It was 20 years ago today‏

“Twenty years! Hard to believe,” he beams when we meet in his airy office. “I look upon the festival as a child who was born and has grown up,” said Bnaya.

STELLAR AMERICAN-TURKISH oud player-vocalist Ara Dinkjian brings his silky skills back to the Oud Festival. (photo credit: ALENA SOBOLEVA)
STELLAR AMERICAN-TURKISH oud player-vocalist Ara Dinkjian brings his silky skills back to the Oud Festival.
(photo credit: ALENA SOBOLEVA)
Some like to storm onto the stage, grab the limelight with both excited hands and make their mark in the most spectacular way they can. But, as Joni Mitchell suggests on "Lessons in Survival" from her enchanting 1972 album For the Roses, “I came in as bright as a neon light and I burned out right there before him.” All those years ago, the doyen of singer songwriters posited that sometimes the quicker you make it, the faster you may fade, without trace, from the scene.
Effie Bnaya believes in the softly-softly approach. When the Confederation House director initiated the Jerusalem International Oud Festival back in 2000, it was a modest affair. The program took up a mere two days, with all the shows taking place at the home base’s compact hall. The audience sat on plastic garden chairs, with low rattan stools in the front two rows. Today the auditorium has bona fide fixed padded seating, armrests included, and the festival has come on in incremental leaps and bounds. The 20th edition spans across a full 10 days – November 21-30 – with concerts taking place in various expansive auditoria of the Jerusalem Theatre, as well as at Confederation House.
Bnaya can allow himself a gentle pat on the back. “Twenty years! Hard to believe,” he beams when we meet in his airy office. “I look upon the festival as a child who was born and has grown up.”
It has indeed, almost against all the odds. When it sprang into diminutive life, the Second Intifada had just erupted, but Bnaya still managed to bring over a master oud player from Morocco. Naturally, things became a little challenging as the Intifada continued to rage, during the first four years of the festival’s life, but the event kept its head above water and gradually picked up a full head of steam.
Some of the biggest names of the global ethnic, and ethnically inclined, music fraternity have strutted their stuff here. Renowned artists such as Turkish-born American-resident multi-instrumentalists Omar Farouk and Ara Dinkjian – the latter of Night Ark fame – have wowed the Jerusalem audiences. Happily, both are in this year’s lineup, too.
“This is our 20th anniversary, and we wanted to bring as many big names over as possible,” says a beaming Bnaya.
And, beam well he might. His baby has indeed grown and flourished, and has become a major fixture on the national cultural calendar. Today, his programs typically take in a tribute or two to some of the members of the Arabic music pantheon, sounds from some of our neighbors around the Mediterranean, the odd drop of Indian spice and even some extramural stuff. The likes of rocker Beri Sacharoff have done a turn or two at the festival, infusing his rough-and-tumble vocals and guitar playing with ethnic content, and this year’s edition features an intriguing mix of African, hassidic and Middle Eastern textures, courtesy of wind instrument player Ittai Binnun’s Ethno-Digital troupe.
SO, JUST how has the festival achieved such impressive strides? There is a Hebrew saying that “the hunger follows the food.” Was it simply a case of supply the music for the latent demand that always there, just waiting for some Bnaya to come along and provide a good reason to get out of the house and trot over to, say, the Jerusalem Theatre? The artistic director believes it is a matter of tapping into the consumer seam but also doing some nurturing work too.
“I think we also ‘educated’ a generation or two of audiences,” he states. “We have done that by engaging in piyutim [liturgical material], and we have released a few albums of that music, and the oud festival – we have a lot to be proud of.”
There is collateral for Bnaya’s claim. The festival has not only packed them in, it has also served as a breeding ground for a number of highly fruitful artistic ventures. “There’s Beri’s Adumei Hasfatot,” he notes, referencing Sacharoff’s confluence with musician-producer Rea Mochiach at the 2007 festival, which delivered the eponymous album based on the writings of 11th century Spanish poet and philosopher Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. There’s more. “Etti Ankari’s Rabbi Yehuda Halevy [following the 2009 festival], and Corinne Alal did Kohelet [in 2017].” All of that, Bnaya feels, is a direct result of a proactive mind-set and a willingness – to paraphrase the classic Star Trek opener – to boldly go where few in the ethnic music sphere have dared tread.
“The festival has not just stuck to the music of the Middle East, and focused purely on oud players performing taksims [improvisational overtures]. And gradually, this boundary-bending brought in new audiences. I think the festival has grown because it has sold itself.”
The latter statement was, of course, meant in the best and most positive of terms. Indeed, the mark of a successful cultural venture is that it can support itself financially. That is a very rare occurrence in this day and age, but Bnaya says the festival has gone a long way to achieving that rarefied and enviable status. “You know that when you put something on, and it brings in audiences, you can then finance most of it yourself.”
Bnaya is clearly a canny customer. Behind the sunny countenance lurks a calculating character who not only loves the music he pushes out there, he also knows how to balance the books – a healthy blend of spirit and street-level acumen. He increasingly mixes eclectic crowd-pleasers with more esoteric fare.
“Night Ark has definitely brought people in, and there is more Greek music in recent years, which has brought in new audiences.”
Bnaya feels it is important to constantly test new waters.
“We don’t bring the regular Greek music productions that people are familiar with. We try to bring things people don’t know. I think it is important, for example, to bring Greek music that people in Israel have not encountered before.”
This year’s program grand closer features Athens-based Estoudiantina ensemble, hosting celebrated vocalist Alkistis Protopsalti, with a repertoire it describes as “a journey from the music of Smyrna and Constantinople to Rebetiko song, as well as the related music of the Mediterranean and the Balkans.” That is a perfect example of catering for broad musical taste buds, in a high quality offering.
BNAYA SAYS he is constantly looking to expand the festival’s consumer hinterland. “This year we have music from the Kurdish tradition, Yemenite tradition – with Lea Avraham – classical Arabic music and Andalusian music, with [liturgical singer] Haim Louk and Marouane Hajji, whom Haim chose for the concert.”
Haji comes from Morocco and specializes in Sufi music of the Maghreb and also performs Andalusian music. The Andalusian tarab – emotive vocal music – element will be presented in Hebrew and Arabic, together and separately, as per the custom of yesteryear Morocco. Violinist Elad Levi serves as musical director,
Avraham, a veteran in Yemenite musical circles, will present a fascinating potpourri of songs and dances from the Hogriya region of Yemen, whence she hails, as well as Israeli songs, as part of her On Bird’s Wings production. The 74-year-old vocalist-percussionist and dancer-choreographer has put together something of an A-lister group with Yarden Erez on oud violin and jumbush and David Digmi on percussion, and with seasoned vocalist Esti Keinan-Ofri and Ethiopian blues and jazz saxophonist Abate Barihun guesting.
The adventurous approach has brought dividends.
“I see people who listen to Galgalatz [pop radio station] and all the mainstream artists are beginning to be drawn to our festival,” Bnaya notes. “There aren’t too many of them just now, but I see that as a developing trend.”
The numbers don’t lie.
“I could never believe the festival would bring in 8,000 people. That is an enormous figure. We sell, say, 6,500 tickets. We aren’t talking about some massive gala show at Sultan’s Pool for some really well known artist like Shlomo Artzi. Here, you have 10, 12, 13 different productions that bring in all these audiences. It is a wonderful feeling that people have faith in the festival.”
Even with two decades of evolving success, Bnaya admits to going through butterflies in the stomach stages. “It always scares me, in the lead up to the festival. Will the crowds come in this time? Then I stand in the auditorium and I see people pouring in, and the hall is full, again. That is so uplifting for me. It never fails to surprise, and please, me.”
CUMULATIVE ETHOS notwithstanding, Bnaya is letting his hair down for the 20th edition.
“This time round there are all sorts of rich musical super powers in the program, I said to myself, this is the 20th year. The super powers have to meet,” he laughs.
Each year there is a tribute concert to some titan from the upper echelons of the Arabic music hierarchy. This time the artistic director has gone for broke with the November 27 (9 p.m.) Jerusalem Theatre concert, doffing a derby to legendary vocalists Um Kalthoum, Abd al-Wahab, Farid al-Atrash, Layla Mourad, Asmahan and Abd al-Halim Hafez. Oud Festival stalwart, educated oud player and violinist Taiseer Elias has lined up four outstanding soloists, with Violet Salameh, Ziv Yehezkel, Avi Cohen and Maamun Zayoud fronting a nine-piece instrumental ensemble.
“You know, each year we take one or two of the Big Six of the Arabic singers,” Bnaya explains. “This time we have pooled the work of all of them. And the four soloists we have brought in are wonderful. It is going to be a great experience for everyone. I am sure of it.”
Some of a more conservative nature may point to the titular festival instrument and wonder why there aren’t more slots devoted exclusively to the oud or which, at least, have the oud front and center. Bnaya takes the view that the musical world is there for the taking, and it would be a crime to stick to some tried and trusted narrow path, especially when politics rears its ugly head.
“There are all sorts of Arab musicians, and others, who have performed at the festival and who, today, are afraid to come,” he says. “The Turkish musicians won’t come, that’s for sure, and people like [Arab-Israeli singer] Amal Murkus won’t come either.”
With the likes of peerless Turkish oud player Yurdal Tokcan, who played in Jerusalem in 2008, out of the reckoning Bnaya has cast his net further afield, and to good effect.
“I could see all those oud players refusing to play at the festival, so a window of opportunity opened up to feed off all sorts of other cultures and music. We turned that to our favor.”
Ever one to look to the future, Bnaya is already preparing the ground for a new generation of musicians to take their place in the festival’s burgeoning heritage.
“There is a group of Jewish and Arab musicians from the Jerusalem Academy of Music, led by [bassist-educator] Hagai Belitzky. They will play in the Jerusalem Theatre on the first night. And there is another free show with young players on the last night.”
The festival is also looking to fill the oud void.
“[Oud player and educator] Samir Makhoul will bring a bunch of young oud players, to play at Te’enim Restaurant downstairs [at Confederation House]. There’s a 10-year-old boy in there. They are all Samir’s students [from the Zeryab Conservatory of Music in Nazareth]. I think it’s all going to be a lot of fun.”
After 20 years in the festival hot seat, who could deny Bnaya that?
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