The band's visit... to Dubai

The unique orchestra brought its music and message of tolerance to the UAE in March and performed at Expo Dubai

 Firqat Alnoor.  (photo credit: EVYATAR NISSAN)
Firqat Alnoor.
(photo credit: EVYATAR NISSAN)

In early March, attendees at the Expo Dubai were serenaded by an unusual melody: a blending of “Hatikvah” to an Eastern beat and the national anthem of the United Arab Emirates, performed by the Israeli orchestra, Firqat Alnoor, which specializes in classical Arab music.

It was the first trip abroad for the orchestra, which returned from the UAE and embarked on a program of eight concerts throughout Israel, including one at the Gerard Behar Hall in Jerusalem on April 4.

The national-anthem medley was the final piece played by Firqat Alnoor, at a concert that marked the first time an Israeli musical ensemble performed Arab classics in Dubai.

While there were a few Israelis visiting Dubai in the audience, most of the concertgoers were either Emiratis or foreign tourists unlikely to be familiar with “Hatikvah,” but they applauded enthusiastically, for that piece and for the entire concert, as stars shined in the clear desert sky. Although it was night, the concert marked the dawn of a new era in which many aspects of cultural collaboration between Israelis and its neighbors, once thought to be impossible, are already happening.

But all symbolic meaning aside, it was a transcendent concert, filled with beautiful and haunting melodies played on classical Arab instruments, and songs that celebrated longing, love and legends, performed by the orchestra in collaboration with soloist singer Jianna Naddaf of Nazareth. Men in traditional Emirati white robes and women in black burqas mingled with jeans-clad Westerners, as the music played and all were united in their enjoyment.

The initiative to bring to Dubai came from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which sponsored the trip. Rana Raslan, who became the first Arab Miss Israel in 1999 and is still the only Arab to have won this contest, was their guide to Dubai. She went on to represent Israel at the Miss Universe pageant and later married a sheikh and moved to Dubai, where she now lives. The glamorous Haifa-born music lover heard the work of Firqat Alnoor and decided to invite them to the UAE for a concert, billed as The Voice of Us.

Raslan hosted their appearance, introducing them onstage in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Visibly emotional, she said nervously, in Hebrew, “Excuse me, I’m excited.” Speaking of her love for their music, she said, “They are the voice of all of us... When there are no more words, the music begins... We all have a mission for love and peace and for hope.”

The songs they performed were composed all over the Middle East. One of the highlights was Umm Kulthum’s iconic “Inta Omri” (You Are My Life).

There are about 25 members of the orchestra altogether. Most are Israeli Jews from Mizrahi backgrounds, while some are Arab Muslims and Christians, and a few are distinctly Ashkenazi Jews, as well as a one woman from Germany.

Firqat Alnoor was created by three Israelis. Ariel Cohen, who is the musical director, sings and plays the darbuka, and grew up listening to Arabic classical music with his grandfather, a rabbi who was born in Morocco.

“I grew up with this music. I didn’t discover it. My parents emigrated from Morocco in the late 60s. Although I was born in Israel in 1986, I grew up in a culture of Arabic music and language. I heard a great deal of Arabic music at home in Petah Tikva. I always connected to it and at a very young age I started to study it. I was curious to know who composed the music, not just to listen to the song... I wanted to know the music in depth,” said Cohen.

Something of a prodigy, he got to know Egyptian-born Israeli violinist Zuzu Musa, the director and conductor of the illustrious Arab Orchestra of the Voice of Israel in Arabic, when he was just 11 and ended up performing with him. The young boy promised the older master that he would continue his legacy. Zuzu Musa and his group were the precursors of Firqat Alnoor, bringing melodies that were beloved in many Israeli homes to the masses. Later, explained Cohen, Israeli cultural officials decided that Arabs rather than Jews should play in this orchestra and it was re-constituted with young Arab musicians, who brought a more pop sensibility to their playing.

“I said to myself, I have to establish an orchestra that will continue their tradition, their music,” he said.

HANA FTAYA, originally a Jerusalemite from an Iraqi family, learned about piyutim (liturgical poems set to music) from her grandfather, a kabbalah rabbi, and she and Cohen founded Firqat Alnoor nearly a decade ago with Dr. Yehuda Kamari, a doctor specializing in hypertension who practices at Sheba Medical Center. Ftaya is the CEO and artistic director of the orchestra, while Kamari, when he is not treating patients, plays the oud.

Kamari, who comes from a Persian family, grew up in Kiryat Shemona and heard Arabic music from his many Moroccan neighbors. He had met some of the Voice of Israel musicians and was interested in continuing their legacy while he was a medical student. He learned about Cohen and his music through Facebook and was intrigued. They met and played music together. “We came at the music from parallel directions,” he said. “We had the same agenda.” They were both interested in this musical tradition, passed from musician to musician and rarely written down. “When you hear the music enough and you play, your soul learns to play it,” he said.

Ftaya came to the first concert Cohen and Kamari played together at the Zappa Club in Jerusalem with an Iraqi singer who lived in London and played under a cloak of secrecy. Following their first meeting, the three worked hard to form Firqat Alnoor.

The orchestra’s director is Ronen Peled Hadad, who said that when he heard Firqat Alnoor’s music, “It awakened in me memories of the music I grew up with. My parents made Aliyah from Libya. I fell in love with their music. It brought me back to my origins; it was part of my journey of repentance.” He has ambitious plans to create a festival of Eastern and Arab culture and music in Jerusalem next year, with Firqat Alnoor at its center. The orchestra works with Aranen Creative Productions and Nirit Peled.

The concert included a screening of the video clip Hadad directed of the orchestra performing “Ahebak,” a song composed by Hussain Al Jassmi, an Emirati composer, with lyrics by Ahmed Alsanea, a popular song in the Arab world, which they made to celebrate the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE. In an opening that references Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film, The Band’s Visit, which tells the story of an Egyptian orchestra lost in an Israeli Negev town, the musicians walk through the streets of Tel Aviv until they arrive at the Azrieli Tower. They head to the roof and perform atop the building, with breathtaking views shot by a drone. Naddaf and the orchestra played along onstage in Dubai to the impressive clip.

But the band’s visit did not end with the concert, the next day, they were up early and headed to the desert in tuxedos and glittering gowns to perform and film a new clip, the Umm Kulthum song “Ghani Li Cheway Cheway” with the Dubai skyline shimmering in the background. As camels lolled about nearby, the musicians gave it their all, undeterred by the heat and dust, and produced another magical musical moment, captured by the video cameras. The video will be released online soon.

Throughout their visit, the music never stopped. The members of the orchestra took their instruments everywhere and played any chance they could get, including on the plane trip from Israel, where lucky passengers were treated to an impromptu concert. On the first night of the trip, at a kosher restaurant in Dubai – many of the musicians are observant Jews, so kosher food was served at every meal – the musicians serenaded a flattered Raslan with “Happy Birthday” in various languages and reprised this number in their dressing room following the performance.

Even at the hotel pool, the musicians drummed on the chaises and sang. In many years of covering culture, I have never seen any artists who were so consumed by and loved their work so much. The joy they took in their music was infectious.

On a break from shooting the video clip, his oud in his lap, Kamari reflected on the orchestra’s origins and how far it has come since the first time that he, Cohen and Ftaya met. “We developed a vision for what Firqat Alnoor would be, a very orderly plan, what are our hopes and our goals. And since then, we have fulfilled all our dreams for the orchestra and more.”