The Firkat al-Noor ensemble highlights Arabic music series

The orchestra eventually became a corporeal musical entity, absence of public funding and home venue notwithstanding, and has been a going concern for the past five years.

By
November 18, 2018 21:14
ARIEL COHEN, center, and the The Firkat al-Noor ensemble.

ARIEL COHEN, center, and the The Firkat al-Noor ensemble. . (photo credit: EVYATAR NISSAN)

 
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Ariel Cohen has always known music was going to be his path in life, and not just any music.

“I was drawn to the sounds of Arabic music from a very early age,” says the 32-year-old percussionist and musical director. “There was something in that music that grabbed me and never let me go.”

Twenty-something years on from that infancy epiphany find Cohen overseeing the repertoire of the Firkat al-Noor Orchestra, which travels the length and breadth of the country entertaining audiences of all ages and walks of life with the wonders of classical Arabic music.

The 20-piece orchestra is, in fact, a joint venture.

“I set it up together with [liturgical music researcher] Hana Ptaya and [oud player] Dr. Yehuda Kamari,” Cohen explains. “We started out in 2013, after quite a few attempts to get something organized going. I was the musical director and she was the producer.”

The orchestra eventually became a corporeal musical entity, absence of public funding and home venue notwithstanding, and has been a going concern for the past five years.

On Tuesday, members of Firkat al-Noor will appear at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, in the first installment of a five-part series devoted to Arabic music. The first four slots, which will take place weekly, on Tuesdays, 8 p.m.-9:30 p.m., will feature lectures about various stages in the history of Arabic music, archival footage of some of the legendary figures of the discipline from Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, and live renditions of works. The series culminates on December 19 with a concert by the full orchestral complement.

The opening event goes by the name of “How It All Began – the Qanoun, the Oud and the Violin,” although Cohen is keen to point out that not everyone who plays the said instruments, and their ilk, performs authentic classical Arabic music. “A lot of people think that, if they see a program with oud, darbouka [hand drum] and ney [flute], it must be classical Arabic music, but that’s not always the case.”

COHEN PUTS his take on music where his mouth is and says he’d like the orchestra’s output to reach across social sectors and ethnic baggage. That eclectic approach begins from home. “We have all sorts of people in the ensemble. We have haredi Jews like myself, religious and secular Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians. And they come from Jerusalem, Netivot, a kibbutz on the Lebanese border, all over.”

The geographic spread, of course, adds to the logistical shenanigans. “We don’t have a regular place to rehearse, and professional rehearsal premises are expensive. So we generally rehearse at my home in Petah Tikva.”

Cohen says the group runs along harmonious lines, and not only in a musical sense. “We don’t care about politics. We just care about the music. And we all get on well. When we have a break in a rehearsal, and people go out to the balcony, to eat, drink or smoke a cigarette, we all chat happily together, and then we go back inside and play music. It’s as simple as that.”

Cohen says he and his cohorts are well and truly primed for the forthcoming run at the museum. “The collaboration with the Islamic Museum has been cooking for quite some time. People have said to us, ‘What, it’s only happening now?’ But, everything has its time.”

Cohen says it is, indeed, about time he and the ensemble got around to brass tacks and enlightened the public about some of the ins and outs of the discipline and important stages along its timeline to date. “We have had this sort of project in our minds for quite some time. We feel this need from the audiences that come to our concerts. And it’s not just about what we do. They go to concerts by the Andalusian Orchestra and the East-West Orchestra, and they go to the Ra’anana Symphonette and also to hear the [Israel] Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. They are music consumers.”
The disciplinary spread suggests Cohen and his colleagues have willing patrons to play to. “They are open-minded, and they know we play something different. They ask why we sound different. The reason is we bring the colors of the original classical Arabic music.”

Cohen says a little education would not go amiss, hence the new series at the museum. “People see an oud and a ney on the stage, and they think, Oh that must be Andalusian music. They think it is all the same, but that is just not correct. Andalusian music is important, but it is just another genre. People, in general, also think that Arabic music is such a wide spread that everything comes under that category. You have [music from] Morocco and Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Libya and the Khalij [Persian Gulf] countries and Persia and Turkey, and people think they are all Arabs, and it’s all Arabic music.”

Cohen says there are important fundamental differences – not just nuances – between them. “The oud from Turkey, Persia and Egypt – you’re talking about three completely different types of oud. Their only common denominator is that they are made of wood. The strings are different, the tuning is different, the intervals between the strings are different, and the tonal intervals in the playing are completely different.”

THE SERIES also features spots called “King Farouk and the Revolution: From Religious Song for Songs of Love and Dancers,” “The Golden Age of Arabic Music: Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Oum Kulthoum, Farid al-Atrash, Abd el-Halim Hafez,” and “The Glory Days: Egyptian Cinema and the Arab Movie.”

The latter may be somewhat familiar to anyone who has been living here for over 30 years, when there was only one state-funded TV channel, which, naturally, everyone watched. One of the programming staples was the now legendary black-and-white Arab movie, generally from Egypt, broadcast on a Friday afternoon. Even viewers whose knowledge of Arabic was sketchy or nonexistent often settled in front of the box a couple of hours or so before Shabbat, with a beer and sunflower seeds, and watched surprisingly Western-looking Arabs suffering in heartrending relationships, betwixt powerful romances, accompanied by plenty of music.

Cohen, relative youth notwithstanding, not only connected with that scene, he was also privileged to get a handle on the folklore from the source.

“When I was a kid, I used to go to rehearsals of the Voice of Israel Arabic Orchestra in Ramat Gan,” Cohen recalls. “My mother would pay for me to go there and back by taxi.”

The youngster met the likes of Egyptian-born violinist Zuzu Mousa, who ran the ensemble, Iraqi-born musicians ney player Albert Elias and qanoun player Abraham Salman. “That was wonderful. I listened to their stories and learned so much from them.”

Jewish musicians were often the backbone of the entire musical scene in places like Iraq and Egypt, and were feted by Jews and Muslims alike. However, when they made aliyah, they found their talents were appreciated less by the Ashkenazi establishment, which ruled the cultural roost here.

“The Voice of Israel Arabic Orchestra closed down for good in 1993, but we want to keep that spirit going. That’s why we called our ensemble Firkat al-Noor – Orchestra of the Fire,” Cohen explains. “We want to keep the flame of classical Arabic music burning brightly.”

The series is supported by the Department of Culture and Arts of the Jerusalem Municipality and by the UJA Federation of New York.

For tickets and more information: (02) 566-1291 and www.islamicart.co.ilAriel Cohen has always known music was going to be his path in life, and not just any music.

“I was drawn to the sounds of Arabic music from a very early age,” says the 32-year-old percussionist and musical director. “There was something in that music that grabbed me and never let me go.”

Twenty-something years on from that infancy epiphany find Cohen overseeing the repertoire of the Firkat al-Noor Orchestra, which travels the length and breadth of the country entertaining audiences of all ages and walks of life with the wonders of classical Arabic music.

The 20-piece orchestra is, in fact, a joint venture.

“I set it up together with [liturgical music researcher] Hana Ptaya and [oud player] Dr. Yehuda Kamari,” Cohen explains. “We started out in 2013, after quite a few attempts to get something organized going. I was the musical director and she was the producer.”

The orchestra eventually became a corporeal musical entity, absence of public funding and home venue notwithstanding, and has been a going concern for the past five years.

On Tuesday, members of Firkat al-Noor will appear at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, in the first installment of a five-part series devoted to Arabic music. The first four slots, which will take place weekly, on Tuesdays, 8 p.m.-9:30 p.m., will feature lectures about various stages in the history of Arabic music, archival footage of some of the legendary figures of the discipline from Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, and live renditions of works. The series culminates on December 19 with a concert by the full orchestral complement.

The opening event goes by the name of “How It All Began – the Qanoun, the Oud and the Violin,” although Cohen is keen to point out that not everyone who plays the said instruments, and their ilk, performs authentic classical Arabic music. “A lot of people think that, if they see a program with oud, darbouka [hand drum] and ney [flute], it must be classical Arabic music, but that’s not always the case.”

COHEN PUTS his take on music where his mouth is and says he’d like the orchestra’s output to reach across social sectors and ethnic baggage. That eclectic approach begins from home. “We have all sorts of people in the ensemble. We have haredi Jews like myself, religious and secular Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians. And they come from Jerusalem, Netivot, a kibbutz on the Lebanese border, all over.”

The geographic spread, of course, adds to the logistical shenanigans. “We don’t have a regular place to rehearse, and professional rehearsal premises are expensive. So we generally rehearse at my home in Petah Tikva.”

Cohen says the group runs along harmonious lines, and not only in a musical sense. “We don’t care about politics. We just care about the music. And we all get on well. When we have a break in a rehearsal, and people go out to the balcony, to eat, drink or smoke a cigarette, we all chat happily together, and then we go back inside and play music. It’s as simple as that.”

Cohen says he and his cohorts are well and truly primed for the forthcoming run at the museum. “The collaboration with the Islamic Museum has been cooking for quite some time. People have said to us, ‘What, it’s only happening now?’ But, everything has its time.”

Cohen says it is, indeed, about time he and the ensemble got around to brass tacks and enlightened the public about some of the ins and outs of the discipline and important stages along its timeline to date. “We have had this sort of project in our minds for quite some time. We feel this need from the audiences that come to our concerts. And it’s not just about what we do. They go to concerts by the Andalusian Orchestra and the East-West Orchestra, and they go to the Ra’anana Symphonette and also to hear the [Israel] Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. They are music consumers.”
The disciplinary spread suggests Cohen and his colleagues have willing patrons to play to. “They are open-minded, and they know we play something different. They ask why we sound different. The reason is we bring the colors of the original classical Arabic music.”

Cohen says a little education would not go amiss, hence the new series at the museum. “People see an oud and a ney on the stage, and they think, Oh that must be Andalusian music. They think it is all the same, but that is just not correct. Andalusian music is important, but it is just another genre. People, in general, also think that Arabic music is such a wide spread that everything comes under that category. You have [music from] Morocco and Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Libya and the Khalij [Persian Gulf] countries and Persia and Turkey, and people think they are all Arabs, and it’s all Arabic music.”

Cohen says there are important fundamental differences – not just nuances – between them. “The oud from Turkey, Persia and Egypt – you’re talking about three completely different types of oud. Their only common denominator is that they are made of wood. The strings are different, the tuning is different, the intervals between the strings are different, and the tonal intervals in the playing are completely different.”

THE SERIES also features spots called “King Farouk and the Revolution: From Religious Song for Songs of Love and Dancers,” “The Golden Age of Arabic Music: Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Oum Kulthoum, Farid al-Atrash, Abd el-Halim Hafez,” and “The Glory Days: Egyptian Cinema and the Arab Movie.”

The latter may be somewhat familiar to anyone who has been living here for over 30 years, when there was only one state-funded TV channel, which, naturally, everyone watched. One of the programming staples was the now legendary black-and-white Arab movie, generally from Egypt, broadcast on a Friday afternoon. Even viewers whose knowledge of Arabic was sketchy or nonexistent often settled in front of the box a couple of hours or so before Shabbat, with a beer and sunflower seeds, and watched surprisingly Western-looking Arabs suffering in heartrending relationships, betwixt powerful romances, accompanied by plenty of music.

Cohen, relative youth notwithstanding, not only connected with that scene, he was also privileged to get a handle on the folklore from the source.

“When I was a kid, I used to go to rehearsals of the Voice of Israel Arabic Orchestra in Ramat Gan,” Cohen recalls. “My mother would pay for me to go there and back by taxi.”

The youngster met the likes of Egyptian-born violinist Zuzu Mousa, who ran the ensemble, Iraqi-born musicians ney player Albert Elias and qanoun player Abraham Salman. “That was wonderful. I listened to their stories and learned so much from them.”

Jewish musicians were often the backbone of the entire musical scene in places like Iraq and Egypt, and were feted by Jews and Muslims alike. However, when they made aliyah, they found their talents were appreciated less by the Ashkenazi establishment, which ruled the cultural roost here.

“The Voice of Israel Arabic Orchestra closed down for good in 1993, but we want to keep that spirit going. That’s why we called our ensemble Firkat al-Noor – Orchestra of the Fire,” Cohen explains. “We want to keep the flame of classical Arabic music burning brightly.”

The series is supported by the Department of Culture and Arts of the Jerusalem Municipality and by the UJA Federation of New York.

For tickets and more information: (02) 566-1291 and www.islamicart.co.il

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