An instrumental change

While the oud is still at the center of the eponymous festival, there are no concerts devoted solely to it.

Amal Murkus 521 (photo credit: Ilan Besor)
Amal Murkus 521
(photo credit: Ilan Besor)
Now in its 12th year, the Jerusalem International Oud Festival, the “king” of classical Oriental music, has a special added attraction. “The oud festival and the instrument itself have gained a solid and prominent place in the cultural and musical life of this city and of Israel in general, so I felt that I could feature additional voices – and this year it is the female voice,” says Effie Benaya, artistic director of the festival.
Despite a considerable reduction in financial support to the festival – the European Union has withdrawn its generous support, creating a deficit of 40,000 euros in the budget, resulting in a shorter festival (by one third) – Benaya says this year’s festival will maintain the high artistic level it has set from its inception. However, he admits that it is frightening to think that such an important cultural event could so easily lose part of its financing.
“The ticket sales seem to be going well, as in previous years, and that’s encouraging,” says Benaya. “But still, I wish we could be relieved of this kind of concern for everyone’s sake.”
Another issue of concern is the fear of pressure exerted on international performers to cancel their participation. At the beginning of this week, international Turkish-Kurdish singer Aynor Dogan confirmed her presence in the closing concert, and Benaya believes that she will indeed arrive. However, there are threats of a boycott of the Arab-Israeli artists performing in the festival. So far, the threats are not serious enough to compromise their participation, but they are adamant enough to create some stress, says Israeli Arab singer Amal Murkus.
However – and this is no small achievement – this year’s festival will be recorded in full by the BBC and will be broadcast later as a three-hour art and documentary program that will reach millions of listeners, says Benaya.
Another achievement that confirms the importance of the oud festival is that British-based Songlines magazine, considered the most influential magazine on world music today, will dedicate one of its upcoming issues to the festival.
The opening concert traditionally has a more mainstream program. This year, Meir Banai’s performance will include piyutim – Jewish liturgical songs (November 10, Jerusalem Theater, 9 p.m.). That will be followed by a no less traditional evening dedicated to classical songs from Arab modern works, such as compositions by Farid al-Atrash and Muhammad Abdel Wahab from Egypt and the Rahbani brothers from Lebanon (November 15, Jerusalem Theater, 8:30 p.m.).
On November 13 there will be an evening with musicians from Crete, Spain and the south of France, featuring a program of traditional songs and music from the Mediterranean countries (Khan Theater, 7 p.m.).
As for the female voices honored this year, this part of the festival will begin on November 12 at the Jerusalem Theater. The evening will be devoted to the late Jewish singer Roza Eskenazi, the diva of rebetika music (disparate kinds of urban Greek folk music that have been grouped together). Following that will be an evening with Murkus and an evening with Israeli composer and singer Esti Kenan Ofri, featuring contemporary poetry she set to music.
The closing concert of the festival and the female voice series will feature Dogan, who will present an evening of songs from her native Kurdistan, which she arranged, as well as songs from Andalusia, Persia and India (November 19, Jerusalem Theater, 9 p.m.).
“The oud remains at the center of this festival,” says Benaya, acknowledging that this year there will be no special oud performance per se as there have been in the past few years. “But the human voice, particularly the female voice, will get the important place it deserves, whether it is a Jewish, an Arab, a Greek or a Turkish female voice.”
With the concert dedicated to Eskenazi, the oud festival is closing a circle. A program of rebetika songs was very successfully performed at the eighth oud festival. Roy Sher, a student in the film department at Tel Aviv University and resident of Jerusalem who attended the concert, was not familiar with the Oriental tunes but was nevertheless enchanted. So much so that he began to look into Eskenazi’s life and art and ended up making a beautiful film about her life, naming the documentary after her most famous song, “The Canary.” This year, three acclaimed female rebetika singers – Israeli Yasmin Levy, Greek Martha Frintzila and Turkish Mehtap Demir – will pay homage to Eskenazi and her art, and excerpts from Sher’s film will be screened.
A Sephardi Jew, Roza Eskenazi was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) as Sarah Skinazi in the mid-1890s and died in Greece in 1980. She never attended school but learned how to read and write from a female neighbor while her parents worked during the day at a cotton plantation. Eskenazi lived in a building shared by artists who danced and worked at a theater called Grand Hotel. She became enchanted by the theatrical world and in 1910 began to work in Piraeus with an Armenian troupe. She performed at theaters and taverns, mainly dancing but soon started to sing in Greek, Turkish and Armenian. Early in her career she dropped the name Sarah and called herself Roza.
One night, a well-known Greek rebetika composer/ lyricist/arranger noticed her exceptional talent and the wondrous response Eskenazi received from the audience. He arranged a recording session, and in 1929 Eskenazi made her first record. It was an immediate success, and she began recording prolifically. Eskenazi collaborated with all the leading figures in rebetika music before and after World War II. Multilingual, she sang in Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Yiddish, Italian, Ladino and Armenian. Despite the fact that she had no formal training, she also composed music and wrote lyrics. She ran a restaurant in Athens during the German occupation and was renowned for the generous help she gave people in those difficult years at the risk to her own life.
With the revival of rebetika music in the early to mid-1970s, Eskenazi’s legacy was brought to the attention of a new generation, and once again she was in demand. In Jerusalem, the restaurant Roza, originally opened in the Mahaneh Yehuda market area and now in the German Colony, was named in her honor.
As for Israeli-Arab singer Amal Murkus, she will present songs from her latest album, which has been lauded by critics as “one of the revelations of this year.” In her program, Murkus will present stories and songs about the roots of her art – her father and the collective Palestinian memory she shares, as well as songs that deal with her quest for freedom and love and friendship.Winner of the Festival Prize for best performance at the 2007 oud festival, Murkus is a regular participant.
 • The 12th International Oud Festival takes place from November 10 to 19. Produced by the Confederation House. Tickets and programs canbe obtained at or or by calling *6226 or 624-5206.
Turkish singer Aynor Dogan will present an evening of songs from her native Kurdistan and Yasmin Levy will pay tribute to Roza Eskenazi and her rebetika music.