Arabic music party time in Safed

The Maqamat Music Center presents an enticing program next week to mark its inaugural graduating class.

THE MAQAMAT MUSIC Center’s founder Moshe Tov-Kreps and some of his students (photo credit: NOAM DAHAN)
THE MAQAMAT MUSIC Center’s founder Moshe Tov-Kreps and some of his students
(photo credit: NOAM DAHAN)
If you are looking to kick start a new venture in this country, it would be best to enter the entrepreneurial fray with boundless enthusiasm and energy, naturally, in addition to the requisite pecuniary wherewithal.
Moshe Tov-Kreps dived headlong into his Maqamat Music Center project with plenty of the former, and the financial side of the affair also clicked into place bang on time.
For those unfamiliar with the terminology of eastern music, maqam, or maqamat in plural, refers to the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music. In fact the literal translation of “maqam” is place, location or position, much like “makom” in Hebrew.
In the context of Tov-Kreps’s educational endeavor, Maqamat is the name of the music academy he founded in Safed three years ago. As the full diploma program spreads over three years, the first bunch of students are about to complete their studies and take a bow as they receive their certificates and leave the cloistered environs of the school.
The academy’s inaugural graduation ceremony takes place in the ancient Galilee town on June 12 and 13, with the two-day itinerary fittingly featuring an enticing program of Arabic music concerts.
The musical entertainment will be provided by students and teachers alike and, in terms of educator material, Tov-Kreps has done himself and his students proud.
The teaching staff roster includes the names of such illustrious masters of their Middle Eastern musical craft as violinist Elad Levi, internationally renowned violinist and oud player Yair Dallal, and celebrated Galilean oud player Sameer Makhoul. “We started with 27 students and we now have 80,” Tov-Kreps notes with undisguised, and well-deserved, pride. “And we teach all the four disciplines.” That refers to the Turkish, Persian, North African and Israeli subdivision of Middle Eastern sounds.
Tov-Kreps doesn’t exactly hail from the musical world. He spent almost all his working life based in California, working in the hi-tech sector. “I’d been working in computer science, in something like databases,” he says. “I worked from the 1970s until the late 1990s.”
He’d done his bit for the industry and he says time, and his life circumstances, suggested a new life chapter should be opened.
“It took me a while to realize, thinking back, why was it that I made aliyah. At this time of my life, I was a little in a midlife shift. I’d just gotten divorced a couple of years before. My kid was 17-18, leaving home to go to school, and I was in this shift.” It was time for Tov-Kreps to move on. “I was kind of ready to do something else.”
There is some music in Tov-Kreps’s personal backdrop but nothing on the scale, or standard, of the Maqamat bunch. He was brought up on rock and roll and classical music, and became something of a dab hand at ivory tickling. “I could play Beethoven sonatas and that sort of thing, but I was never a professional,” he notes.
Despite his definitively Western cultural upbringing, when he eventually got to wrap his then 50-year-old ears around some sonic vibes from this part of the world, it was both a delight and a revelation. “We are sound in motion,” he suggests. “That’s why, if you don’t have dance with the music, if you don’t have people celebrating with the music, resonating with the music, as an audience – you don’t really have full music. That’s the problem with Western music, where it’s gone into this formal thing, like a museum – you know, bowing down to the Mona Lisa. Now jazz is like that.”
Now in his early 70s, Tov-Kreps shows no signs of slowing down. The man is a bundle of enthused energy, shot through with generous dosages of joie de vivre. After spending decades in the professional fold, he is clearly dead set on breaking down barriers and doing his own thing, and facilitating that same release for others around him. That feeds off his own early educational experiences, which meandered through an Ivy League university and far less structured learning frameworks alike.
BETWIXT WORKING towards some kind of academic qualification, Tov-Kreps began to absorb some of the musical vibes that were going down around him back then, in the 1960s. Being not a million miles away from Greenwich Village was certainly a help. One day, when still a teenager – and probably skipping class – Tov-Kreps went to a music joint in the Village and experienced his first sonic epiphany. “The first thing that I would honestly say [helped him break the musical mold] was Mike Herman’s Dance City on 15th street in the West Village, when I was 15 years old,” Tov-Kreps recounted, suddenly unleashing the memory of a pivotal juncture in his formative years. “It was the first time I heard non-Western music. I was in New York, a sort of Jewish, socialist eastern Ashkenazi workers’ kid. At Mike Herman’s Dance City, I heard Israeli dance music, folk dance, and other stuff.”
Fast forward over three decades and Tov-Kreps encounters the cross-cultural, spiritually-infused sounds of the Sheva troupe from the Galilee. Sheva was an integral part of the new age festival scene here in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “In San Francisco, in 1998, Sheva were making a tour,” he recalls.
Tov-Kreps was not initially overly enthused with the idea of going to the gig. “I thought it was going to be a bit like Disneyworld. But it turned out it was a bunch of guys coming together, getting their act together. They were probably not making a shekel on the trip but just getting a lot of spirit and having a lot of fun.”
Tov-Kreps got that sense of the higher plane and enjoyment, and that drew him closer to where he is today, spiritually and musically. “From the beginning of the show, they just blew everybody’s mind. They came out doing ‘Shir Hamaalot’ and all that stuff. They were amazing. I’d never experienced energies like that before.”
The next stop on the Tov-Kreps’s pathway into the heart of contemporary Israeli music liberally seasoned with regional cultural melting pot ingredients was a show by Bustan Abraham, one of the pioneering outfits on the sonic fusion scene here.
By the time, the die was well and truly cast. It took a few years longer, but Tov-Kreps eventually made it over here to check out what fired the likes of the aforesaid acts. “That was the spark that said ‘OK I’ve got to go this crazy place – Israel.’ I’ve thought ‘I’ve got to find the circus and run away with it.’”
And so, it came to be. There were some more twists and turns to be negotiated, including a spell at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and, while he was in the capital, he got in some classes on darbukha (goblet drums) and ney (flute) at the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music in Musrara.
TOV-KREPS ULTIMATELY found his way to Safed and managed to acquire a 700-year-old structure that was sorely in need of a substantial makeover, underpinning and all.
“At first, I wanted to set up a yoga center,” he recalls. But the music bug persisted and, when another property came on the market a little while later, serendipity showed its smiling face and an American hi-tech company – in which Tov-Kreps had shares – provided some badly needed bounty. “Three years ago, when we had the idea of the school, the company finally exited, after 20 years!” Tov-Kreps exclaims.
He feels that the music academy is simply a natural eventuality. “I received a vision about what this building wanted to express itself as. It’s an amazing place.” That was the corporeal beginning of what has become a thriving music education facility that is about to unfurl its first crop of budding Arabic music artists.
For Tov-Kreps, it is all about the spirit and the intent. “What I came to realize is that if you want to make anything work in Israel, throw a party. Everything comes out of that.” That is something he has instilled in his Safed venture. “The promotional strategy for this school is to throw good parties,” he explained. “The whole reason for the school, actually, is to have a creative community of people that are talented and are ready to come to the party, and play for free, for food and maybe some Arak,” he laughs. “That was the vision I had all my life. It just took me a little time to figure it out.”
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