When Hazzan Jack Kessler formed the group Atzilut in 1991, his idea was to perform traditional East European cantorial music combined with Middle Eastern Jewish music. But when Mr. Kessler and his group of musicians encountered a Philadelphia-based Middle Eastern Arabic band in 1992, both ensembles decided it would be interesting to perform in a dual concert with each band playing in turn.
"Eventually, we came to the conclusion that it would be exciting to play together all the time," Mr. Kessler recalled.
When the two ensembles merged, the name was changed to Atzilut -- Concerts for Peace. The term Atzilut is taken from the Jewish mystical tradition called the Kabbalah, which translates as the aspect of the cosmos that is pure spirit from which the creative forces emanate.
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, nine members of the ensemble will perform at the Olin Fine Arts Center in Washington. The ensemble consists of three percussionists playing a range of hand drums, the tabla, the dumbek and djembe; bass; oud (an Arabic lute); violin and flute and two vocalists.
Mr. Kessler will share the vocals with Lebanese-born Maurice Chedid, who now resides in New York City and is a graduate of the Beirut Conservatory and a master of Arabic classical music.
"We're a band of brothers who want to send the most powerful message we can in a high-energy performance," Mr. Kessler said. "We love what we're doing and touch people's hearts through our music. When hearts change, governments change. We don't talk politics or make speeches, but because our realm is music, we work together to create peace.''
The Atzilut repertoire consists of Middle Eastern Jewish and Arabic music. Some tunes are sung in Hebrew, some in Arabic and some are sung together in both languages.
"Maurice is a superbly gifted artist and a wonderful singer," Mr. Kessler said. "He also plays the oud and is a composer of Arabic music, some of which we've performed in our concerts."
Besides singing, Mr. Kessler also plays the Spanish guitar and is director of the Klingon Klezmer ensemble. He teaches voice and is director of a cantorial program titled the "Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal," a seminar without walls that uses videoconferencing software to reach people all over the world.
The members of Atzilut have mostly a Jewish or Arabic background but were born in the United States. Five or six have been with the ensemble since its founding.
Mr. Kessler lives in Philadelphia, Mr. Chedid resides in New York, and many of the others live in New Jersey. Most of the players are full-time musicians who perform with a variety of ensembles.
"We're a mixed bag of players who come together to use art as a force for changing the world by sending a message that we can create something beautiful by working together," Mr. Kessler said.
Atzilut has recorded three CDs and has toured the U.S and many countries. Concert-goers are invited to bring a hand drum and attend a free workshop scheduled for 7 p.m. that will provide an introduction to Middle Eastern melody and rhythm.
Tickets are $12, $10 for seniors. The fine arts center is at 285 E. Wheeling St. on the Washington & Jefferson College campus, Washington, Pa. Details: 724-223-6546.
Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.