21st Jerusalem International Oud Festival - 21 years ago today

Twenty years after it took its first tentative steps into the world of cultural enterprise, the festival has come of age, and is clearly rising to the occasion this time round.

VETERAN OUD player and violinist Prof. Taiseer Elias fronts a tribute to the great divas of Egyptian music (photo credit: SHMULIK BALMAS)
VETERAN OUD player and violinist Prof. Taiseer Elias fronts a tribute to the great divas of Egyptian music
(photo credit: SHMULIK BALMAS)
When I was a youngster, 21 was the age of majority in Britain, when adulthood officially and legally began. Now, of course, that is largely not the case around the globe, with most countries setting the threshold of the minor-adult divide at 18.
And, while it would be doing the Oud Festival a major disservice to suggest that it is only now, 20 years after it took its first tentative steps into the world of cultural enterprise, that it has come of age, it is clearly rising to the occasion this time round. The 2020 edition will take place under the aegis of Confederation House, as has been the case since the festival’s inception, with perennial artistic director Effie Benaya with his seasoned hands firmly on the programmatic rudder.
The full rollout takes in a dozen shows between November 19 and November 28, based entirely on local talent, and is facilitated by the Culture Ministry, Jerusalem Municipality, Jerusalem Foundation and the Reuven Ella Group. The logistics of artists flying in, and spending a couple of weeks self-isolating, simply aren’t on.
In fact, that is more or less how it all began, with Israeli acts accounting for the lion’s share of the agenda. Then again, back in 2000 it was a far more modest undertaking, lasting just two days with all the shows taking place at the host venue. Over the years, Benaya deftly nurtured the project until it was bringing in top artists from the four corners of Mother Earth and with concerts happening at all kinds of places dotted around Jerusalem, including the Jerusalem Theatre, Hamifal and Beit Shmuel.
Now, two decades on, as fate would have it, the festival is forced to adhere to an altogether virtual presentation format, although that does not mean Benaya is stinting on artistic standards or entertainment value. If we needed any reminding of the quality, skill, inventiveness and creative derring-do of our own ethnic music lads and lasses, there will be plenty of evidence of that available on our computers from Wednesday.
For some time now the festival has opened and closed with a bang and this year’s program is no different. The curtain raiser sees ethnically leaning veteran singer-songwriter Ehud Banai team up with old sparring partners from the Galilee: oud and saz player and vocalist George Samaan; percussionist-vocalist Sallem Darwish – with singer-songwriter Luna Abu Nassar putting in a guest appearance.
The 10-dayer goes out with all guns blazing as the irrepressible 77-year-old percussionist-singer Shlomo Barr, doyen of the Israeli cross-cultural music scene, mixes it with ethno-jazz powerhouses pianist Omri Mor and Ethiopian-born saxophonist-vocalist Abate Berihun. The show, which will be broadcast from the Jerusalem Theatre at 9 p.m. on November 28, will cover wide swathes of stylistic and rhythmic ground as the trio dips into music from North Africa and Ethiopia, as well as jazz.
THERE IS plenty to dig one’s teeth and ears into betwixt the two temporal goal posts. Jerusalemite singer and ethnomusicologist Hadas Pal Yarden unearths some rare finds from the Ladino musical heritage, while internationally renowned Nazarene oud player-composer Wissam Joubran runs through some Middle Eastern sonic gems. Vocalist Mor Karbasi has also gained a reputation for her renditions of Ladino material, although her Oud Festival slot will focus on liturgical fare across expansive geographical and cultural tracts, from Spain, Morocco and the Atlas Mountains, and even taking a nod at traditionally male-dominated musical confines.
East-West blends began decades ago. Barr was among the early front-runners of the cross-cultural interface, primarily as front man of the Habreira Hativit (Natural Gathering) group back in the 1970s. Doron Kima adopts a different approach to the seemingly disparate musical marriage. The 48-year-old pianist, composer and educator was brought up on a rich Western classical music diet and subsequently immersed himself in jazz climes before settling on a classically oriented career path. At some point his familial backdrop – his parents made aliyah from Iraq in the early 1950s – came into his personal and musical and mind-set reckoning, and Prelude for Peace eventually came into being.
The chamber music quintet with whom Kima will perform at Confederation House on November 24 (7 p.m.) includes a wide range of Western and Middle Eastern instruments played by Jews and Arabs, with cellist Guy Koznik, oud player Elias Haddoub, Moran Kaner on nay (flute) and Eddie Reznik on violin.
So, considering East-West musical projects have been around these parts for over four decades, what does Prelude for Peace bring to the cultural table that we haven’t heard before? Kima was aware that he was not exactly wading into uncharted waters, at least on the face of it. If he was going to stake out his own interface plot, he would have to shake things up a mite.
The ensemble leader says it is all a matter of playing to your strengths and following your natural line of evolution. Kima is perfectly aware of the plethora of crossover pursuits, here and around the world, but he feels his fivesome offers some added value to the fray.
“This project is very different. Yes, there are many artists and groups that combine Western and Eastern music, so for me it was very important to, specifically, take works from the [Western] classical repertoire – Bach, Brahms and such like – material which they [musicians trained exclusively in Arabic music] can’t do. I have a lot of respect for them but, if you don’t understand the music, you can’t for example, take a piece by Chopin, like one his preludes, and do it justice. You have to understand the language, what he does there in harmonic terms.”
The latter is a salient case in point, considering Arabic music does not embrace harmonics per se.
That and more, Kima says, comes into the Preludes for Peace equation.
“It was important for me to do something different. It is far beyond East and West, and Jews and Arabs playing music together. The sound is much more than a fusion of East and West.”
It is a matter of drawing on the very foundations of the discipline and proffering that through the textures and sensibilities that are unique to instruments from this part of the globe.
“The amalgamation of the sounds is very different. Imagine all this amazing culture, of the West, and suddenly hearing that played on the nay.”
The ensemble will demonstrate that in their Oud Festival outing, also working in original material and special arrangements of compositions by JS Bach and Chopin and Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who died in July at the age of 91, and whose far-reaching oeuvre includes the soundtrack for iconic spaghetti western The Good The Bad and The Ugly. The eastern side of the concert program features songs written and performed by now 86-year-old Lebanese vocalist Fairouz and Egyptian oud player-singer Mohammed Abd El-Wahhab, seasoned by the timbre and sonority of Western instruments.
KIMA IS eminently qualified for the project at hand. His jazz and classical music education took him abroad to Costa Rica and the United States, and he completed a doctorate and post-doctoral work at Berklee College of Music in Boston. As is so often the case, Kima had to travel far to come back home.
“I heard Arabic music at home, whether I wanted to or not,” he observes. “It is funny that, at as part of my PhD at Berklee, I chose an elective course on Middle Eastern music.” It was something of a homecoming for the Israeli pianist. “We studied the maqam [melodic modes in Arabic music], and I realized it was familiar to me,” he laughs. “Sometimes you have to travel to the other side of the world to rediscover where you come from.”
The U-turn epiphanous event duly set Kima’s musical ball rolling back to where it all began for him, listening to the music his parents brought with them from Iraq and which left its indelible imprint on young Kima’s ears and heart, and which eventually spawned Prelude for Peace.
“To write for this type of project you need to know classical music and harmony really well and to have a strong feeling for Arabic music. I felt that all of that was definitively me. What comes out of me is the most authentic music possible, and it comes from the gut. It is not an intellectual exercise about trying to craft the best fusion of the music. This is about emotion.”
Info and tickets: www.confederationhouse.org and