Kanun fodder

Elad Gabbay brings traditional Arabic kanun playing to the instrument’s inaugural festival at the Islamic Museum.

Elad Gabbay playing the kanun 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Elad Gabbay playing the kanun 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When in Jerusalem, play like a Jerusalemite, would be a motto that Elad Gabbay would happily subscribe to.
The 38-year-old is a veteran kanun and oud player who, when not performing at major venues and festivals around the country, spends much of his time offering audiences around the world the benefit of his accrued instrumental experience and cultural baggage.
Gabbay recently returned from Croatia and Serbia, where he joined local musicians to perform music of Balkan Jewish communities, and is currently doubling as musical director of the inaugural Kanun Festival, which is taking place over four Thursdays at the Museum of Islamic Art, as part of this year’s Hamshushalayim cultural package.
The four-slot program kicked off on November 28 with a show fronted by the former Bustan Abraham pioneering cross-cultural band, kanun player Avshalom Farjun, followed by yesterday’s “Kanun from Istanbul” show starring Mumin Sesler from Turkey.
Gabbay himself will be in action this Thursday, in the “Mixed Jerusalem Kanun” show, when he will share the stage with saz player Elyahu Digmi and percussionist Ofer Benita, with fellow kanun player Issa Awad from the Arab Orchestra of Nazareth guesting. The closing “East West Kanun” show, on December 19, will feature kanun player Ariel Kasis together with a cellist. There are three shows each evening, starting at 9, 10 and 11, and entry is free.
For the past 14 years Confederation House has run its annual Oud Festival, with ever-increasing success. What started out as an intimate two-dayer has grown to a full 10-day program.
Gabbay would be delighted to achieve similar success with his new musical vehicle and notes that, at least in pure instrumental terms, the Kanun Festival has as much right as the long-running oud bash to the public’s interest.
“The kanun has always been the king of Eastern instruments,” he states. “It has always been in the front row of all the classical orchestras of Turkish and Arabic music.”
It seems, however, that more recent changes in this part of the world put the kanun somewhat in the shadows. “The ethnic music revolution in Israel, in the last 20 years or so, gave the oud a more leading role. Actually, the oud led the ethnic music revolution in Israel long before it came to prominence in other Middle Eastern countries, where the kanun was considered more important. Think about the Oud Festival – that was an Israeli ‘start-up.’ The oud festival of Istanbul only started five years ago.”
Gabbay hopes the new festival at the Islamic Museum will help to redress the instrumental imbalance, and says that things are looking up on the local kanun front. “I think the reason why the kanun did not make the headlines so much is that there simply weren’t too many players around.”
But things have changed, for the better. “There has been a revival of interest in the kanun. I have a lot of students, some of whom are already wonderful musicians. And there seems now to be some kind of networking between kanun players. There is still a long way to go, but things are moving in the right direction.”
In fact, Gabbay started gravitating toward the “right direction” himself, as some sort of afterthought. “My father was very keen for me to play the kanun, but I wasn’t interested. I wanted to play oud,” he recalls. “As a classic Iraqi, my father’s image of the kanun was of a front-row orchestral instrumental, while for him, the oud was in the second row. He really urged me to play kanun.
“For him, if you were going to be a musician, you had to play the kanun. If you weren’t going to play kanun, then you should be an engineer or do some other honorable profession for an Iraqi.”
The turning point came around 20 years ago, when Gabbay Sr.
came back from a vacation in Turkey with a present for his then- 19-year-old son. “He bought me a kanun and just told me to get on with it.”
But the move was not an overnight success. “I didn’t touch the kanun just to spite him. But I began to take an interest in it and, when he wasn’t around, I’d go and play around with it a bit, and over the years I got into it.”
Gabbay says that the kanun offers generous room for maneuvering. “It is a very flexible instrument. It is a big instrument with a very wide range; there are so many styles and colors you can get out of it. I could play a recording of two musical passages on kanun – even to someone with a trained ear – and they wouldn’t be able to tell that it is the same instrument in both recordings.”
Kanun players also bring different cultural baggage to the performance fray, and not all of it is to Gabbay’s liking. “The empire leading the kanun field today is, of course, Turkey,” he notes. “Unfortunately, traditional Arabic kanun playing is slowly but surely becoming neglected. More and more young Arab kanun players are forsaking their own roots and are being drawn by the attractiveness and innovativeness of the interesting modern Turkish fusion approach.”
Gabbay prefers the Arab pedigree approach. “I am delighted that in my show at the museum I will host a young Arab kanun player who is probably one of the few from his sector to remain faithful to the Arabic style of kanun player, and not to be drawn into the Turkish style. His name is Issa Awad and he is very talented.”
Mind you, this is not a blanket anti-Turkish kanun approach.
“The first kanun festival started in Turkey last year,” Gabbay observes, “and it is time we also had one here. At that festival you could find musicians playing in just about every style going – classical Ottoman to kanun players who perform jazz, and play with piano and cello and all sorts of Western instruments. They claim to be able to incorporate all sorts of cultural colors. There are musicians who do that well, and others who are not so good. But that’s not my approach.”
Gabbay says he is keen to present the Jerusalem style of kanun playing. “I called my show the ‘Jerusalem Kanun’ show, with the ‘Mixed’, which someone else added,” he says, adding that there are numerous ingredients that go into the Jerusalem take on the instrument. “I grew up on the Jerusalem music, which is a bit Arabic, a bit Turkish, a bit Iranian, a bit Land of Israel, a bit modern, with plenty of liturgical stuff in there, and more.”
For more information about the Kanun Festival: www.islamicart.co.il