Sameer Makhoul is a standout musician in various ways. For starters the Peki’in-born fortysomething oud player is one of the most accomplished purveyors of ethnic music in these parts, and he offers a wide swath of textures and hues in his live and recorded work.
Makhoul will unfurl his gifts and street-level musical nous to a no-doubt packed audience at Jerusalem’s Confederation House on November 22 (7 p.m.), as part of this year’s Jerusalem International Oud Festival, the 17th edition of which will run between November 17 and November 26.
The show repertoire will largely come from the Galilean artist’s latest release, Yasar, which means “left” in Arabic. That is not an indication of Makhoul’s political leanings, it simply refers to the fact that he is left handed. When Sixties rock icon Jimi Hendrix moved to Britain, he discovered he not only had to get used to different culture, he also had some challenging professional logistics to contend with.
He too was a southpaw, but as rock folklore has it, when he took the stage shortly after landing in London he took a regular right-handed guitar and just played it upside down. Makhoul understands just where Hendrix was coming from.
“I am also left-handed and I didn’t move the strings around,” he explains. Rather than a handicap, Makhoul feels his upside-down approach offers unmined opportunities.
“The whole system of strumming and fingering is the other way round. For me, that created something else. But that also presented me with a heavy responsibility. I started thinking about the oud, and the things I could get out of it that you can’t playing the regular way, right-handedly.”
Mastering the oud is tough enough, but playing it back to front sounds well-nigh impossible.
“It’s difficult,” notes Makhoul. “You have to spend a lot of hours working on it.”
It is a work in progress.
“I tried to explore this every single day,” he continues. “There are always new things coming out.”
It is quite a scoop to have Makhoul on the stage in Jerusalem. He brought out his debut release, Athar, in 2004 and it has taken a full dozen years for him to produce his sophomore effort. In the interim, Makhoul got married and started a family, and abstained from performing on stage for some years.
“I wrote and arranged a lot of music, and I teach a lot,” he says.
The latter takes place at the music conservatory in Nazareth.
“I have taken a different approach to the music.”
Anyone who has attended a Makhoul gig, or heard Athar, can attest to that. There is a multi-stranded richness to Makhoul’s works and playing which gives off a highly seasoned whiff of cultures from near and afar.
There is clearly more to his artistic ethos than just the wealth of sounds that emanate from this part of the world. The Arabic music themes he spins out on his oud blend seamlessly with sonic sensibilities from Turkey and Andalusian climes, in addition to Makhoul’s singular take on how to present them. The oud player and vocalist’s long-time comrades in arms include Eyal Sela, a long-serving clarinetist, saxophonist and bansuri (Indian flute) player, and the equally experienced percussionist Erez Monk. Monk’s broad range of rhythmic instruments also takes in tabla, so we can expect some Indian material in the forthcoming Jerusalem show.
Although in some quarters the term “world music” is much maligned, Makhoul says he has no problem with that reference.
“We are impacted by so many cultural influences,” he notes. “At home I’ll listen to Arabic music. In the car I hear [Western] classical music. I listen to all sorts – Indian music, Greek, Turkish music, jazz, rock. I feel I have a kind of compilation inside me, a collection of different cultures. That’s what makes an artist rich, in a musical sense.”
And he doesn’t feel his has to justify his “hybrid” take, nor does he believe he needs to explain himself to the purists.
“This is me and this is my music. If someone asks me to write a classical Arabic work I can do that. But I don’t like copying things, or repeating things that have been done many times before. I want to do things that have a different character to them. You have to constantly search for something new. That’s what art is all about.”
With that singular mindset it comes as no surprise to learn that Makhoul is basically self-taught.
“I started playing at the age of 10,” he recalls. “There was an oud at home because my brother played. I had sung since the day I was born, so my playing followed on from that. I didn’t have a teacher. I played by ear.
I just played – upside down!” After 16 whole years of left-handed derring-do on oud, Makhoul decided it was time for some high quality formal education and went to the Rubin Academy of Music and Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
It was then that he decided to “go straight.”
“I turned the strings around so that I played a regular oud, only it was a left-hander.”
By all accounts that worked well, and Makhoul made good progress under the tutelage of revered teacher, and oud player-violinist Taiseer Elias.
Makhoul was satisfied with what he’d gotten out of the academy, but he had a persistent itch that badly needed scratching.
“A year or so after I finished my studies, I switched my oud strings back again, so I was, as it were, playing upside down again. I wanted to see what special things I could get out of [the] oud, playing it that way.”
It has been a thrilling road to discovery.
“I learn something new on my oud every single day,” Makhoul declares. “I can tell you that what I do is extraordinary in the world of oud playing. I can hold three strings with my little fingers, and play on the other three strings with three fingers. I can play harmonies, and that gives colors that are very new to the oud. I have never heard anything like that before.”For tickets and more information about the Jerusalem International Oud Festival: (02) 624-5206 and http:// tickets.bimot.co.il