The sound check was taking longer than expected at Saffron Cafe and Bakery on East Bay Street. The small space in the corner meant for the performance bled into an adjoining booth.
But Israeli singer-songwriter and composer Ayala Asherov-Kalus didn’t seem to mind. She was the headliner for Piccolo Spoleto’s “Jewish ‘Coffeehouse’” concert on Saturday and Sunday, and throughout the process of sorting out the acoustics of the dining room, her easy smile never faded. She spoke softly to the friends in the crowd but when she sang, there was a powerful sweetness in her voice that complimented her sprightly piano playing.
Hailing from Tel Aviv, Asherov-Kalus studied in the U.S. before returning to Israel. Then she married and came back, settling in the Lowcountry.
“When I came to the states I came as a songwriter,” said Asherov-Kalus. “That’s what I knew.”
After some chance meetings, some hard work and luck, she found herself composing scores, something that had not even occurred to her before moving here. Since then she’s created music for a handful of documentaries and commissions while also piecing together new songs.
“If I just made a short film or a score for an orchestra, the day I finished I thought ‘I need to go back to writing songs,’ ” she said. “And now as I go to finish this I feel in my fingers wanting to write something for the concert hall. It’s a constant.”
For any immigrant, she explains, there is a duality that is ever present with fitting into a new culture. One day Asherov-Kalus can feel uneasy; other days she feels like there’s no better place to be, she said. It is this tension that fuels her creativity, and her drive to succeed in her art.
“That’s the power of not being from here,” she said.
Living in Charleston has influenced her music in a number of ways, most obviously in her lyrics. Having written almost exclusively in Hebrew before 2008, she created a new batch of songs all in English. While there are some older songs in her set, the majority of the pieces played at the Coffeehouse concert are new.
With the sound check complete and the opening performers done, Asherov-Kalus takes the stage, followed after a couple of songs by the band Contraforce (Joey Dorwat on percussion, Jimi Peirano on guitar and Andrae Raffield on fiddle and electric bass) which skillfully rounded out her sturdy, impressionistic songs.
The audience, filling almost every seat and spilling into the spaces between tables, was engaged and energetic, laughing at her jokes, clapping enthusiastically after each song and eager to hear what came next.
Joseph DiDomizio is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.