Taking a walk on the desert side

Celebrated tar player Piris Eliyahu to perform at this week’s Oud Festival in Jerusalem.

Piris Eliyahu 370 (photo credit: Rivka Eliyahu)
Piris Eliyahu 370
(photo credit: Rivka Eliyahu)
Artists, across the genres, have all sorts of methods to their creative processes. Some writers, for example, talk about sticking to a strict regiment of a defined work day, while others await the arrival of the muse before they put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
Then again, you could, like Piris Eliyahu, just take a walk.
The 53-year-old Dagestan-born Israeli tar (longnecked lute) player, who will perform at Bet Shmuel in Jerusalem on November 7, as part of this year’s Confederation House Oud Festival, does much of his creating peripatetically.
“I have been living and spending a lot of time in the Judean Desert over the past 14 years,” he says. “I spend whole days walking there, along all sorts of wadis. I pack a bag in the morning and set off, and by the end of the day I often have a new composition written in my head. I also often walk from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.”
Eliyahu has always been intrigued by music from all sorts of cultures. When he was still a teenager he’d go around Dagestan searching for the sounds made by various subcultures.
“There were 36 Jewish villages in Dagestan, and I went to them to listen to the music they played,” he says.
But when it came to furthering his official music education, Eliyahu had to stick to tried and tested instructional areas. “I did a master’s degree in western classical music, at a university in Rostov-on-Don,” he recalls.
Still, Eliyahu certainly made the most of his academic program and says he gained a lot from his time at university. “I was lucky to have some wonderful teachers, like Alexander Bakshi who is an acclaimed composer of contemporary music, and I studied composition with him, and my teachers gave me a great love for contemporary music. In fact, my first compositions, before my ‘eastern era,’ were western contemporary classical works, with some personal inflexions, all sorts of ethnic stuff that I’d absorbed beforehand.
I started composing when I was 15.”
When Eliyahu made aliya, in 1988, he came to something of a culturally estranged place. “There was nowhere here where they taught eastern music,” he notes, adding that it wasn’t exactly a surprise. “It was the same in Dagestan and the former Soviet Union.”
Eliyahu’s first port of call here was Bar Ilan University, where he did a doctorate in musicology. “I had already done research work on the music of [Jewish] communities in the Caucasus region. By the way, that is the only research work ever done on the subject, and I published a book on the subject, through Bar Ilan, together with field recordings I’d made.”
With his PhD secured Eliyahu returned to the region he had come from to further his musical knowledge.
He made several forays to Azerbaijan to work with local luminaries such as UNESCO Award-winning musician Alim Kasimov, and to enhance his knowledge of radif, a body of a large number of old melodic figures preserved over many generations by oral tradition, which incorporate modi and scales.
As Eliyahu explains, we are not talking about music for beginners here. “You have to be on the level of a master to study radif, and the knowledge is sort of secretive. I didn’t have access to radif before that. My uncle was a tar player and knew radif, but he didn’t teach it to me when I was younger.”
Even so, Eliyahu managed to gain an extensive educational base before coming here and, in addition to mastering the tar, learned to play piano and bayan – a Russian button accordion.
“The bayan led me straight to music written for the organ, by composers like Bach and [17th century German organist-composer Dieterich] Buxtehude, and contemporary works by people like [20th century French composer Olivier] Messiaen. The bayan is like the organ, although it is dynamic. So I basically learned all the classical western music repertoire.”
But it was the east that pulled on Eliyahu’s heartstrings. “I played Bach on piano.
I played almost the whole of his Well-Tempered Clavier [collection of solo keyboard pieces]. But as soon as I heard even three or four notes of eastern music I was immediately drawn to it.”
But if Eliyahu was hoping to find a wellset infrastructure of eastern musical education here, he was to be disappointed.
“I started doing something about that after I made aliya,” he recalls. “People in Israel didn’t know anything about eastern instruments or the names of composers.
There were one or two musicians who played the music but that was it. There was [cross-cultural band] Bustan Abraham, and [oud player-violinist] Yair Dalal was just starting in eastern music. Eastern music was played by Arabs, and by Jewish musicians who made aliya from all sorts of Arab countries but who neglected their art in order to make a living. They complained they weren’t appreciated as musicians here.
“I don’t blame them, but I wasn’t accepted either. I was only recognized here because I knew western classical music, too.
If I hadn’t known western music, back then, I wouldn’t have been able to start up anything here. Today there is openness and support from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture, but that wasn’t the case at all when I made aliya.”
Things began to change for Eliyahu when he found his way to the region of Arad.
“When I discovered the Judean Desert I felt I had found my homeland,” he declares. “I realized that you can’t really create anything if you don’t have a base, and one of the bases is having a homeland. Some musicians came on aliya with their cultural baggage and tried to keep it untouched here, but I brought mine with me and continued developing it, through all the experiences I have had in Israel.”
Besides the textures and strains of his Asian region of birth there is, indeed, a sense of desert winds blowing through Eliyahu’s large discography to date.
When you put on one of his CDs, or catch one of his shows, it is not hard to imagine Eliyahu wending his way along some riverbed through the unsullied air of the desert.
Today Eliyahu divides his time between a home in Abu Ghosh and living in Arad and walking through his beloved Judean Desert.
He also teaches at the Sapir College, and performs up and down the country, often in tandem with his son Mark, a wellknown composer and performer himself, who plays kamanche – spike violin – and the long-necked saz, and maintains a busy, globetrotting performing schedule.
Mark will share the Bet Shmuel stage with his dad on November 7, along with oud player Yaniv Raba, percussionist Yair Harel, as well as stellar vocalists Lubna Salameh and Rabbi David Menahem.
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, *6226 and www.confederationhouse.org