Promoting eastern music in Israel

Eastern magic by the sea: The sophomore edition of the Eastern Magic Festival spreads ethnic sonic vibes.

 AMIR SHAHSAR will grace the second annual Kesem Shachor (Eastern Magic) Festival hosted by the Al-Sheikh – School for Eastern Traditional Music Tel Aviv. (photo credit: RONEN TOPERBERG)
AMIR SHAHSAR will grace the second annual Kesem Shachor (Eastern Magic) Festival hosted by the Al-Sheikh – School for Eastern Traditional Music Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: RONEN TOPERBERG)

There’s nothing like a breath of fresh air at this time of year, especially over in Tel Aviv where the humidity factor sets in big time. That is a particularly challenging fact of seasonal life down near the seaside. But, should you happen to go along to the Al-Sheikh – School for Eastern Traditional Music Tel Aviv later this week you might find yourself a little respite from the oppressive city air, on the roof of the building on Al-Sheikh Street in the Yemenite Quarter.

And you’ll get more than a calming sea breeze. The school’s second annual Kesem Shachor (Eastern Magic) Festival kicks off on Tuesday, running through to Friday. Over the four days, musicians of varying pedigree and stylistic intent will perform on three stages, including on the roof, in the inner yard, and on street level.

School founder and clarinet player – he actually calls himself something of “an eternal student” of the instrument – Shimon Shai has lined up an impressive roster of artists for the second edition of the festival, all of whom either teach at the school or will join the staff after the summer. The likes of singers Ziv Yehekzel and Mor Karabasi, and singer-multi-instrumentalist Amir Shahsar would be a boon for any ethnically-leaning music festival, anywhere on the globe. Add Neta Elkayam and Piris Eliyahu and a young Greek guitarist-vocalist called Angeliki Chatzivasileiou, and you end up with an eminently appealing quality musical agenda.

Shai has set up an intriguing, multistratified program of shows that takes in sounds from Persia, the Caucus Mountains, India, Morocco, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. The center director says that, basically, it is just a matter of going with the natural, personal, and regional, flow. 

“I focused on areas of traditional music that don’t normally get enough attention,” Shai notes. “There are, of course, all sorts of traditional music. The Dutch, for example, have their own traditional music. But we work with Eastern music.”

 Shimon Shai, along with Amir Shahsar, will grace the second annual Kesem Shachor (Eastern Magic) Festival hosted by the Al-Sheikh – School for Eastern Traditional Music Tel Aviv. (credit: RONEN TOPERBERG)
Shimon Shai, along with Amir Shahsar, will grace the second annual Kesem Shachor (Eastern Magic) Festival hosted by the Al-Sheikh – School for Eastern Traditional Music Tel Aviv. (credit: RONEN TOPERBERG)

Shai imbibed that mindset and the benefits of wider musical discourse with his mother’s milk. 

Where Shai originally comes from

“I was born in Georgia. I came to Israel when I was two but I heard these sounds and rhythms, from the whole region – places like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and so on – at home when I was a kid. It all connects. There are powerful reciprocal influences between, for example, Azerbaijani music and Turkish music. And Arabic music comes into the picture, with the system of the maqam (musical modes), of scales and musical patterns, from all these countries that have a lot in common. It is a rich world.”

It is indeed, and Shai is pulling out all the stops to keep on spreading the Eastern ethnic music word, sometimes against all odds. He started the center without any funding or other support from the state powers that be, somehow accruing the requisite wherewithal to get the initiative off the ground. 

The school opened for business five years ago and the fact that it is not just still a going concern, but it is making impressive headway, is testament to Shai’s undimmed enthusiasm, determination, love of the music, and managerial skills. He says the project started out “by chance,” although he quickly countered that by agreeing that nothing “just happens.” It was very much down to Shai’s vision, get-up-and-go, and probably, sheer pigheadedness that turned the dream into a corporeal, fun, enriching, educational, and creative reality.

“I started playing music only when I was 40,” he declares. 

That was Turkish music on clarinet, and it happened seven years ago. Prior to that, Jerusalem-bred Shai spent much of his waking hours engaged in filmmaking, after studying the craft at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School. 

Like most good ideas that bear rewarding fruit, it was basically a matter of catering to his own needs and desires. 

“I had moved to Tel Aviv and I thought it could be fun to take part in a music workshop closer to home,” Shai recalls. “At the time I was studying in Hadera.”

With that logical logistical realization in place, he set about organizing instructional sessions with the likes of Eliyahu and acclaimed Jerusalemite singer and qanoun player Elad Gabai. Shai had clearly – pardon the pun – struck a chord.

“Both workshops were full,” he says.  They were held at what became the school’s current premises, and the rest is ongoing burgeoning history. “I understood the potential this offered,” he adds. “I saw all these people who were interested in the music, and their hunger for it.”

For Shai, the school is not just about achieving a level of expertise in one’s chosen line of expression. There is, he feels, some significant enriching, definitively positive, added value to be gained too. 

“I saw the connections between the different kinds of music and between the students. We have Arabs and haredim, mitnahalim (“West Back settlers”) and secular and religious students. They all play music together. This is completely apolitical. Here we have people who engage in positive things together and work in areas that connect them not divide them.” Well, as “apolitical” as anything in this part of the world can possibly get.

Shai says there is a fundamental need for schools like Al-Sheikh and a distressing dearth of education in the field for younger age groups with an interest and with a similar childhood familial backdrop like his.

“People talk a lot about multiculturalism but, in practice, it is very hard to get this kind of music into school curricula. Schools only teach jazz, rock, and Western classical music. Kids who come from a family with Eastern roots don’t even have the option of choosing something there are familiar with from home. They hear music from their parents and which, maybe, their granddad sang.” Some of those youngsters eventually get the opportunity to make up for lost time at Al-Sheikh – that is if they haven’t given up the ethnic musical ghost in the interim.

The school not only imparts knowledge about music and musicianship, it also helps its students to develop their own creativity, including composing new music. The Eastern Magic Festival program includes slots in which students get to perform their own charts. That is in addition to the studio time they get at the school’s recording facility, as part of the three-year curriculum.

Over the past three-plus decades there have been all sorts of artists with Eastern roots who have come full circle after starting out in exclusively Western climes. One striking example is Yair Dallal, now an acclaimed star of the global ethnic music arena, who initially denied his Iraqi backdrop and played blues on electric guitar. Shai says he sees examples of “born again” ethnic musicians, but also those who he says “are looking to go in the opposite direction.” 

“There are people who want to create new music, based on the roots music they heard at home. That is fascinating.”

The same can probably be said for the festival, which includes a street procession of Gnawa music from Morocco, as well as a slew of quality musical fare from Shahsar and co., and a workshop with master percussionist Rony Iwryn.

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