Artists, across the genres, have all sorts of methods to their creative
processes. Some writers, for example, talk about sticking to a strict regiment
of a defined work day, while others await the arrival of the muse before they
put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
Then again, you could, like
Piris Eliyahu, just take a walk.
The 53-year-old Dagestan-born Israeli
tar (longnecked lute) player, who will perform at Bet Shmuel in Jerusalem on
November 7, as part of this year’s Confederation House Oud Festival, does much
of his creating peripatetically.
“I have been living and spending a lot
of time in the Judean Desert over the past 14 years,” he says. “I spend whole
days walking there, along all sorts of wadis. I pack a bag in the morning and
set off, and by the end of the day I often have a new composition written in my
head. I also often walk from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.”
always been intrigued by music from all sorts of cultures. When he was still a
teenager he’d go around Dagestan searching for the sounds made by various
“There were 36 Jewish villages in Dagestan, and I went to
them to listen to the music they played,” he says.
But when it came to
furthering his official music education, Eliyahu had to stick to tried and
tested instructional areas. “I did a master’s degree in western classical music,
at a university in Rostov-on-Don,” he recalls.
Still, Eliyahu certainly
made the most of his academic program and says he gained a lot from his time at
university. “I was lucky to have some wonderful teachers, like Alexander Bakshi
who is an acclaimed composer of contemporary music, and I studied composition
with him, and my teachers gave me a great love for contemporary music. In fact,
my first compositions, before my ‘eastern era,’ were western contemporary
classical works, with some personal inflexions, all sorts of ethnic stuff that
I’d absorbed beforehand.
I started composing when I was 15.”
Eliyahu made aliya, in 1988, he came to something of a culturally estranged
place. “There was nowhere here where they taught eastern music,” he notes,
adding that it wasn’t exactly a surprise. “It was the same in Dagestan and the
former Soviet Union.”
Eliyahu’s first port of call here was Bar Ilan
University, where he did a doctorate in musicology. “I had already done research
work on the music of [Jewish] communities in the Caucasus region. By the way,
that is the only research work ever done on the subject, and I published a book
on the subject, through Bar Ilan, together with field recordings I’d
With his PhD secured Eliyahu returned to the region he had come
from to further his musical knowledge.
He made several forays to
Azerbaijan to work with local luminaries such as UNESCO Award-winning musician
Alim Kasimov, and to enhance his knowledge of radif, a body of a large number of
old melodic figures preserved over many generations by oral tradition, which
incorporate modi and scales.
As Eliyahu explains, we are not talking
about music for beginners here. “You have to be on the level of a master to
study radif, and the knowledge is sort of secretive. I didn’t have access to
radif before that. My uncle was a tar player and knew radif, but he didn’t teach
it to me when I was younger.”
Even so, Eliyahu managed to gain an
extensive educational base before coming here and, in addition to mastering the
tar, learned to play piano and bayan – a Russian button accordion.
bayan led me straight to music written for the organ, by composers like Bach and
[17th century German organist-composer Dieterich] Buxtehude, and contemporary
works by people like [20th century French composer Olivier] Messiaen. The bayan
is like the organ, although it is dynamic. So I basically learned all the
classical western music repertoire.”
But it was the east that pulled on
Eliyahu’s heartstrings. “I played Bach on piano.
I played almost the
whole of his Well-Tempered Clavier [collection of solo keyboard pieces]. But as
soon as I heard even three or four notes of eastern music I was immediately
drawn to it.”
But if Eliyahu was hoping to find a wellset infrastructure
of eastern musical education here, he was to be disappointed.
doing something about that after I made aliya,” he recalls. “People in Israel
didn’t know anything about eastern instruments or the names of
There were one or two musicians who played the music but that
was it. There was [cross-cultural band] Bustan Abraham, and [oud
player-violinist] Yair Dalal was just starting in eastern music. Eastern music
was played by Arabs, and by Jewish musicians who made aliya from all sorts of
Arab countries but who neglected their art in order to make a living. They
complained they weren’t appreciated as musicians here.
“I don’t blame
them, but I wasn’t accepted either. I was only recognized here because I knew
western classical music, too.
If I hadn’t known western music, back then,
I wouldn’t have been able to start up anything here. Today there is openness and
support from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture, but that
wasn’t the case at all when I made aliya.”
Things began to change for
Eliyahu when he found his way to the region of Arad.
“When I discovered
the Judean Desert I felt I had found my homeland,” he declares. “I realized that
you can’t really create anything if you don’t have a base, and one of the bases
is having a homeland. Some musicians came on aliya with their cultural baggage
and tried to keep it untouched here, but I brought mine with me and continued
developing it, through all the experiences I have had in Israel.”
the textures and strains of his Asian region of birth there is, indeed, a sense
of desert winds blowing through Eliyahu’s large discography to date.
you put on one of his CDs, or catch one of his shows, it is not hard to imagine
Eliyahu wending his way along some riverbed through the unsullied air of the
Today Eliyahu divides his time between a home in Abu Ghosh and
living in Arad and walking through his beloved Judean Desert.
teaches at the Sapir College, and performs up and down the country, often in
tandem with his son Mark, a wellknown composer and performer himself, who plays
kamanche – spike violin – and the long-necked saz, and maintains a busy,
globetrotting performing schedule.
Mark will share the Bet Shmuel stage
with his dad on November 7, along with oud player Yaniv Raba, percussionist Yair
Harel, as well as stellar vocalists Lubna Salameh and Rabbi David
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, *6226 and