A traditional Middle Eastern instrument with 11 strings, a wide body and a warm tone, the oud is one of the key predecessors to the European lute. Melodies and flavors hailing from North Africa and Greece all the way to Pakistan are often anchored by the oud, and Persian mythology claims that the instrument was invented by the patriarch Lamak, who lived in the seventh generation of mankind. The instrument serves as the backbone for ensembles focusing on the classical ethnic folk sounds of the East.
Jerusalem's International Oud Festival has served as a highlight on the country's cultural calendar for several years now. Past festivals have focused more on the sound of the instrument itself than on the cultural contexts in which these sounds have been heard, but this year, Effie Benaya, the festival's artistic director, has gone to great lengths to widen the scope of the festival's offerings. The 2006 Oud Festival, which began earlier this month, offers the public some 19 concerts over the course of more than three weeks at venues across Jerusalem, with the program exploring Andalusian music, the cultural renaissance that occurred during the Golden Age of Spain and the canon of work by the 10th century poet al-Mutanabbi.
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On Thursday, the Oud Festival returned to what has become a theme of at least one concert in each of the past four years: the fusion between newer musical forms and classical Eastern ones. Israeli rock luminary Berry Sakharof's first appearance at the festival was in 2003, and he performed the following winter in Jerusalem with the piyut-loving Ensemble Hayona in a sold-out concert not held under the auspices of the Oud Festival.
The famous musical Banai family has also been instrumental in advancing the oud-grounded piyut sound in Israeli popular culture, so it's no surprise that Meir Banai teamed with both Sakharof and Ensemble Hayona for Thursday's Piyut, Rock and Ethnic show at the Jerusalem Theater.
Most of the program was dominated by Hayona's own piyut-based performances, focusing on the longing poetry of 19th-century Iraqi kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Haim and Syrian poet-philosopher Rabbi Israel Ben Moses Najara. Hayona vocalist Rabbi Yehuda Ovadia Petaya lovingly chanted the breathtaking words of these poets and others, while his band accompanied with plenty of grace and sometimes even ferocity. Ben Gurion University Professor Haviva Pedaya, a long-time champion of piyut, serves as Hayona's arranger, researcher and narrator, and introduced the various sections of the program with elegant verse readings and explanations of the poetic connections between the performance pieces.
More of a light longing than a droning throb, the ensemble's sound is driven by virtuoso percussionist Asaf Zamir, versatile and emotive nai (Eastern flute) player Itamar Shachar and the oud riffing of Eliyahu Digmi. Banai's mini-set included a piyut for the month of Elul's liturgical slihot cycle, his own "Prayer for Rain" and an Easternized version of his popular "Sha'ar Harahamim" (Mercy Gate) love ballad. Sakharof seemed less at ease than Banai with the subject-matter, looking unsure about what to do with his guitar at points, but his presence on the stage was greater by far. A jam based on Psalm 137 ("By the Rivers of Babylon") provided an excellent musical and textual transition into Sakharof's "Avadim" (Slaves).
Sakharof's version of a Sabbath table sing-along got the crowd clapping along furiously to the beat, while Pedaya's introduction to his "Lev Shavur" poignantly connected the existential Broken Heart of its lyrics to those sitting in the audience. A crowd of Israelis from a variety of religious, ethnic and regional backgrounds was clearly pleased by the performance, which lasted for well over two hours. The audience appeared reluctant to go home once the house lights came up.