"I believe that most of the people who come to this festival listen to Arabic music at home. And most of them wouldn't admit it, at least until recently," says oud and violin player Yair Dalal, one of the founders of the Jerusalem International Oud Festival, which began on November 2 and runs for three weeks, including supplemental concerts in Nazareth. "Older people remember this music from home, from when they were kids. Now that the classical Arabic music has regained the place it deserves, they have the opportunity to enjoy it openly," he continues. Dalal is alluding to a long-held complaint among lovers and players of traditional Middle Eastern music: in Israel, it gets no respect. In the 1950s, the influx of Jews to Israel from Middle Eastern countries after the founding of the state changed the demographic make-up of the country and created a non-Ashkenazi majority. But Ashkenazi-Zionist culture prevailed and in the Zionist quest to create a "new Jew," much of the flavor from the various lands of origin was suppressed or forgotten. This included the great streams of Arabic classical music and piyutim (Jewish religious songs), which mostly remained confined to the homes and synagogues of aficionados. In addition, due to the ongoing wars with neighboring Arab countries, Arab and Islamic culture were treated with hostility. The music continued to exist in Israel of course, but very much on the margins. Yet over the past decade or so, Israelis from all walks of life have begun to express a new-found interest in traditional ethnic and classical music. This new development can be attributed, at least in part, to the emergence of a new generation that is more at ease with their Israeli-ness and so is able to reach out to its grandparents' culture. The Jerusalem International Oud Festival, dedicated to the ancient lute, considered by many to be the queen of musical instruments, has become an important venue for this previously hard-to-find music. This year, the festival is celebrating its seventh anniversary, although it actually originated several years before then. "Ten years ago, I decided to launch an evening in homage to the three greatest female singers of classical Arabic music," says Effie Benaya, director of the Confederation House, which produces the festival and various other oriental and ethnic music events. "That first evening was dedicated to the music of Layla Mourad, Oum Koltoum and Fairuz. I asked Taiseer Elias, who had just opened the Arabic classical department at the Rubin Academy, to organize and conduct the event," he recalls. "When I found out that two weeks ahead the concert was already sold out, I began to understand that I was on the right path." At about the same time, Dalal, together with producer Eli Greenfeld, was organizing concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to promote Mizrahi music. Literally, Mizrahi means "eastern" in Hebrew, and in a musical context the term can refer to any form of Middle Eastern music, including Arabic classical music and Middle Eastern Jewish religious music. In those years, most of the concerts in Jerusalem were held either in the Confederation House at the YMCA. The first event carrying the name "Jerusalem Oud Festival" was held during December 2000, just two months after the second intifada broke out. The opening concert at the YMCA was filled with Arabs from Nazareth and the surrounding villages, as well as Israeli Jews from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, all united in a shared passion for the oud and its music. Greenfeld stood at the door. As each newcomer arrived, holding his tickets in his hands, it seemed that he found it difficult to hide his emotions. The same festival program also ran simultaneously in Tel Aviv. There is still an annual oud festival during November-December at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, but after the first few years, the Jerusalem oud festival went its own way. In Jerusalem, the festival continue to grow and expand, while in Tel Aviv it has remained a modest, locally oriented event. As artistic director, Benaya has had substantial influence over the shaping of the festival's programming. He has ambitious goals for the festival, which, he believes, can play an important role in Israeli society. "To me, this is more than a cultural event," he explains, "It is a kind of personal and collective journey that I wish to make with the lovers of this music. My aim is to recreate a piece of history that prevailed hundreds of years ago during the Golden Age of Spain, when Jews and Arabs were so close and shared so much in common - music, poetry, art. My wish is to achieve some kind of revival of those days and to bring a glimpse of that beauty to our time and place, in Jerusalem. Because, where else could this be done?" Benaya recalls his childhood. "I grew up in Yemin Moshe, my parents lived there and were expelled, as were all the other original residents of that neighborhood [after the Six Day War, when the neighborhood was reconstructed as an artists' colony - G.F.]. My father came from Egypt, and I remember him listening to radio broadcasts of Arabic music from Cairo. We had one of those big radios of the time and in my memory, I have this picture: my father listening with passion to Farid al-Attrach and Oum Koltoum, singing with them and dancing ecstatically. So, I am a guy who remembers his father dancing to the sound of music - and this music is forever a part of me." He continues, "This festival and all the things I am doing to promote the ethnic musical traditions of the region and of the traditions that the Jews brought [to Israel], is much more than a cultural occupation and, needless to say, more than a mere job. It is more like a mission, an obligation to the memory of that generation and to that culture that has almost faded away. "It is also an answer to the popular and low-level music we have had here for the past 20 years or so, the popular Mizrahi music, which has kept the beauty of the classical Arab and Jewish oriental music hidden from the Israelis." He continues, "The festival also makes an important statement regarding our position here. I want to say it loud and clear, that we [Israelis] are a part of this region; through this musical aspect of our mutual legacy and heritage, we can become an integral part of the Middle East and its people. So you see, I am very dedicated to the success of the festival, but for me it is much more: It is a revolution... that will bring us the best things we can hope and wish for." Yair Dalal, who is one of the more famous Israeli musicians internationally, sees things much the same. "It is a silent and quiet revolution," he reveals. "This festival, like all the other events which promote Arabic classical music, is another brick in the creation of this quiet yet crucial revolution that has been happening in Israel over the past decade or so." Referring to the recent legitimization and acceptance of "Mizrahi-ness" in Israeli society, Dalal adds, "This is a musical and social revolution, and perhaps the most important trend in Israel these days." But Dalal also notes a downside to this trend. "It has its positive sides - the music, the poetry, the re-acceptance of what we belong to. But it also has negative aspects: we drive like mad, we are becoming wild and we curse. I am aware of this, but on the other hand, I see how this return to our common roots affects us positively. We are coming back to the generosity, the warmth and, above all, this amazing and wonderful music which we have almost forgotten over the years." Dalal's own family came from Iraq. "With the renewal of our ties with this music, especially to Iraqi, Egyptian and Syrian music, we also discover the huge contribution that Jews made to these countries. We know for example, that most of the best music created in Iraq at the beginning of the past century was written by Jews and when they left Iraq and came here, Iraqi music was almost wiped out. Yet, on the other hand, when they came here, these Jews were not considered important, since it was Arabic music and who in Israel cared about Arabic music in those days?" As part of the festival, Yair Dalal and his ensemble will give a concert on November 7 at Beit Shmuel, dedicated to the seminal group of Jewish musicians who emigrated from Iraq to Israel in the 1950s. Some of them, such as the al-Kuwaiti brothers, were internationally famous throughout the Arab world but languished in obscurity here. He believes that this new encounter with the classical Arabic music and the Jewish traditions of oriental Jewish music will eventually serve as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world around us. "I know that for the moment, Jordanians and Egyptians are not coming, but I know that Palestinians, Israeli-Arabs and I guess also residents of east Jerusalem attend the festival. I know that Arabs from different countries who live in Europe and in the States are very interested in this festival and in all the exciting things we have been doing here during the past few years with regard to encounters between Jewish and Arab musicians." Agreeing with Dalal, Benaya says that the first concrete signs of interest from the Arab world are already visible. "I know that this week, Shark al-Ausat, an Arabic newspaper published in London, wrote something about the festival and a newspaper published in Egypt also mentioned us. There, it is thought of as a 'Festival of Jerusalem and the Arab Region.'" But there is still a long way to go before Benaya's dream is realized. "There is a beautiful and important festival in the eastern part of Jerusalem, the Jabus festival," says Dalal. "It's a very good festival, but because of political reasons, they do not invite Israeli-Jewish artists and performers. I think it's a mistake, since I believe that music should unite us and not divide us. But that's their position, and I can only be sorry." He adds, "The organizers have contacts with us when we are abroad. When I perform in a foreign festival I meet them and the contacts are good, but once we're here, political issues prevent any contact. I can only pray that things will improve with time." Benaya says, "I am deeply convinced that this festival, and the things that we are doing here at Confederation House in promoting ethnic Jewish music and traditions, are the tools with which we will improve the atmosphere around us," adds Benaya. "For me, dealing with these issues is a kind of tikkun [repairing], a tikkun for the memory of what I heard in my childhood and for the memory of the times we call the Golden Age of the encounter between Jews and Arabs. The oud was and is still an instrument that conveys this link that I want so much to renew here." Although he is the artistic director of the festival, Benaya's approach is fairly hands-off. "I give each performer an evening and a topic to work on. For example I asked Taiseer Elias to create the opening concert, which is traditionally dedicated to the greatest figures of Arabic classical music. And I asked Yair Dalal to produce and perform an evening dedicated to the Jewish classical composers of Iraq. "That way, I can be sure of two things. First, each one of them will be totally identified with his chosen program and that will ensure the best possible results. Second, I also avoid the little personal problems that exist in the artists' world. I am sure to obtain the best of the best, and the public responds with total confidence. Some of the concerts have been sold out for more than two weeks and that speaks for itself." At each festival, Benaya attempts to expand the program into an ever-wider spectrum of regions and styles. "Since we have a budget that enables us to do it, we insisted on having an international festival. This year we have included the Armenian voice and the Andalusian voice with an ensemble that comes directly from Spain. We have Sufis from Persia - although the performers do not live in Iran, it gives a larger picture. It is an encounter around music and art, between Jews, Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Iraqis and Palestinians. There's an evening dedicated to Palestinian folk songs with Israeli-Arab singer Amal Murkus. As in the Andalusian period in Spain, once again we shall meet and create art and beauty." The Jerusalem International Oud Festival runs until November 16 with performances at the Confederation House, Beit Shmuel and the Jerusalem Theater. Three additional performances are scheduled in Nazareth. This week's concerts are listed in the Capital Calendar, but more information can be found at www.confederationhouse.org or by calling 624-5206. The Oud Festival is funded in part by the Ministry of Culture, the Jerusalem Foundation and the European Union.

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