Max Doehlemann is no stranger to these shores and, it seems, to some of the cultural strands that run through this land, the region and beyond. The 44-year-old German pianist has been here several times before but generally for recreation and rest purposes only.
“This is the first time I am coming to Israel to perform,” he says ahead of his concert at this year’s International Oud Festival.
This is the 15th edition of the event, which kicked off yesterday and will run until November 15.
Concerts are taking place at various venues in the capital, such as the Jerusalem Theatre, Beit Shmuel, the Yellow Submarine and the Gerard Behar Center, under the auspices of Confederation House and its artistic director Effie Benaya.
Doehlemann will take part in the Jazz-Piyyut show, which will take place on Sunday (9:30 p.m.) at the Yellow Submarine. It will combine those two seemingly disparate musical genres to great effect. The concert will be based on material from the recently released Azur album, which also has the geographically and culturally self-explanatory subtitle of “Berlin – Jerusalem – Istanbul.”
The CD features Israeli vocalist Hadass Pal Yarden and compatriot baglama and zurna player and vocalist Yaniv Ovadia, along with the Max Doehlemann Trio of pianist, bassist Christian Schantz and drummer Martin Fonfara.
While this is the German pianist’s first working visit to Israel, his previous non-professional stays here actually laid the foundation for Sunday’s show.
“I have a good friend in Jerusalem named Yossi Ohana. He is the founder of Kehilot Sharot (singing communities), which is an organization that works with all these piyyutim [liturgical songs] that come from Sephardic countries like Morocco and Iran and Turkey, to Israel,” explains Doehlemann. “I knew Yossi’s wife, who is a German Jew, and that’s how I got to know Yossi.”
It is clearly a happy connection for all concerned. Although Doehlemann already had an interest in Jewish music before he met Ohana, it was in a very different sector.
“I got interested in Sephardic music and Oriental music through Yossi,” the pianist says. “It was something very new for me. Some years ago I went with Yossi to these singing communities that sing very old songs from Morocco, and piyyutim, which have very interesting tonalities and rhythms.”
That encounter was to lead to bigger and better things.
“Back then, I got the idea that we could invite two or three singers from Israel to do a concert in Berlin,” says Doehlemann. “The concert took place two years ago with Hadas and Yaniv. It was a fantastic concert. After that, there was a plan to produce a CD, which we did in Berlin in the summer, and now we have the chance to play the music at the Oud Festival. That’s really fantastic for us.”
The CD and, no doubt, the concert repertoire offer a fascinating range of tones, rhythms and textures from across several cultures.
“We have all these medieval Jewish melodies. In the case of the Cd, we are mainly talking about Turkey and Kurdish songs,” notes Doehlemann, adding that much of that is down to the Israelis in Sunday’s lineup.
“Hadas studied in Istanbul, and she is also familiar with this kind of tradition from her family. And Yaniv is a member of the Kurdish community in Jerusalem. He is also a cantor in a Kurdish synagogue, and he has been singing this kind of music from childhood,” he says.
It is the interface between the aforementioned two disciplines and one of the pianist’s main lines of musical endeavor that imbue the current project with its added artistic value.
“We don’t always play the pure [piyyut] form. It is sometimes a mixture of jazz and piyyutim and so on, and we try to find a good mixture between and not destroy this very old and sacred atmosphere of the songs but also to make it a little bit modern. The art is to find a good blend of everything. That’s what we’re trying to achieve,” he explains The result of the fivesome’s combined efforts is an enchanting selection of songs in Hebrew, Ladino and Turkish, with texts by 11th-century Andalusian poet and philosopher Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Kurdish religious leader Rabbi Shmuel Barazani, 10th-century commentator and grammarian Dunash ben-Labrat and 19th-century Iraqi Kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Chaim.
Doehlemann brings a solid classical music and jazz background to the project and says his experience in the latter area stands him in good stead for the Jerusalem gig.
“There is improvisation in piyyutim and, especially with the Kurdish songs, there are very rhythmical tunes,” he notes.
It is here that the pianist’s background in a wide range of tempos comes to the fore.
“There are some very interesting rhythms, like a 10/8 Arabic rhythm.
We play very rhythmical stuff and, on this material, the singers also improvise with the scales and so on.
It is all very interesting,” he says.
And there’s more.
“On some songs we did some reharmonization, and we work on them almost like on a jazz standard.
It’s all very varied. Some songs are rhythmically very interesting. We play some in a very pure way, and others we change around and make them more jazzy. It’s part of our concept to combine Ottoman culture because much of these Jewish traditions come from that,” he explains.
As Turkey sits on the geographical and cultural interface of East and West, that fits the bill perfectly.
“Turkey has its own great classical music tradition, and Hadas studied that there,” says Doehlemann. “In the Turkish musical tradition there is a fine tuning of the maqam [musical modal system]. They have different tonalities, so it was a bit of a problem to combine it with a piano because I don’t have all those tones.
It was interesting to find ways of combining all of that, but I think we managed it.”
The proof of the tonality pudding will be on display at the Yellow Submarine on Sunday.For tickets and more information about the Oud Festival: (02) 624-5206 ext. 4 and www.confederationhouse.org