Musicians, like any artists, are constantly searching for new material, new avenues of thought and creation. Yinon Muallem is no different. The 50-year-old Israeli-born percussionist and oud player has followed a long and winding road over the past two-plus decades, and he is now unfurling yet another stylistic offering with the release of his latest album, the 10th of his highly variegated discography to date, Back Home, which he will showcase along with his quintet at Jerusalem’s Confederation House on Thursday.
That’s not bad going, in quantitative terms alone, especially considering it took longtime Istanbul-resident Muallem a while to get into top gear on the ethnic side of the music scene.
Like many first-generation Israelis, born to olim from Arab countries, Muallem’s initial musical interests lay solely on the Western side of the cultural divide.
“As a kid, I didn’t listen to Arabic music at all,” he notes. “When my dad put a record of Arabic music on the stereo, I’d turn it off.”
Muallem Sr. is 87-year-old retired judge David who, besides his legal beagling, invested much time and effort in the Arabic music domain. He was a valued violinist in his native Iraq, including in the Western classical music sector, and has penned several invaluable tomes about Arabic and Western music and the connections thereof. He also paid his teaching dues at Bar-Ilan University among various prestigious institutions.
So one might have expected young Yinon to go with the Iraqi flow. But, in fact, it took quite a while and a nonfamilial source of inspiration to get Muallem to shift his musical focus.
“I liked Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and those guys, and then I got a bit into jazz, people like [guitarist] Pat Metheny, [trumpeter] Miles Davis and [saxophonist John] Coltrane. But I was never really into playing jazz,” he says.
It was when he heard pioneering Israeli cultural crossover band Bustan Abraham and, in particular, then-young percussionist Zohar Fresco that Muallem’s artistic die was well and truly cast.
“I heard Zohar playing riq (a sort of tambourine) and he had the jingles closed,” he recalls. “I thought it was such a delicate darbuka. I wondered what sort of darbuka he was playing.”
Luckily, there was a darbuka lying around in the Muallem home, and the budding musician could give it a tryout. Later, his father gave him an old oud, and Muallem’s musical palette expanded appreciably. “That’s when I started listening to Arabic music – [diva] Umm Kulthum and [singer and composer] Abdel Wahab. I began taking lessons from Zohar, and things sort of snowballed from there.”
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Despite his relatively late epiphany – he was in his 20s when he first laid hand to darbukka – Muallem knew which way his life was headed. There were a couple of stabs at a “more respectable” means of making ends meet, but they were not to be.
“I registered for law studies twice – my dad paid for the registration fee. But I didn’t go through with it. Eventually, my father said he realized I wanted to be a musician, and that was fine by him, but that I shouldn’t expect him to pay for that too,” Muallem chuckles.
The nascent percussionist and oud player got as much instruction as he could, and after making something of a name for himself here, he opted to relocate to Turkey, where he felt he could make better and faster progress.
He got that right. He was soon mixing it with some of the leading lights on the Turkish ethnic music scene, such as master oud player Yurdal Tokcan and ney – Arabic flute – player Kudsi Erguner.
There were also musically enriching synergies with the likes of Turkish-born, US-based multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek, and UK-born, longtime Cretan resident lyra player Ross Daly, as well as top Israeli exponents of the discipline, violinist-oud player Yair Dalal and wind instrument master Eyal Sela. A couple of years or so ago, Muallem also enjoyed a brief, but artistically successful collaboration with young Israeli jazz pianist Guy Mintus.
Now, with a new quintet, Muallem continues to follow all sorts of byways and highways, dipping into jazz and various tracts of the world music sphere. He also has his own take on Lou Reed’s angelic “Perfect Day” hit pop number from 1972. “I feed off all sorts of textual sources. Besides Lou Reed, there are lyrics by [internationally acclaimed Iraqi-born Israeli poet] Roni Somek, [Israel Prize laureate writer] Leah Goldberg and [Yemen-born dancer, choreographer, singer and percussionist] Lea Avraham.”
That sounds like quite a stretch, but Muallem, who mostly plays oud on Back Home, says his cohorts can handle it all. The latter include pianist and arranger Uriel Oshrat, one of the linchpins of the current project, Oshrat’s wife, vocalist Sivan, percussionist Maayan Doari and bassist Meni Velt. Muallem is clearly keeping his musical options open.October 25 at 8:30 p.m. at Confederation House, Jerusalem. For tickets and more information: *6226, (02) 623-7000 and www.confederationhouse.org/en/
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