The Noga Group

December 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Peace in the Middle East is not on the menu at the Woolworth Tower Kitchen on Wednesday nights, but the diverse music suggests otherwise. When Avram Pengas and his band, the Noga Group, play for almost four hours straight, singing in four different languages throughout the night, it’s hard to imagine that bridging cultural gaps through music isn’t their ultimate goal. But it’s not. There are six people in the group, and they represent almost that many different cultures, playing music and just having a good time.

“Arab people can be suspicious of Israelis sometimes,” Pengas says, “but then they come see us play and they realize—we’re the same people, we’re like neighbors.”

The Tower Kitchen is on the bottom floor of the old Woolworth building, the famous New York skyscraper. Every Wednesday, Pengas and the five other members of the Noga Group perform late into the night, despite the noise complaints they’ve received in weeks past. The group was a weekly fixture at The Cupping Room in Soho, where they played for about seven years, until moving in mid 2008.

The main room of the restaurant is dimly lit, mainly by candles. A light shining from the ceiling gives the band a blue glow as they tune their instruments. The set list: an hour of Greek/Yiddish/Arabic music with some Beethoven and the Beatles thrown in, followed by a break of twenty minutes of schmoozing and eating. Then there are two more hours of music, complete with a belly dancer and audience participation on the dance floor.

“The second half is when it all happens,” says Gal Gershovsky, who is filling in for the regular drummer for the night. “That’s when the party starts.”

As the band plays on Wednesday without taking a breather in between songs, Pengas’s brow is furrowed in concentration as his left hand moves effortlessly up and down the neck of the guitar. His fingers move fluidly over the strings as he hits each note of the quick Greek melody. The first half of the show, before the break, is low-key. Only one young woman is brave enough at this early hour to leap onto the dance floor. Her jeans and t-shirt are deceiving; she isn’t dressed like a belly dancer but she moves her hips like one, shaking them back and forth so quickly that her lower body is a blur while her torso barely flinches.

The band got its name, Noga, from a place that used to be a nightclub in Tel Aviv in the 1960s, and it was also the name of a café in Greenwich Village where Pengas played in his earlier days as a musician in New York. The word also means “brightness” and “radiant” in Hebrew—an apt description of the group itself. The Noga Group has been the same six people, more or less, for the past seven years. The bassist, Elysa Sunshine, and Samir Shukry, the violinist and a major celebrity in his home country of Israel, both joined about four years ago.

Shukry has only been playing with Pengas and the Noga Group for the past four years, but he is a legend in his own right. He plays a trademark electric white violin and causes about as much excitement among Arab Israelis as he does among Jewish Israelis, despite the two usually being so bitterly divided by political conflict. While it is Pengas’s passion to play music with talented musicians, Shukry has different goals. His website says that he wants to be an ambassador of peace, “playing his violin and singing his way into the hearts and souls of people of all nations the world over.”

Pengas himself was born in Athens, the son of Sephardic and Greek Jews. He moved to Israel as a young child and came to New York in the early 1970s after completing his service in the Israeli military.

“For me, it was like a culture change,” he says. “It was the middle of bohemia in Greenwich Village in 1971. It was a whole different environment than it is now; still like Woodstock.”

Before forming the Noga Group, Pengas was a mainstay at the legendary Feenjon Café on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, performing with prominent world musicians like Ali Hafid, a Moroccan drummer who played a role on Broadway in “Zorba,” and Manny Dworman, an Israeli-born musician who grew up in the United States.
In New York, Pengas appreciates the opportunity to work with world-class musicians from different backgrounds. He has played with Hassidic Jews and American Jews, as well as non-Jewish musicians, such as George Mgrdichian, the late Turkish oud player. David Amram, a friend of beat poets Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, played the bouzuki with Pengas at the Feenjon.

“It’s all a mix,” he says. “If you really want to do something special, you pick someone different.”

Borrowing different styles and throwing different musical cultures together to make something new is not a foreign concept to Pengas. He is very familiar and comfortable with the Israeli approach to music, an eclectic world market that includes musicians from all over the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East.

“In America, radio stations only play one kind of music,” he says. “Israel plays Arab, Greek, Hebrew music all on the same station.”

Pengas knows most of the people in the audience, and he says that the young woman dancing on the stage is like a daughter to him. She is the epitome of the audience that trickles in gradually after the second half of the show starts. She is Puerto Rican and Greek, a double-hyphenated New Yorker.

As promised by Gershovsky, the energy picks up once the band has returned to their instruments after eleven. Most of the people on the dance floor are regulars; they don’t show up before midnight because they know to expect a show that will run until almost two in the morning.

Pengas points out the diversity of Noga’s fans on the dance floor. There is an Israeli/Romanian woman, Uzbekistani, Russian, and Israeli Jews, some Turks and Arabs, and an Asian woman, spinning in circles on the dance floor with some Greeks and Israelis with a radiant smile on her face.

An older man sitting at a table behind the dancers has his eyes closed and is tapping his foot along with the music. As a new song begins, he tries describing the tune: “it’s Greek—no, it’s changing now—oh, no, there it is; it’s Greek again.” The seamless shifting from Latin beats to Arabic dance sounds to Greek folk is the epitome of the Noga experience. The fleeting snippets of something that doesn’t quite belong traditionally in a song are what make the Noga Group fun and interesting. To a great extent, it’s what Pengas relies on.

“You don’t want too much of one kind of non-western music, for example,” he says. “If it’s too much, Americans get bored after a couple of songs and mixing it up keeps people interested.”

People obviously enjoy their music, and Pengas, for one, is satisfied with that. They come from different backgrounds and there are places in the world where some of them are bitter enemies, but they all come to the Woolworth Tower Kitchen to dance.

“This is music, not war,” says Pengas. “It’s a very enjoyable thing.”

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