The 15th edition of the annual International Oud Festival is almost upon us. The 10-day event, which takes place under the auspices of Confederation House in Jerusalem and its director Effie Benaya, takes in wide musical, genre and cultural hinterlands, with artists due in from Greece, Germany, Azerbaijan, Holland and Morocco, besides the large contingent of local acts. The concerts will take place at the Jerusalem Theatre, Yellow Submarine, Beit Shmuel and the Gerard Behar Center.
The festival was born as a relatively modest two-day affair around the time of the second intifada and, for the first couple of years, Benaya was able to attract musicians from places like Morocco and Tunisia. After all, if you’re going to have a festival based on the oud – known traditionally across the Arab world as “the king of instruments” – it make sense to have a master musician from an Arab country on board. However, the second intifada and subsequent political repercussions put paid to that, so for several years the festival was largely based on homegrown talent. It’s not that we don’t have some fine proponents of oud playing and other relevant instruments, but any festival with the word “international” in the title should reach out across the globe if possible.
Thankfully, the festival has grown incrementally in recent years and now runs for a full 10 days and takes in a wide range of material from around the world. Moroccanborn Amsterdam resident oud player Mohamed Ahaddaf’s participation in the event is certainly a boon for Benaya and for Israeli fans of Arabic music. Ahaddaf will come here with his quartet of bass player Stephan Raidl, percussionist Francesco Bongiorno and Amsterdam-based Israeli pianist Avishai Darash.
Boyish-looking 40-year-old Ahaddaf, whose concert will take place at Beit Shmuel on November 12 (8:30 p.m.), got an early start to his musical path.
“I began playing the oud when I was 10. I attended a concert with my father by a great master of Morocco at that time, Jabil Chamal,” he recalls. “I asked my father later on if I could attend the Conservatory of Tetuan, and from there on I got my first oud and started practicing diligently.”
Ahaddaf acquired a solid ground in the art form and duly made good progress and soon started performing publicly, later adding a Moroccan percussion instrument called the karkabas, which is used in Gnawa music.
“I was trained in classical Arabic music,” he says. “The majority of my past musical vocabulary is in classical Arabic music or [music] from my region, the Andalusian vocabulary.”
Eventually, Ahaddaf felt it was time to seek new physical and cultural horizons, so he relocated to Holland 12 years ago. By all accounts, it appears to have been a wise move.
“It affected my music tremendously,” he notes. “Before coming to Europe, I was looking to play my own compositions with local musicians from Morocco but couldn’t find the right click with the people. Once I moved, it happened by itself. It took a bit of time, but it took me time to ripen as well as a musician.”
Once in Europe, Ahaddaf began to strike up fruitful synergies with artists from all kinds of areas of musical expression.
“Nowadays I have romantic, impressionistic, jazz and contemporary classical music alongside the tradition with which I grew up in Morocco. The musicians I am currently working with – Avishai, Stephan and Francesco – open up my music to completely new and unexpected places due to their different backgrounds. I couldn’t find that anywhere else, for that matter,” he explains.
That musical diversification, says Ahaddaf, would not have taken place had he remained in his home country.
“I listened to very little Western music when I was growing up. I used to listen to it once in a while, but I was totally engrossed in the practice of the oud,” he recounts.
“In Morocco, the practice of the oud has a very clear and solid path and indoctrination, thus making it not so possible for me to dive into different types of music during my studies. Once I moved to Europe, a whole new horizon opened up to me.”
That, says Ahaddaf, was the whole point behind his relocation.
“I moved to seek Western musicians, to add another color to my music and to be influenced by the modernity of the West,” he says.
The oud player has spread far and wide in a cultural and geographical sense with the quartet’s lineup. Raidl is of German-French extraction, Bongiorno is Italian, and Darash hails from Jerusalem. Ahaddaf says that he and Darash share considerable cultural ground, while Raidl and Bongiorno enrich the mix with some “extraneous” influences.
“Avishai has Arabic roots. His parents come from Iraq and Tunisia and, of course, Israel is closely connected culturally to Arabic countries around it. But, of course, it always brings more colors and influences when there are different backgrounds and different cultures playing a role,” he observes Ahaddaf notes that he felt at home with Darash from the start.
“We share a lot of cultural background. Usually we just laugh and understand the same things without the need the talk much about it. There’s not much difference, to be honest. When we spent our last time in Morocco, it was apparent to me that he felt right at home. He said again and again how much it reminded him of different parts of Israel,” he recounts.
The oud player says he also gets a lot from vocalizing his musical explorations, and he takes a vocal approach to his instrumental work.
“In my studies, I used to put a lot of emphasis on singing and solfege [sight reading]. The majority of my teachers and masters around me told me that if I can sing it, I can play it,” he explains.
He adds that working with singers “adds patience and the sensibility of listening.”
The Jerusalem show will be based mainly on the quartet’s latest album, Spoken Soul, and Ahaddaf says he is delighted to be coming here.
“I feel honored and privileged to come. I feel so fortunate to be able to travel around the world through music and study about the difference of cultures around me. It enriches me as a person. It is my first visit to Israel,” he says.The Oud Festival runs in Jerusalem from November 6 to 15. For tickets and more information about the festival: (02) 624-5206 ext. 4 and www.confederationhouse.org