State of the art

Now that the oud festival is in full swing, it's a good time to reflect on the music of Arabs, Jews and Israel.

oud 88 (photo credit: )
oud 88
(photo credit: )
You've got to hand it to Effie Benaya and the staff at Confederation House, the organizers of the Jerusalem International Oud Festival. From modest beginnings - two days of concerts at the first festival in 2000 - the event has grown into a two week extravaganza of Middle Eastern music and has become the major venue for music of this kind in Israel. The success is indicative of larger changes within Israeli society as eastern culture becomes more accepted. And now that Mizrahi firebrand Amir Peretz has turned the Ashkenazi establishment of the Labor Party on its head, can the Israel Philharmonic be far behind? This is Benaya's plan. "Arabic and Middle Eastern classical music should be as much a part of Israeli musical culture as European classical music is," he says. "For many of us this is the music we grew up listening to at home, but there have been very few concerts. I started the festival to promote this music, and I never imagined that it would go so far." The opening night concert on Monday was a great success, as a sell-out crowd in Sherover Hall enthusiastically clapped and sang along to the music of Egyptian composer Riad al-Sombati. Oud maestro Taiseer Elias and his five piece ensemble hosted several guest vocalists in stirring renditions of classic pieces originally sung by Om Koulthom, Leyla Mourad and others from the heady 1930s-50s, often referred to as the golden age of Arabic song. Especially well received was young Haifa-born singer Lubne Slameh, who has performed worldwide with the Arab-Israeli Orchestra of Nazareth. Combining a deep grasp of the material with emotional intensity and a diva's stage presence, her performance was clearly the highlight of the evening. THE OUD is a short necked lute extremely popular throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean world. The instrument is the father of the European lute and the grandfather of the guitar. Holding a special place in the hierarchy of instruments, the oud is learned in conservatories by nearly all musicians and singers in much the same way that piano is a required subject for all music students in the West. Actually, Arab classical music has much in common with the European classical tradition, even though, to the uninitiated, they sound very different. At various times in history, the Western musical tradition and the Arab musical tradition have influenced each other greatly. The early Islamic scholars of the ninth century translated large amounts of ancient Greek writings into Arabic, including many treatises on music, and these had a tremendous influence on the scene. During the Crusader period and beyond, these same works were translated from Arabic into Latin, noticeably influencing European music. In the same Crusader period, Europe took many musical instruments from the East and eventually developed new forms from them. In fact, one is hard pressed to find a familiar Western instrument that does not have its ultimate origin in the Arab world or Turkey. This includes the piano, which came from the qanun (a large zither), the violin family which developed from the rebec (a small fiddle played on the knee), and guitars and mandolins which came from the oud and related instruments. Both the orchestral percussion section and drum set owe their origins to the military instruments used by the Ottoman Empire. During the early 20th century, the Arabs made a conscious decision to embrace Western music. At a conference in Cairo in 1932, the leading musicians of the day streamlined the complicated scale system then in use and introduced many Western musical concepts. After this, Western theory was taught in most conservatories in the Arab world and composers began to experiment with combining regional styles. Most of what we think of as Arabic classical music comes from this period. The Western influence was most evident at the Riad al-Sombati tribute on Monday night as many of the selected pieces featured familiar rhythms such as foxtrot or waltz. WHEREVER JEWS have lived, they have been deeply involved in musical endeavors. In the oud-playing lands, Jews were traditionally involved with music on the highest levels, but after the creation of the State of Israel, most of these communities came to Israel or left the Middle East for Europe or the US, causing enormous changes in the musical landscape. Iraq provides a famous example. A hugely disproportionate number of professional musicians there were Jews, so much so that during Operation Ezra and Nehemia (1951/52) when most Iraqi Jews settled in Israel, the arrivals included nearly the entire National Orchestra of Iraq! This left a huge hole in the musical culture in Baghdad, where they essentially had to train an entire new generation. Yet these fine musicians did not find a willing audience in Israel, although they did form the Arabic Music ensemble of Kol Yisrael and made important recordings, some of which were smuggled back to Iraq for music lovers to appreciate. But, until recently, the climate for Middle Eastern music in Israel has not been welcoming. This has been attributed to a combination of Ashkenazi domination of the cultural and political landscape and the general need to build a common Israeli culture, which (seemingly) necessitated discarding traditions. Furthermore, due to the on-going Israel-Arab conflict, some have regarded Arab language and culture with suspicion and disdain. However, things seem to be looking up in the last few years. The rise of Shas and other Mizrahi centered groups, such as the Democratic Mizrahi rainbow, have enabled a whole generation of young Israelis to value their roots and appreciate their grandparents' music. Piyutim (traditional religious songs) have surged in popularity and are taught throughout the country's schools. There is even an emerging Israeli style of Middle Eastern classical music which has distinct Turkish and/or Persian influences. This is not world fusion music or a huge mix of cultures, but rather a natural outgrowth of the great streams of music tradition. Artists in this category include Yair Dalal, Peretz Eliahu, Ensemble Shaharit and others. DUE TO the close political connections between Israel and Turkey, over the last few years many Israeli musicians have spent extended periods studying in Istanbul, rather than in Cairo, which is the other, closer center of Middle Eastern music. Because of this, Turkish music has begun to have a definite influence on new Israeli music. Turkish music has its own history and, once one's ears become attuned, it is clear that it is quite different from Arabic music, although they are close cousins. Yinon Muallem is one percussionist playing at the festival who has been exploring this relationship deeply. An Israeli whose parents were born in Iraq, he has been living in Istanbul for the past few years, studying and performing with various ensembles. For the oud festival last year he brought Turkish, Greek and Israeli musicians together for a stunning tribute to Rosa Ashkenazi, the Jewish/Greek singer of the 1930s. This year, in a highly recommended performance he will bring his ensemble Istanbul Saz Endeleri to Israel. Consisting of the top young instrumentalists in Istanbul, the ensemble specializes in Ottoman and Arabic instrumental works and new compositions. For their show this Saturday night at the Henry Crown Hall, however, they will concentrate on the rich Turkish Sufi tradition and will be joined by Imam Hafiz Halil Necipoglu, a singer and flute player making his first appearance outside Turkey. The oud festival runs until November 26. 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