The annual Jerusalem International Oud Festival, run by Confederation House, has certainly taken off. On November 12 the country's premier ethnic music event will kick off for the tenth straight year. The 16-day program in Jerusalem and Nazareth is choc full of topliners from France, India, Greece, Turkey and the United States besides, naturally, the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of our own ethnic music community, with the odd extramural act thrown in for good measure.
What started out in 2000 as a modest 2-dayer has grown into a truly international event and a prestigious fixture in the world ethnic music calendar, successfully navigating its way through some choppy waters - including the Second Intifada - in the process. This year, there are festival debutants and returnees in the lineup, with the latter including the likes of Turkish-born longtime New York State resident multi-instrumentalist Omar Farouk Tekbilek, and stellar compatriot oud player-guitarist Yurdal Tokcan.
Not only has the temporal stretch increased over the years, the cultural span has taken in an increasingly widening hinterland with, for example, southern Indian Carnatic singer Sudha Ragunathan who will grace the Rebecca Crown Auditorium stage at the Jerusalem Theater on November 18 along with four instrumentalists. Five days later the same venue will host something of a Greek-Israeli super group featuring Tokcan and fellow Turk Ara Dinkjian, of Night Ark fame, alongside two of our own top ethnic musicians oud player-violinist Taiseer Elias and percussionist Zohar Fresco. Reaching out somewhat beyond the strict confines of the festival's genre scope, over thirties rock fans may dig the high energy approach to texts by 11th century rabbi and poet Yehuda Moshe Ibn Ezra proffered by veteran rock act Nikmat Hatractor. It is indicative of perennial festival artistic director Effi Benaya's all-embracing approach that he chose to open the festival with the latter crossover act, which starts at 9 p.m. on November 12, at the Jerusalem Theater's Sherover Theater auditorium.
One of the more intriguing imports is the somewhat ungainly entitled Three Soloists Come Together show from France which will take place at Beit Shmuel on November 17 (9 p.m.). The threesome includes percussionist Keyvan Chemirabi, accordionist Francis Varis and oud player, guitarist and bouzouki player Titi Robin and offers a wide ranging pallet of sounds, textures and colors culled from Arabic, gypsy and Mediterranean musical climes.
While the world music scene has evolved in leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades Robin was exploring musical areas beyond his natural cultural milieu long before the musical industry heads decided to marry, say, Indian ragas with electronic beats, or flamenco with rough and ready rock. "I was born in a small villager in western France and moved to a city called Angers when I was kid," Robin explains. "When I got to the city I heard all these musicians from places like Tunisia, and gypsy players, and I liked what I heard."
While 52 year old Robin initially fed off the radio vibes of French singers, the Beatles, rock and roll, and the blues the self-taught multi-instrumentalist quickly began imbibing the rhythms and sounds he heard from his local "university of the street". "I never had a music teacher," says Robin, "I listened to the music around me and my style comes from the people who played it outside, not in concert halls. It was like being a painter - picking up the colors and textures you need, and taken in the influences that speak to you. These things have stayed with me all my life."
While delving into numerous areas Robin says he steers clear of categories and just does his own thing. "I am happy I have my own cultural baggage. If Arabic musicians respect my music, because I play my own way, that's great. I never say I play flamenco or Arabic music. I play in my own way. If my music is true to my feeling only I and God can say that. There is a pure connection between my heart and my fingers. That's all I need."
The festival also offers plenty of homespun shows of the highest quality, including crossover pioneer Yisrael Borochov's Debka Fantasy program (Beit Shmuel, 9 p.m. on November 16) which delves into the roots of the synergy between the Western harmonies, musical structures and texts, and the local Arab and Bedouin tunes. Elsewhere on the festival roster, stellar vocalist Violet Salameh will front a program dedicated to the works of Arabic music titans Abd al-Wahab, Um Kalthoum and Farid al-Atrash (Jerusalem Theater, November 19 at 9 p.m.).
On November 21 (Beit Shmuel, 9 p.m.) tar player-composer Piris Elyahu will lead a quintet, including his son kamanche (spike violin) player Mark, playing music that draw on cabbalistic texts, while fans of chamber music - with liberal ethnic seasoning - should enjoy the Maktoub Ensemble concert at Confederation House on November 22 (9 p.m.). Ethnic music followers in the north of the country can also access some quality entertainment closer to home, in Nazareth, including Tekbilek's festival closing show on November 27 (8:30 p.m.) at the Diana Auditorium, while the Tokcan-Dinkjian-Elias-Fresco summit appearing at the Mahmoud Darwish Cultural Center there on November 25 (8:30 p.m.).
For more information about the Oud Festival: 02-6245206 and www.confederationhouse.org.