What Makes Ishay Ribo So Unique?
Yeshiva University recently announced plans for a May 26 siyum and concert starring none other than the famed Ishay Ribo. As part of its 613 million dollar “Rise Up” campaign, YU is hosting Ribo featuring Alex Clare and Akiva Turgeman in the 10,000 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium in what is being termed by the university as the biggest Jewish concert ever. Ishay Ribo has risen to the pinnacles of both Jewish and Israeli music, following the release of his first album Tocho Retzuf Ahava in 2014. However, to fully appreciate the concert on May 26, it is crucial to first understand who Ribo is, why he is deserving of such a big event and why he became so popular in the first place. In other words, why is Ishay Ribo different from everyone else?
Ishay is 33 years old and was born in Marseille, France. His family slowly became more observant before he made aliyah when he was eight years old. He then proceeded to attend both Religious Zionist and chareidi yeshivot in his childhood, followed by a yeshiva designed for French olim. After this, he served in the Israeli army for two years as part of the Technology and Maintenance Corps and also was a member of the IDF choir.
The Purim 5782 edition of HaMizrachi, Mizrachi’s magazine, ran a feature on the rise to stardom of Ishay Ribo and other Israeli singers, including Turgeman. The article briefly gave a biography on Ribo, followed by a commentary on various themes throughout his songs. Mizrachi beautifully pinpointed one aspect that makes Ishay so unique: his lyrics.
Before he transformed the genre, Jewish music generally followed the simple formula of putting Biblical verses and sayings from Rabbinic literature to song. Ribo, however, writes powerful and poetic lyrics infused with Biblical and Midrashic references that are nevertheless astonishingly original. He has recreated the traditional piyut, giving ancient texts and teachings a fresh form that speaks powerfully to 21st century Israelis and Jews of every religious background.
Ribo dexterously fuses old biblical and rabbinic references with his own creative lyrics, crafting a dual religious and exuberant tone to his songs. For instance, in his song Od Yishama, he takes some of the lyrics from Jeremiah 33:10-11 that can be heard at any Jewish wedding for his chorus. However, the verses of the song consist of beautiful imagery and rhyme schemes that capture the essence of the special day. He sings of “the day when the heavens are open” and the “sound that connects souls here.” (It sounds better in Hebrew, trust me.) Songs like Tocho Retzuf Ahava and Kol Dodi Ribo feature never-before-used verses from Shir HaShirim. With the resonance of romance from verses like those in Shir HaShirim, Ribo’s songs often sound like love songs that a husband would sing to his wife; however, in classic Shir HaShirim fashion, they are actually love songs about God and Torah, carrying with them this same beauty. This distinctive side of Ribo’s lyricism can be found in his love song about Torah, Or HaChaim:
How they’re captivated by Its charms. / Follow blindly after It.
And all of Its sides are pure truth. / All seventy of Its faces.
More precious than gold and wealth. / Can only be bought with hard labor and honesty.
And It is the way. / And It is bliss.
Aside from his magnificent ability to lyricize, the instrumentation in Ribo’s songs is also different from other artists. Some songs like Sibat HaSibot have the feel of a typical American pop song, and this is especially true of the “Triangle Remix” of the song which still can be heard all over Israeli radios. Alternatively, Ribo’s 2019 “Elul” album features a mix of classic high-holiday tunes like Ochila and Meloch and original hits like HaLev Sheli and Nafshi, which features Hasidic singer Motty Steinmetz. The songs on the album exclusively feature acoustic and string instruments, including Middle Eastern ones whose names I do not know, evoking a feeling of serenity and warmth. Ribo’s versatility allows him to produce songs of all different types of tempo and moods, including the fast, rock song, Hinei Yamim Baim and the slow, chill Ben Yakir Li.
Additionally, the greatest part of Ribo is easily his live performances. I have fortunately attended three concerts of his, most recently the Hasidic Tzama concert this past Kislev. When I first went during chol hamoed Pesach of shana alef, I remember walking to the Binyanei Hauma convention center and being confused by the large number of ultra-orthodox people walking in the same direction as I was. I was even more perplexed by the number of people lined up to buy discs for their portable CD players. I soon realized that Ribo’s popularity and love for Torah and music transcends any sect or religious affiliation in Israel. While my concert was male only, I remember speaking to friends who went to a concert in Caesarea the night before with every type of Israeli: Ultra-Orthodox, Religious Zionist, Secular, Man, Woman, Child. The first concert I attended initially had the aura of an Ed Sheeran concert, with bright lights and multicolored video boards illuminating the room, but in only a few minutes it would be a bunch of Religious Zionists, Hareidi Jews and me singing Hebrew songs together. Suddenly, Ribo walked on stage with his all black outfit and tzitzit out and the crowd erupted. The first set of songs was incredible, with Ishay’s Breslov guitarist absolutely shredding some solos, and in the intermission, Ishay proceeded to give a Dvar Torah about Pesach. At the end of the night, I was confident that it was the hypest concert I had been at since the Maccabeats performed Candlelight at my elementary school.
Finally, Ribo is such a genuine and friendly person, and he has a fun and engaging stage presence. I was told that at that concert in Caesarea there were American seminary women chanting his name, and he responded: Ah, Americayim. I have friends that snuck backstage to meet him, and instead of kicking them out, he took pictures with them and wished them a chag sameach. He also regularly invites famous guest singers to share the stage with him, and he encourages the crowd to alternate lines with him every performance. While Israeli political sects and religious denominations often generate tension and hard divides amongst each other, Ishay is able to unite them all. He is truly the epitome of a Kiddush Hashem. It is for these reasons that Ishay Ribo is so unique and why I am so excited to see him perform again. But this time, everyone at YU will have the privilege of coming as well.
Photo Caption: Ishay Ribo
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons