The real thing

Sexagenarian Jerusalemite oud player and singer Nino Biton is an authentic master in the field of ethnic music, and his seasoned talents will be on display at a concert at Confederation House on February 20.

Nino Biton has played with Algerian pianist Mustapha Skandrani, Moroccan musician Abd El-Reini and Israeli Moroccan singer Sheikh Moizo. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nino Biton has played with Algerian pianist Mustapha Skandrani, Moroccan musician Abd El-Reini and Israeli Moroccan singer Sheikh Moizo.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Biton was born in Morocco and made aliya with his family as an infant.
The family settled in the Mamilla neighborhood – in the days before the creation of its swanky shopping district – and the paterfamilias, a tailor by profession and a keen amateur musician, held regular jam sessions with neighbors and other like-minded peers, often including top-class instrumentalists. Unbeknown to his dad, young Biton began to imbibe the heady vibes that emanated from the gatherings, and was soon gripped by a desire to replicate the sounds he heard.
“I borrowed a neighbor’s oud – I paid five lirot each time – and went to a nearby park and practiced until I could play and sing exactly what they’d performed at the music sessions,” recalls Biton. This went on for a while, and the practice time lengthened. “Eventually I ended up paying 10 lirot each time.”
Biton is a storyteller. As he recalls his childhood, and his entry into the wonders of music, his eyes burn with a fierce intensity mixed with a flicker of nostalgia-induced angst.
“They were real ‘tanks,’” he says, referring to the polished skills the jam session participants displayed. “It was just magic to see how they played together. I really wanted to get into that.”
Biton was not one to toe the line. “My father warned me against becoming a professional musician,” he says. “Even though he played music himself, he was an amateur. He told me to get a good profession, and to play music as a hobby.” Thankfully for us, he did not heed his dad’s advice.
Biton’s rebellious nature also impacted his religious practices when the family moved to the Ohel Moshe neighborhood, near the Mahaneh Yehuda market. “There were four synagogues near us, including one above our apartment,” he says. “My grandma and dad would tell me to go to synagogue, but I’d set off in the direction of the synagogue and then nip off to the market, hide between the stalls and smoke a cigarette.”
The turning point in Biton’s clandestine musical endeavor came following a particularly happy occurrence in the family.
When the family left Morocco for Israel, two of Biton Sr.’s sisters had stayed behind with their husbands. Both were childless. Eventually one of them made aliya and, miraculously, after 27 years of marriage became a mother. Her husband was the only member of the family who knew about Biton’s undercover oudplaying endeavor. “He’d ask me to play for him, to cheer him up, when my dad wasn’t around.”
“My father declared that there would be a week of jam sessions in honor of the new baby,” says Biton, adding that with all the festivities, things eventually got a little out of hand – and the uncle who had just become a father let the cat out of the proverbial bag. “After a few days and lots of booze, my uncle said to me, in front of everyone: ‘Why don’t you play something for us?’ I didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought my father would kill me.”
In the end, it all worked out for the best. Biton duly went to get an oud and displayed his precocious talents to the members of the grand gathering.
“I was scared to begin with, but I got into it,” he recalls. Generous applause followed, and Biton’s dad was impressed. It even led to a self-imposed curtailment to his own amateur musical activity. “My dad said that if I played so well, he couldn’t possibly carry on playing. And he was true to his word. He never played again.” Instead, he bought his son a banjo and gave him a room where he could practice.
Thanks to his father’s encouragement, Biton went on to became a regular fixture on the Jerusalem music scene, playing at weddings, bar mitzvas and all kinds of gatherings and shows.
Word of his exploits also reached further afield and, over 30 years ago, he enjoyed a lengthy dream recording and performance berth in France, together with some of the best musicians in the Arab world, including Algerian pianist Mustapha Skandrani, compatriot Abd El-Reini, who also taught Biton, and Israeli Moroccan singer Sheikh Moizo.
Although born in Morocco, Biton was drawn to the shaabi traditional musical form of Algeria. “I don’t know why I like Algerian music so much,” muses Biton, “but it really grabbed me.”
Over the years, he has become something of a guru to musicians of all stripes. His students to date include the internationally renowned Israeli jazz bassists Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital, and acclaimed pianist Omri Mor, who today specializes in what he calls Andaloujazz, which fuses Andalusian music with jazz.
Biton just wants to get the musical word out, and his modest home in East Talpiot is a mecca for instrumentalists and vocalists from across the musical board. None of them pay for their tuition, but all come away with rich artistic rewards. “I don’t take money for teaching them,” declares Biton. “I just want to give and to make sure that the music stays alive, and gets to as many people as possible. I have food, a roof over my head and my music. That’s enough for me. Anyway, I learn from students, too.”
Next Thursday’s show will be based on a repertoire of Algerian and Moroccan music, as well as some of Biton’s own compositions. He will be joined on stage by violinist Moshe Sabag, keyboardist Noa Melamed-Ouazana and percussionist Noam Biton.
Nino Biton will play at the Confederation House on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and more information: *6226, 623-7000 and 624-5206, ext. 4