trads of the Middle East. The beauty is why we do it, but we like to counteract the media representation of those regions too, which focus on all the strife and stress. Music doesn’t pay attention to borders and political lines.”

Ben Goldberg returns with sleepy Archimedes

Ben Goldberg premieres Archimedes Lullaby Friday at the JCC East Bay. Photo: peak

Back in November, one of the fall’s highly anticipated concerts ended up being rescheduled due to the hazardous blanket of smoke shrouding the region from conflagrations like the Camp Fire. Now Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg’s premiere of his new work Archimedes Lullaby is back on track Friday at the JCC East Bay. It might be an unusual venue for an exploratory jazz concert, but not nearly as unexpected as the location where he started writing the piece.


In the summer of 2017 Goldberg was in the midst of a Civitella Ranieri artist-in-residence stint, which entails hanging out in a 15th-century castle in Umbria, Italy, when he started reading Heavenly Questions, a book of verse by American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg (she’d done a residency at the castle the previous year). He was particularly struck by the 2010 volume’s opening piece, “Archimedes Lullaby,” an extended poem that’s “a meditation on Archimedes on his final days,” Goldberg said. He conceived of the piece as a conversational setting for some of his prime collaborators, including alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, keyboardist Michael Coleman, electric guitarist Andrew Conklin, drummer Hamir Atwal, and Jon Arkin (best known as an intrepid drummer) on laptop and live electronics.

“Everyone I’ll be working with is a good friend and close confidant,” said Goldberg, who also performs Tuesday at the California Jazz Conservatory with the trio Invisible Guy featuring drummer Atwal and pianist/keyboardist Coleman. “The piece has elements that show up once or reoccur. I have a feeling the piece will almost be made out of scraps that haven’t found a home, a rumination using objects accumulated over the years.”

A supremely lyrical improviser and prolific composer, Goldberg has created a vast body of work for variably sized ensembles. In the poem, Archimedes has this theory he could figure out how many grains of sand are in the world. “He invented a catapult, and how to figure out the volume an irregular shaped object,” Goldberg said in admiration, half likening his melodies to grains of sand. “I’ve written a lot of music, and I’m writing a lot of music every single day. Some of it sticks and gets into the repertoire, and some of it doesn’t. I like both aspects.”

Recommended gig: Akira Tana’s Otonowa

Drummer Akira Tana’s Otonowa, an ensemble that has developed a repertoire of jazz arrangements of traditional and popular Japanese melodies, performs at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple’s 70th Annual Satsuki Bazaar & Arts Festival on Sunday afternoon. Originally launched to raise funds for the people of northern Japan recovering from the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, the band has turned into a musical mission of healing and remembrance, performing often in Japan and the U.S. Featuring bassist Ken Okada, flutist/saxophonist Masaru Koga, and pianist Art Hirahara, the quartet will be joined by special guest Shoko Hikage on koto.