To Lebanon, Switzerland, Iraq, India and back

Israeli musical traveler Shlomo Oz brings his Nagwa quartet to Jerusalem

(photo credit: DOR KEDMI)
In musical terms, Shlomo Oz has been there and done that. The fifty- something multi-instrumentalist has traversed expansive domains of sonic and disciplinary endeavor, plying his way confidently through Western classical climes, Indian music, rock, pop and Middle Eastern material, to mention but a few of his exploratory trails. All that informs his principal vehicle of creative expression, a quartet called Nagwa which is due to perform at Jerusalem’s Confederation House on May 10 (8:30 p.m.).
Classical music was his first serious artistic love, although he started out in a more commercial area of the sonic world.
“I began on guitar, like any kid trying to working out how to play the instrument, playing songs by people like Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen,” he recalls. “I got the guitar from my older brother when he stopped playing it, and I heard the music my older siblings liked.”
Things became more serious in his teens.
“I was accepted into the high school of the music academy [in Jerusalem] and they told me I had to [take a matriculation exam] in music, so I got into classical guitar.”
It was something of a leap of faith for the youngster.
“I hadn’t really listened to classical music before that. I had been into rock music, and I’d been exposed to the things my [Iraqi-born] parents listened to – Arabic music. Western classical music wasn’t really my cup of tea. My mother sang songs by [Egyptian diva] Oum Kulthoum, and my older brothers listened to things by Paul Simon, Pink Floyd, and other rock stuff.”
Oz clearly made good progress with his musicianship as, by the time he turned 18, he was accepted into an IDF band. That was in 1982, and a few months later the First Lebanon War broke out and Oz found himself making frequent forays to IDF positions north of the border, as a member of a guitar quartet. It was a steep professional logistical learning curve, and sometimes the musicians got more than they’d bargained for.
“Once we were driving to Nabatiye [southeast of Sidon] at night – we shouldn’t have been traveling at night but some officer insisted we do that – and an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] hit the vehicle we were in. We were rescued, but it wasn’t a very pleasant experience,” he adds with more than a touch of understatement.
After completing his army service Oz took a degree at the Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem, in classical guitar and composition, and followed that with a master’s degree in Switzerland, after winning a competition for a grant. His classical education was suitably furthered at the Swiss university, but it was there that he began thinking outside the Western classical musical box.
“[Bass guitarist and Nagwa member] Yankeleh [Segal] was about to go to India and he had an oud he wanted to sell. On one of his visits to Switzerland he offered me the oud.”
“All” Oz needed to do was find an oud teacher, which proved to be mission impossible. However, his efforts did lead him in another musical direction, and an enduring instrumental love.
“There was a music shop with all sorts of instruments and I asked the man there if he knew of an oud teacher,” Oz explains. “He said he didn’t know of anyone but offered me all sorts of things in his store. About a year-and-a-half later, after I bought up his entire store, he told me that a tabla [Indian percussion] player was coming to his house to play, and invited me over.”
It transpired that the store owner was a seasoned sitar player himself, and Oz soon forgot about the oud and ended up studying the Indian string instrument with him.
“He was an amazing star player and I was his only student. So, in my last year of studies in Switzerland, I was exposed to Indian music and I dived headfirst into it.”
Oz is clearly never satisfied with sticking to defined boundaries, and he complemented his studies with training in the Alexander Technique, which helps to solve physical problems connected to posture and movement, and even managed to combine that with his musical skills. Oz subsequently enjoyed a lengthy Indian sojourn, and studied with sitar masters.
Nagwa started out as a duo, just with guitar and flute, and evolved into a threesome with the addition of cellist Shai Meivar. Meivar tragically died in a freak accident at the age of 28, while the group was on tour in Brazil in 2007. Meivar played on Nagwa’s debut album, which sold pretty well. Understandably, it took Oz quite a while to consider bringing in another cellist.
The group lineup ebbed and flowed, with Oz bringing in guest artists on an ad hoc basis. But he renewed old ties when he reunited with Segal – the two have been pals since the age of 17 – who plays electric bass and oud in the current group. Celebrated South American-born percussionist Rony Irwin is also in the band, as is cellist Yoad Nir.
“I think this is the best group format I have ever had. I had an accordion for a while but I always dreamed of having a cello in the group again. That was hard to do, after Shai, but I’m glad I did it.”
Today Nagwa crafts multi-stratified textures that incorporate Western classical sounds, jazz, Indian music, Latin material and more. “All the music flows together,” says Oz. “It’s all music from different phases of my life, music which I dedicated myself to, for long periods. I think our music expresses that.”’
For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, (02) 624-5206 ext. 4, *6226 and