Ethnic music festival: Songs of the oud

With no artists from the wider Arabic world performing here, important traditions, like Khaligi music from the Persian Gulf or the rich, pentatonic oud music of Sudan, are practically unknown to the Israeli public

oud 88 (photo credit: )
oud 88
(photo credit: )
The International Oud Festival is back again with the usual combination of local and international Middle-Eastern virtuosos, impeccably organized by the good folks at Jerusalem's Confederation House. From its humble beginnings, the two-week festival, now in it's eighth season, has ridden a wave of renewed interest in Middle-Eastern music and is firmly established as the major festival of its type in Israel. Emblematic is the opening concert on Thursday by rocker Berry Sakharof, along with his band and the Ensemble Hayona. Sakharof, in some ways the quintessential Tel Aviv rock star, performs the classic spiritual poems of medieval Hebrew poet Ibn Gavirol in a premiere concert of newly composed and arranged music. The rock connection is also felt in a collaboration between popular artists David Broza and Yair Dalal, who, accompanied by ethnic instrumentation, present an evening of love songs in Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic on Wednesday, November 19. From Los Angeles, the Yuval Ron Ensemble is an interesting group composed of Israeli, Armenian and Arabic musicians living in the US. Ron is a composer and arranger who has worked extensively with Turkish Sufi master Omar Faruk Tekbilek and recently scored the Oscar-winning short film West Bank Story. Their pan-Middle-Eastern diaspora sound, anchored by fantastic Haifa-born vocalist Najwa Gibran, is presented on Thursday, November 22. Armenian-American oudist Ara Dinkjian, a festival favorite, returns this year for a concert on Saturday, November 17. Although based in New York, Dinkjian's music is very popular in Turkey and Israel, and in the spirit of the festival, he performs with an international ensemble of Armenian, Greek, Turkish and Israeli musicians, including crowd-pleasing local percussionist Zohar Fresco. From Istanbul, sublime husband and wife Ladino singers Janet and Jak Esim perform with their eight-piece ensemble on Saturday, November 24 in the closing concert of the festival. The Esims, native Ladino-speakers, have been putting out recordings since the '80s and are among the premier artists exploring Judeo-Spanish song. Artistic director Effie Benaya has given numerous interviews where he has put forth his vision for the festival as a return of sorts to the Golden Age of Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims enjoyed widespread dialogue and collaboration. That spirit can been seen clearly in this year's program, but contemporary political realities are also revealed. Of course, there is no hope of seeing artists from the wider Arab world perform. Important traditions, like Khaligi music from the Persian Gulf or the rich, pentatonic oud music of Sudan, remain practically unknown to the Israeli public. Moreover, there are no artists coming from Egypt or Jordan, two important countries that have peace treaties with Israel. Regardless, the Oud Festival still represents a great opportunity to see some of the most vibrant Arab music performed in Israel. In addition to the seemingly obligatory tribute concerts to hugely influential composer Muhammad Abd al-Wahab and legendary diva Oum Kalthum (on November 11 and 18, respectively), the festival organizers have prepared a diverse program of contemporary and traditional Arabic music. Virtuosic oudist, violinist and singer Sameer Makhoul returns from a sabbatical in England to perform two concerts. On Thursday, November 13, he will perform an evening of his own compositions, accompanied by percussionist Itamar Doari; in an adventurous, improvisational collaboration he will play with legendary avant-garde French double bassist Joelle Leandre on Friday, November 23. Muhammad Abu Ajaj and friends present Bedouin music and songs from the Negev on Thursday, November 15. Oudist and educator Imad Dalal, who heads the Arabic music department at the Safed College, presents a program of traditional and contemporary song on Tuesday, November 20, featuring vocalists Lubna Salameh and Khalil Abu-Nikola. For a complete festival program see or check the pages of Billboard.