Today I am a grown-up festival

Artistic director Effie Benaya talks about raising the Oud Festival from a small two-day affair to a 13-year-old world-class event.

Shlomi Shaban 521 (photo credit: Yossi Tzvaker)
Shlomi Shaban 521
(photo credit: Yossi Tzvaker)
Effie Benaya looks as pleased as Punch, and why shouldn’t he? Any father of a bar mitzva boy would probably have a similarly joyous demeanor, although, in the case of the Confederation House director, the transition from boyhood to manhood refers to the Oud Festival rather than his biological offspring.
“Yes, I suppose it is a momentous occasion,” says Benaya of this year’s festival, which kicks off on November 8 and will last a full 10 days. These days the festival is a far grander affair than the inaugural, modestly proportioned event 13 years ago, which lasted all of two days and was based exclusively in the Confederation House’s cozy confines. These days, the program incorporates concerts at some of Jerusalem’s most prestigious venues, including the Jerusalem Theater and Beit Shmuel, as well as at the original house site.
The festival program has settled into something of a well-trodden format in recent years. The now regular extended program features many of the biggest names in the local music industry. In addition to the usual suspects from our richly talented ethnic and world music sector, Benaya has increasingly turned to other musical domains in an effort to widen the festival’s consumer appeal. A few years back, Turkish-born rock star Berry Sakharof joined forces with ethnic music mainstay Yair Dalal, and rock act Nikmat Hatractor frontman Avi Beleli has also participated in the Oud Festival fray in a tribute to 12th-century Spanish poet-philosopher and Bible commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra.
This year’s festival opens with another concert that feeds off Ibn Ezra’s work, with an intriguing interdisciplinary lineup. There are plenty of big guns in the November 8 show, which will take place at the Jerusalem Theater (at 9 p.m.) with singer-songwriters Ehud Banai and Shlomi Shaban along with hiphopper Shaanan Street, Andalusian music vocalist Lior Almaliach and veteran vocalist-guitarist Albert Amar collaborating with alternative Jewish rock act Hamadregot.
Meanwhile, former rocker and now more ethnically inclined singer-songwriter Etti Ankri’s “Mama Zehyerei” slot will proffer a colorful repertoire of Tunisian songs fueled by her childhood memories of the songs her grandmother used to sing. On November 12, the Four Greats concert at the Jerusalem Theater is another blast from the past based on songs written and performed by four of the most iconic figures of the Arabic music genre – Muhammad Abd al-Wahab; Farid al-Atrash; the latter’s sister, vocalist Asmahan; and fellow diva Layla Mourad.
The repertoire will be fronted by vocalists Avi Cohen, Maum Zayud and Lubna Salameh, with substantial underpinning by the Nazareth-based Orchestra for Arab Music conducted by Nizar Radwan.
The festival’s cultural spread stretches beyond the strict borders of the Arab music world, particularly with Between the Caucasus and Ararat’s November 13 concert at the Jerusalem Theater, which will be presented by the Israel Camerata Orchestra with conductor Aram Garbakian and mezzo-soprano Anna Mailian front-and-center. There is more extraterritorial fare on offer at “Music and Poetry from Crete” on November 13, fronted by veteran Irish-born Crete-resident lyre player Ross Daly. Daly has appeared at the festival several times over the years, and on this occasion he will be joined by three Greek musicians – lute player-vocalists Giorgos Xilouris and Giorgos Manolakis and lyre player Kelly Thoma, with stellar Israeli percussionist Zohar Greco providing a multicolored rhythmic foundation.
“Music and Poetry from Crete” will comprise dance and rizitika (rebel) songs that emanate from Crete and date back to the Byzantine Era.
Another cross-cultural venture sees world music, klezmer-infused Polish trio Kroke team up with German-born flamenco guitar and oud player Amir- John Haddad. The latter brings a wealth of cultural and musical baggage with him, partly through his mixed Colombian-Palestinian parentage, while Kroke has been thrilling devotees of eastern European music for two decades. Then there’s Nazarene guitarist Michael Sajrawy, who will perform material based on his singular blend of Arabic music and bebop jazz sentiments. Oud Festival stalwart oud player-violinist Yair Dalal will offer up his emotive multicultural “Sacred Songs of Longing and Love” program, which incorporates music from his latest CD, Ve-Ahavta, with a cross-border odyssey through the realms of Beduin folk, Jewish-Iraqi works, liturgical music, Eastern and Western classical music and even an intriguing rendition of John Lennon’s “Oh My Love.”
It is a well-crafted festival lineup, and Benaya is happy with the way the event has evolved.
“We started out with a couple of days and five shows,” he recalls, adding that he is delighted that the festival continues to survive the regional political turmoil. “We have had artists cancel because of pressure exerted on them. We got through the second intifada and we still have lots of limitations on who we can bring here. But I think we still manage to put out a decent program.”
The proof of the on-stage pudding is in the looking and listening, and Benaya has plenty of collateral for his positive mind-set. He also continues to do his utmost to expand the festival’s appeal, and today incorporates an ever-spreading geographical, social and generational hinterland of patrons.
“We get more and more young people, besides the older generation who remember the music from Iraq, Morocco and other Arab countries, or who were brought up listening to the music from their parents,” he says. “Our audiences are less ‘ethnic’ now, compared with the first festivals. Also, I’m happy we get quite a few people coming over to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and the center of the country.”
The event has also had to negotiate some choppy local political waters. “There were a few years when we gave out prizes for things like the best oud player and the best original work,” notes Benaya.
“Unfortunately, that came to an end when, one year, [Galilean vocalist] Amal Murkus made a bit of a commotion.
But I appreciate her and her strong sense of justice. She is a very sincere person and she has a wonderful voice.”
Benaya is far happier focusing on the musical side of his ever-growing baby, which, 13 years on, is looking healthy. “I believe people will always turn up if you offer them quality, and that’s what I try to do,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind having bigger budgets so we could commission original works, but I don’t think we’re doing too badly.”
• For tickets and more information about the Oud Festival: 624-5207 ext. 4 or