“As a singer I act as a bridge between the Arab and the Jewish culture,” Emil Zrihan has said. “We always lived together, ate together, and sang the same songs together. And suddenly we find ourselves in a fight for the same piece of earth.” Zrihan, born in Rabat, Morocco, and head cantor at the main synagogue in Ashkelon, Israel, performs music that originated in ninth-century Andalusia, the region in southern Spain where Christians, Sephardic Jews, and Muslims coexisted in relative harmony for seven centuries prior to the Reconquista, the 15th-century Spanish religious crusade that pushed the Moors and their music into the Maghreb, Turkey, and Greece. On his superb Ashkelon (Piranha, 1999)–his only album distributed in the U.S.–Zrihan ventured out a bit, delivering a beguiling patchwork of Muslim and Jewish liturgical music, flamenco, and Moroccan mawal, a demanding improvisational style performed throughout Arab North Africa. The singer beautifully navigated the divide between these forms with a stunning, gorgeously feminine countertenor that’s earned him the nickname “voice of the mockingbird”; Zrihan’s soaring cry and deep reserves of power place him in league with singers like qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Azerbaijan’s Alim Qasimov. He made his U.S. debut in Chicago in 1999 with musicians from Ashkelon, but for this return visit he’ll perform with a stripped-down, five-member ensemble that plays oud, accordion, darbouka, and violin. Admission is free. Monday, April 22, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Hensels.