Oud master Yinon Muallem comes ‘Back Home’

Muallem sees Back Home as another link in his unfurling chain of eclectic documented work, although noting that the new release represents a significant departure.

July 1, 2019 21:40
Oud master Yinon Muallem comes ‘Back Home’

'What is music anyway? It is a collection of sounds which you rearrange each time, and play them differently. That’s all. There are a few different rules of organization here and there but, basically, in Persian, Indian, Arabic or Western music you just move the rules around,’ says veteran oud playe. (photo credit: LIOR CAPIZON)

It’s a tad challenging to try summing up Yinon Muallem’s oeuvre to date in words. Okay, so he was born in Israel to Iraqi-born parents and has been domiciled in Turkey for around the last decade and a half. And, if we take into account the fact that his father, David, a retired judge, is an expert in Eastern music, the logical ethnic music conclusion from the above with regard to Muallem’s musical milieu is inescapable.

You could introduce to the disciplinary equation the fact that the 50-year-old Istanbul resident plays oud and all sorts of percussion instruments associated with the Arab world. Then again, if you take a closer look at his body of work, which encompasses 10 albums, you gain the impression that Muallem has his ears and heart trained on numerous sonic strands. That may have something to do with Muallem, Sr. starting out, back in Iraq, as a Western classical violinist and, over the years, becoming steeped in Eastern music, and even lecturing in the field and publishing books on the intercultural confluence,

Back Home, Muallem’s latest record, certainly corroborates the notion that he has several strings to his creative bow and multiple channels to his artistic nous. It is not quite a matter of reinvention, but Muallem seems to be looking to access new audiences. That should come across in his July 5 concert (2 p.m.) at the Inbal Multi Cultural Ethnic Center in Tel Aviv, which marks the local unveiling of the album.

Over the years Muallem has mixed it with a broad range of musicians, including some of the top shakers and movers on the scene in Turkey, such as oud master Yurdal Tokcan and acclaimed ney (flute) player Kudsi Erguner. In fact, it was his confluence with Tokcan, and his desire to spread his instrumental arsenal, that led to his relocation to the country that straddles the interface between Europe and Asia.

Back Home spans all kinds of styles and disciplines. While stopping short of calling it his most variegated effort to date, Muallem says it feeds off his desire to spread his wings. “I don’t know if it is my most varied album, but I do know that I take a different direction with it. The fact that I only play oud – almost entirely only oud – on this is a big step.” In fact, Muallem does do his thing on several percussion instruments across the 10 tracks, but he leaves most of the percussive role in the highly capable hands of Maayan Doari, who also plays drums. The rest of the gang features vocalist Sivan Oshrat, husband Orel Oshrat on piano, and backing vocals, and Meni Welt on double bass.

Muallem sees Back Home as another link in his unfurling chain of eclectic documented work, although noting that the new release represents a significant departure. “I think all my CDs are different from each other, but I think this one is a new genre for me.”

The many layers and fibers that snake their way through the album include jazz and pop-oriented spheres. The latter is probably best exemplified by Muallem’s singular take on the 1972 Lou Reed number “Perfect Day.” The single came out at a time when Reed was known almost exclusively as front man of alternative New York rock band Velvet Underground. “I think the album is an original fusion, which is, to an extent, connected to jazz,” he notes. “I am not a jazz artist, so I don’t have any pretenses in that sense. But I decided to have a piano in the band and a double bass. Okay, so Maayan doesn’t play a full drum set, but there is a [jazzy] feel.”

That was the thinking behind the current lineup. “I wanted to create a sort of quartet – besides the female vocalist. If I try to put my finger on a direct source of inspiration I’d say it was Night Ark.” The latter refers to a highly popular group led by American-Armenian oud player Ara Dinkjian, which incorporates a wide swathe of sounds, including Turkish music, pop and rock.

Muallem would be delighted to achieve a similar level of global market coverage, even though he has traveled the world over the past couple of decades. “I don’t think my music has been given adequate exposure so, yes, I am looking to access greater sectors of the public. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, to make my music more accessible, as long as I maintain the level of my artistry, and stay true to my heart.”

Hence the choice of the instantly recognizable Lou Reed song, although Muallem stresses that was not him selling out, abandoning his Eastern musical roots for a quick sell ruse. “My thinking, from the outset, was not populist. ‘Perfect Day,’ for example, has been in my head for many years. I heard Lou Reed when I was 18, although I heard ‘Perfect Day’ later, maybe 10 years ago.”

The number, which surprised a few people back in the day, with its melodic and textual tenderness, was an oblique break from the more feral Velvet Underground fare. “I thought it was such a beautiful song, and so different from the regular Lou Reed,” Muallem observes. “‘Perfect Day’ was part of my life for many years, and I was really excited to something with it.”

It also suits the eclectic breadth of “Back Home,” which also embraces Yemenite lines, the odd taqsim – a basic improvisational feature of Arabic music – while “Hicaz Sirto” opens with a hypnotic bass solo, before being augmented by some clapping, which conjures up a sense of both flamenco and an Arabic hafla jam session ambience. The rest of the gang join in the evolving fun and produce a sound that is, indeed, reminiscent of the Night Ark sonic ethos.

Muallem and the band shake things up, more than a little, with the “9 Times Shalom” cut, with some instrumental mayhem that eventually segues into a richly lyrical excursion. The album closes with “Desert Song,” which was first recorded by Yemenite dancer-singer Leah Avraham, and to which Muallem was introduced by jazz-oriented vocalist Eden Holan. Holan shares a vocal duet with Muallem, with Guy Mintus on piano. Mintus, a young up-and-coming jazz and classical pianist who has been making waves here and around the globe in recent years, in a range of formats, shared the highly successful Offlines partnership with Muallem, which produced a finely tuned fusion of jazz and ethnic music. It was testament to both members’ musicianship, sensitivity and ability to accommodate the other’s reading of the charts. Their gig at the winter edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat three years ago was one of the highlights of the three-day program.

Presumably, Muallem would happily admit to aiming to advance the creative and production ante with each record he puts out. And, with Back Home, which came out on the German-based Galileo label, he has the official collateral to back that up. A couple of weeks ago the Istanbul-based artist received this year’s Authors, Composers and Music Publishers in Israel nonprofit award – aka ACUM Award – in the Album Production category.

Muallem sees the official kudos as a salute to the field of ethnic music as a whole, and not just to himself: “Look at the prizewinners, people like Rami Fortis and Beri Sacharoff, and Doron Medalie and Stav Beger for the most played song of the year.” The latter wrote Israel’s Eurovision Song Contest winner last year, performed by Netta, while Fortis and Sacharoff have been among the doyens of the Israeli rock scene for over 30 years.

“Of course it is a great compliment to get the ACUM Award, but I also thought that it’s a great thing that it brings some kind of recognition to my kind of music, which isn’t exactly the stuff they play on [mainstream pop-rock radio station] Galgalatz. That, maybe, gives me an opportunity to make a different kind of musical statement.”

For tickets and more information: https://inbal.smarticket.co.il/חזרה_הביתה

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