Arabesque Acre: A music festival for the future

“The idea of the festival,” director Tom Cohen explains to The Jerusalem Report, “is to show how this musical tradition brings together Jews and Arabs in a way that is authentic and real.”

July 31, 2019 13:38
4 minute read.
Arabesque Acre: A music festival for the future

The Dakka Marrakchia dance group. (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)

Acre (Akko) is a truly Mediterranean city. Laying fast by the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, its ancient harbor, Crusader fortress and underground tunnels, Napoleonic guns, Old City and marketplaces with their savory smells turn it into a crucible of Middle Eastern living.
Walking through its narrow streets is to be assaulted by an equal measure of Arabic and Hebrew. There is both a cosmopolitan feel and a very specific, local tempo about the place. Its population of over 50,000 is mixed – Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze and Bahais – who live in enviable harmony. The demographics may have changed dramatically over the past 100 years – with the current Jewish population roughly twice as large as the Arab one – but the sense of a cosmopolitan mixture is in the air.
In recent years the city has developed enormously, and everywhere there are signs of new buildings, both residential and public, springing up across its length and breadth. In the Talmud (Gittin 76b) there is a discussion on whether Acre is part of the biblical Land of Israel, and that thought certainly arises in today’s city. There is no sense of racial tension like in other mixed cities, such as Jerusalem. You have to pinch yourself to be reassured that you are really walking inside Israel.
In 2001, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites accorded the Old City of Acre the status of a site worthy of preservation and protection, a recognition of its ancient roots. Yet the city is also a focal point for experimental performances: since 1979, the “Festival of Alternative Theater” has gained a national and international reputation, and as of last year, the Arabesque Music Festival, which emphasizes the long traditions of both Arabic and Andalusian music, has already made its mark.
“The idea of the festival,” director Tom Cohen explains to The Jerusalem Report, “is to show how this musical tradition brings together Jews and Arabs in a way that is authentic and real.”
Danny Yaron, director of the Akko Municipal Conservatory of Music, another innovative institution, is not so sure that music brings people together. “In fact,” he says, “it may lead to the opposite effect!”
Nevertheless, he is willing to wait and see what transpires as his students – 900 Jewish and Arab youngsters – learn to play their musical instruments together. A master class for many of the Arab high school students from the area was a featured item of the Arabesque Festival, with the young musicians going through their paces on the oud, kemancha, flute, kanoon and violin under the watchful eye of their teachers. Yaron, who is writing a thesis on the phenomenon, hopes to publish his findings at a later date, “when all the data is in.”
The main performances of the festival took place inside the wonderful ambiance of the massive walls of the Old City’s Citadel. Redolent with local history, the ancient structure echoed with a plethora of talent, Jewish and Arab, performing in Hebrew and Arabic, the mutual influences of Arabic and Andalusian music.
Opening night saw a spirited performance of the Firqat Alnoor Orchestra that includes both Arab and ultra-Orthodox musicians, and which hosted three major singers of Moroccan folk music. The following day saw the performance by
Kochavei HaTzafon (Orchestra of the Stars) from Nazareth who were led by their founder and virtuoso violinist, Kamil
Shajrawi. This was their premier concert, but Shajrawi anticipates many more as their reputation spreads. The orchestra hosted major names in Arabic music today, who saluted the greatest singers from Lebanon and Syria.
Trained both in Israel and the US,
Shajrawi is confident that their music will gain an ever larger audience. “Firstly,” he says “we try to mix old tropes with new ones. Our repertoire includes both traditional compositions and music that is more of a contemporary, popular style. Moreover in Ramallah, Beit Zayit and Jerusalem, there are now larger concert halls in which to perform. This is a relatively new trend but one which is increasingly prevalent among the Palestinian population.”
His confidence is also based on Nazareth having set up a conservatory, so that the music he promotes will become an integral part of the local culture.
The following night saw women performers singing in Hebrew, and classical and Moroccan Arabic, accompanied by the Jerusalem East and West Orchestra conducted by Tom Cohen. The singers included the popular Israelis: Sarit Hadad and Miri Mesika, the Arab singer Violet Salameh, and Sanaa Marahati from Morocco.
Each evening, too, a group of 10 musicians called the Dakka Marrakchia performed their music and dance in the festival gardens. The musicians played authentic Gnava music of the Berbers from Marrakesh, encouraging some of the audience to join in the sinuous-looking dances, which they did till both musicians and dancers were exhausted.
Finally, on Shabbat, four male singers became hazanim (cantors) in four separate synagogues in the city and led the congregations in hymns and prayers in the Andalusian tradition, thus showing the deep roots of mixing Jewish and Arabic music in its original religious facet.
All told, the Arabesque Festival showed that the long tradition of shared music between Jews and Arabs is alive and well in Israel, and that this fusion is possible not just as a memorial to the past but as a joyful ode to possibilities in the future.

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