How to have a rewarding career

When Jews and Arabs play together for the sake of 'coexistence,' it isn't enough, says violinist and oudist Taiseer Elias. They also have to love what they do.

Taiseer Elias 88 248 (photo credit: )
Taiseer Elias 88 248
(photo credit: )
If the ability to embrace a wide range of cultures is an indication of a society's maturity, we may well be on our way. In the past few weeks, two artists who make their livings outside of the mainstream have received official recognition of the highest order. Last week, avant garde jazz saxophonist Albert Beger was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for jazz composition. That followed on the heels of the selection of oud player-violinist-teacher Taiseer Elias as the recipient of this year's Culture Minister Award. Despite being highly active on the ethnic music scene for close to three decades, 49-year-old Elias says he was surprised - albeit pleasantly - by the good tidings. "I didn't put my name forward for the prize so, I presume, there must be some good friends and artists who put my name in," says Elias. "All the selection committee members are top-rate professionals, and objective, so I am delighted to have been chosen. It's good to feel appreciated. And [Culture Minister] Limor Livnat called me herself to tell me about the award. I really appreciated that." The committee members were very clear on the reasons for the award. "Taiseer Elias is a gifted musician who has performed for many years on the most important stages in Israel and the world," said the committee's post-award statement. "As an oud player and violinist, he is considered an outstanding professional in the field of artistic Arabic music." The statement also noted that Elias's work "has contributed greatly to the acceptance of this music as an integral part of the concert repertoire in Israel." Considering Elias's eclectic endeavors over the years, the committee's considerations appear to be spot-on. Add to that his adroit utilization of the oft-noted ability of music to span cultural divides, and you get a natural choice for the Minister's Award. "I was in ['90s pioneering cross-cultural band] Bustan Avraham," the Shfaram-born Elias recalls. "It was great. We didn't think about us being Jews and Arabs. Bustan wasn't just about getting Arabs and Jews to play together, it was about the music. If there was a Jewish oud player who played better than me, then he would have been in the band. It was as simple as that." INTENT AND quality are paramount for Elias, and he is aware that, the award notwithstanding, not all is rosy in the cross-cultural garden. "I live in this world, and I am not naïve. There are plenty of people who make political gain from the coexistence business, even in the world of music; I hate it. There are some people who say: 'Let's get some Arabs and some Jews together, and let's do it,' without any regard for the quality of the end product. That's dangerous, sad and generally produces bad music. If the music is good, then getting Jews and Arabs together to play has added value. Only then it does it have a value." Elias has certainly been doing his best to make sure the music has value - as a musician, a researcher and a teacher. He is head of the Classical Arabic Music Department at the Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem - the only department of its kind in the world. He also performs teaching duties at Bar Ilan University and enjoys artistic synergies with musicians from across the genre board. In early June, for instance, Elias joined forces with three classical string instrument musicians from Austria, at the Sounding Jerusalem Festival, with great success, and he has performed with Western classical orchestras, Indian and Persian musicians, jazz bands and flamenco artists. However, even after all these years of globe-trotting as an ambassador of Arabic music, Elias says he still doesn't take the reception he gets from the non-Arabic public for granted. "I am always surprised when a Western audience appreciates what I do. People I've played for in Hong Kong, Japan or Germany haven't heard much Arabic music. I think if you are a genuine artist, respect yourself and your instrument and your culture, the audience will get it, they'll understand you're not trying to sell them something cheap." Elias says he is aware of market forces, and he resists any attempt to lure him over to the commercial side of the musical tracks. "There's a lot of cheap and commercial world music around and, sadly, a lot of people are ignorant about the roots of the music. I have even been told to wear a galabia on stage. I told them to forget it: I am who I am and I have to be true to my credo and my instrument. That's all that's important."