Play, Mr. Tambourine man

Zohar Fresco performs at this year’s Oud Festival

Zohar Fresco (photo credit: GANGI N ALL)
Zohar Fresco
(photo credit: GANGI N ALL)
All good things come to those who wait, they say. In Zohar Fresco’s case, it was a matter of his fans biding their time until the internationally renowned percussionist was ready to release his debut album, Tof Miriam (Tambourine). That long-awaited turn of events will be marked on November 14 (9 p.m.) when Fresco is joined by his band at a concert at the Jerusalem Theater as part of this year’s Jerusalem International Oud Festival, which is run by Confederation House.
The 40something Fresco first burst onto the local ethnic music scene as the youngest member of pioneering cross-cultural band Bustan Abraham, which enjoyed a successful national and international performance and recording stretch between 1991 and 2003. Betwixt and between, and thereafter, Fresco earned a crust keeping time for vocalist Achinoam Nini (aka Noa) and performing with artists from across a broad stylistic and disciplinary swathe that took in American avant-garde jazz drummer Hamid Drake, Polish jazz pianist Leszek Mozdzer, doyen of the Israeli Eastern music community oud player and violinist Taiseer Elias, who was also in the Bustan Abraham crew, and celebrated American contemporary classical composer Philip Glass.
So what took so long? The percussionist says that the CD has been in the works all this time and that he was determined to cover all his musical and historical bases before putting out the end product.
“I had various offers to record an album, but I refused because I wasn’t ready,” he notes. “This album is the result of a lot of research into the tambourine.”
In fact, Fresco’s love affair with the simple-looking hand drum began many years ago.
“I found a tambourine in our backyard when I was a kid,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a teacher. I spoke to all sorts of musicians from here and abroad and asked them questions about how to play the tambourine, what sorts of sounds to get out of it. But I didn’t have any formal lessons. I didn’t have a teacher to show me how to play the way I play today.”
The youngster simply had to make his own way through the mysteries of the percussive art form. But while his fans may have become impatient waiting for Fresco’s first fruits, the artist says he was fine with the learning-recording continuum, and he muses that things happen when they happen.
“If you develop your own approach to an instrument, that’s going to take years. For me, it didn’t take too long. It took as long as it had to. All my music is written and well structured, and I can discuss it in depth. There is a reason for everything,” he says.
Fresco says he sensed when the time was ripe for going into a recording studio and laying the 10 tracks down, nine of which are selfwritten.
“I wanted to arrive at a place where, from a compositional standpoint, there is a solid foundation for the music. I wanted to achieve a very clear and original compositional style, a style of my own. That can take many years. Sometimes artists never get to that. It’s a lot of work. I did it all myself.”
Was it all worth it? Wouldn’t Fresco have been happier, for instance, traveling to gigs around the world toting his very record along with his collection of frame drums? Any performing musician knows full well that the path to booking agents and artistic directors is often significantly smoothed by having some recorded material in the offing.
Fresco says he wasn’t bothered by the absence of leader discography and that the long and winding road to Tof Miriam has had its rewards.
“I think I have gained from the length of the process on all fronts,” he declares. “I don’t engage in the art of success. I am interested in the success of art.”
Tof Miriam, says Fresco, ticks all the right boxes.
“As far as I am concerned, the artistic level of the album is at a peak, and it is the most artistic thing I could possibly produce. And I hope people connect with it,” he says.
With his long track record of sustained high-quality performance, there doesn’t appear to be much danger of fans of ethnic music not digging the 10-song collection.
People who have caught Fresco’s act, either at the Oud Festival over the years or anywhere else across the country, will be glad to know that he has gradually added mellifluous vocals to his polished percussion skills. He puts that more recently acquired craft to good use on the album.
While Fresco comes from what he calls “a typical Turkish home,” Tof Miriam feeds off other cultural backgrounds and musical idioms as well.
“I’d leave my home in Ramat Gan and I’d step out straight into the Western world of Tel Aviv,” he recalls.
Jazz also came into the evolving Fresco musical mix at a fairly young age, and 20something jazz pianist Tomer Bar is one of the linchpins of the new CD.
“I come from the classic Eastern music sphere, that’s my wide base. Today I play with a lot of top jazz musicians like [stellar bassists] Marcus Miller and Esperanza Spalding. But here we live in between the East and the West, so it’s natural to dip into all of that,” he says.
Fresco is clearly adept at musical and cultural dipping and that, harnessed to his seasoned silky percussive style, should make for a rewarding Oud Festival show and pretty decent record sales. Hopefully his sophomore release will not keep us waiting quite so long.
The Jerusalem International Oud Festival runs from November 12 to 21. For tickets and more information: (02) 624-5206 ext. 4 and *6226; http:// and