Jo Amar, Genre-Bending Jewish Singer, Dies at 79
Jo Amar, a Moroccan-born Jewish singer whose melding of Andalusian and Israeli musical influences made him a star in Israel and a popular performer in Jewish communities around the world, died on June 29 at the home of his son Ouri in Woodmere, N.Y. He was 79 and lived in Jerusalem.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his son David said. Mr. Amar had been in failing health for several months, and he came to the United States in February to be with his children and grandchildren, all of whom live in the New York metropolitan area.
Mr. Amar’s music was a hybrid, fusing Sephardic and North African-Arab songs, Jewish liturgical vocal styles and even Western-style harmonies into a kind of Middle Eastern pop. He sang in a bright, engaging tenor, recording about 20 albums, and with his crowd-pleasing manner, he performed not only in large performance halls with full orchestras but also in cabarets and at weddings and other private functions. He was often asked to be the guest cantor on Jewish High Holy Days, invitations he accepted selectively, in cities including Paris and Casablanca.
A composer of songs as well, he performed for Jewish audiences throughout the diaspora, in places like Brazil and South Africa; in 1963 he even toured in Iran, performing before mixed Jewish and Muslim audiences and appearing on Iranian television.
Yosef Amar, who was known as Jo from an early age, was born on June 1, 1930, in Settat, Morocco, where his grandfather had been the chief rabbi. He studied at a yeshiva in Meknes, Morocco, and planned to become a Hebrew language teacher, but his affinity for music directed his life. During a visit to Israel, before moving there in 1956, he persuaded a radio station to listen to his music by gathering an impromptu choir on the street outside to perform one of his songs. He became popular in Israel, especially among immigrants from northern Africa and the Middle East, his hybrid music helping to open European Jewish ears to new, exotic sounds.
Mr. Amar came to the United States in 1965 to perform at Carnegie Hall, in a well-received concert that eventually persuaded him to move to New York with his family in 1970.
“In a variety of Oriental-flavored popular songs he displayed a broad range of feeling, a penetrating projection, regionally nasalized intonation and strong rhythmic sense that communicated warmly with the audience,” the music critic Robert Shelton wrote in The New York Times.
In the late 1980s Mr. Amar returned to Israel with his wife, Raymonde. She died in 1997.
Besides his sons David, of Fresh Meadows, Queens, and Ouri, Mr. Amar is survived by two daughters, Esther Umanoff of Tenafly, N.J., and Madeleine Labovitz of Highland Park, N.J.; 11 grandchildren; 5 great-grandchildren; and 7 siblings, who live in Belgium and Israel.