Home sweet (improvised) home

“These are songs that dozens of generations from the region grew up with – Arabs, Jews, Christians and Muslims, different nationalities and tribes that comprise a common musical culture.”

 Artistic director and renowned musician Yair Dalal believes Middle Eastern music is a powerful unifying force (photo credit: Ayal Tal)
Artistic director and renowned musician Yair Dalal believes Middle Eastern music is a powerful unifying force
(photo credit: Ayal Tal)

In a country where there always appears to be some sort of arts festival in progress at any given time, on any given day, of any year it is always a surprise to come across a newcomer to the constantly burgeoning cultural scene.

The new kid on the Israeli festival block is the fetchingly named Mawwal Baladi for Roots Arabic Music Festival and is due to take place at the Museum for Islamic Art December 14-17. The program moniker references the form of improvised overture to a classical Arabic musical work – the mawwal – while baladi means rural or, more accurately in a musical context – folk.

Thus the titular scene is set for the four-dayer artistically overseen by internationally renowned violinist and oud player Yair Dalal who is also due to spin his instrumental magic at the festival, in the company of some of his veteran cohorts from the Azazme Bedouin tribe from the Negev.

Dalal is just one of many first-generation sabras who initially turned their back on the culture and mores their parents brought with them from their country of birth when they made aliyah, only to rediscover and then research their familial cultural heritage. Dalal began his professional musical odyssey playing the blues on electric guitar – a genre, incidentally, to which he recently returned when he put out a blues record called My Old Love together with some pals from yesteryear in the Lobo Blues Band. That is after more than three decades of mining rich Arabic musical seams of a range of ilks.

Tamar Shawki followed a similarly meandering route, although she is one generation down from Dalal. Her December 16 (8 p.m.) slot in the festival goes by the name of Lebanese Longing, which basically spells it all out. “I have a lot of musical hereditary,” the pianist-vocalist states. Not half. Back in 1979 her parents, who went by the professional sobriquet of Shuki and Dorit, had a hit with Gan Na’ul (Locked Garden), a tripping ballad based on a lyric by iconic poetess Rachel.

 The Jewish Voices of Yemen Choir strives to preserve the centuries-old musical heritage of Yemenite Jewry (credit: VICTOR LIST) The Jewish Voices of Yemen Choir strives to preserve the centuries-old musical heritage of Yemenite Jewry (credit: VICTOR LIST)

More pertinently, Shawki’s Lebanese-born paternal musician grandparents, Salim and Amal Shawki, who made aliyah in 1961, were renowned not only in their country of birth, but throughout the Arab world. “We actually have a family history of duos,” Shawki laughs. “You could say I was born into music.”

That much is abundantly clear, but what kind of music? It seems her parents’ take on the sonic arts was very much of a middle of the road Israeli nature, while her father’s parents fed straight from the roots of the Middle East. “All the time I heard my grandfather and grandmother talking to my father in Arabic, and my grandfather was constantly playing his oud. We also listened to my grandparents’ records. There was always Lebanese music playing at home.”

Then again, as often seems to be the case, the next lot repelled all ethnic boarders and set about plying their own creative pathway. “My parents are a complete antithesis of that ethnic music way,” Shawki notes. “My dad repressed his Lebanese past. He was greatly influenced by Western music.”

That also found its way into the young Shawki’s ears, heart and blood stream, and not just as a soundtrack to her formative years. She witnessed the business end of music making, and the entertainment industry, firsthand too. “My parents did lots of shows, and they’d take me along with them,” she recalls. “I was very close to the stage. It was all music.”

Still, when Shawki was old enough to stand on her own two musical feet, she struck out on her own, imbibing all kinds of rhythms, textures and dynamics en route. “I studied classical music, classical piano. I attended Thelma Yellin [High School for the Arts, in Givatayim]. I was really into jazz for years. I also wrote music which was a fusion of all those Western worlds.”

That was all fine and dandy until, at the age of 24, she suddenly developed a hankering for a part of her she felt was missing. “It was quite late in life really, but I understood that I want to find out more. I felt that my identity, as a person in general, and as a musician, was incomplete.” When the artistic going started getting tough, Shawki returned to her own roots. “I realized, while I was researching all of that, that it was connected to Arabic music, and Lebanese music.”

Shawki’s personal and musical light bulb moment had duly arrived, and she wasted no time before delving into the heady textures of material written and made famous by the likes of now-86-year-old Lebanese diva Fairuz and her Egyptian counterpart, one of the most famous of all Arabic singers, Umm Kulthum.

She had come home. “I started singing those songs, even though I didn’t understand all the words. I took Arabic at high school, but it just wasn’t the same.”

It was time to get serious. “I understood I had to really study it somewhere... I found out there was a department of Eastern and Arabic music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance [of the Hebrew University]. I was the first Jewish female vocalist to study in the department.”

With her formal studies duly completed, Shawki has been making strides on the ethnic music scene here, and is gradually working her way to putting some of her work into tangible, and engineered audible, form. “I did some recordings a while back, of Western music, but I decided it wasn’t professional enough so I buried it. Now I am recording Arabic, Lebanese music. Now I feel I am ready to make a good professional recording.”

The Mawwal Baladi concert audience will get a taste of that when Shawki and her four instrumentalists perform some of the numbers which are expected to make their way onto a debut CD sometime in the coming months. The onstage delivery will be appreciably augmented by a guest appearance by venerated Galilean percussionist Salim Darwish. “This will be the first public airing of the music I am going to record,” she explains. “I am very excited about that.”

INTRIGUINGLY, DEEP family roots notwithstanding, next week’s show will not be an entirely pure Arabic music affair. Band member Shoham Gabai, for example, will play an array of wind instruments, including an EWI – an acronym for electronic wind instrument – as well as ney and various other flutes. Srael Hacohen will be on qanun, Yair Ofir will alternate between acoustic and electric bass and Ben Dagovich will anchor the group on percussion.

Shawki says she and her pals are chomping at the bit. “This is a new band and it is all happening right now,” she enthuses. She is also looking forward to unfurling the multi-stratified scores to the festival patrons. “The sound of the band is very roots-oriented, but there is something very refreshing about it. Even so, it is important to me to make sure we are faithful to the roots of the music.”

Mixed instrumental lineup or not, Shawki will be front and center and will have her hands, and vocal chords, firmly on the tiller. “As soon as you have a human voice, that sets the tone for the whole thing. My color is very Arabic but, on the other hand, I’m not sure what to call it… there is something refreshing about it. Maybe that is because I studied all sorts of other things, and they found their way into what I do.” Shawki is quick to assure Arabic music faithfuls they won’t be shortchanged. “You get an authentic Arabic sound, but there is the vocal color on top of that.”

Lebanese Longing is a nutritious, richly layered musical-cultural stew seasoned with home spices and flavors from across our northern border. “We will play some of my grandparents’ music, and other Lebanese folk music and some of my originals,” says Shawki. “I am sure that anyone who is familiar with Arabic music will enjoy the show. There are songs which people don’t really know that they come from Lebanon. They have become an integral part of Arabic folk music in general. I think some people may be surprised by that.”

In fact, Shawki feels that anyone can connect with the music she performs, and which was so important to shaping who she is as a person. “Arabic music combines well with so many types of music, and that produces some wonderful original things. Yesterday I performed with [Western classical pianist, conductor and composer] Gil Shochat. He is very interested in all kinds of music. And he has an Iraqi side to him. We do [Umm Kulthum classic] Inta Omri together.” Shawki chuckles: “It works well, although it sounds a little different from the original.”

Still, Shawki can turn on the real deal when the occasion demands. “I recently performed at Feel Beit [in Jerusalem] with Palestinian musicians, and people came from Bethlehem and Ramallah. Most of the people in the audience were Arabs. It was an amazing experience. That really reflects what I mostly do.”

She feels her chosen art form can be sculpted almost at will. “It is just music, and it is so easy to touch so many people with it.”

But it is not just about the music, and making sure the notes are played accurately and everyone is simpatico pitch-wise and rhythmically. “I like to play for small audiences, when you get a feeling of intimacy,” she notes, inferring the relative informality of traditional Arabic music gatherings compared with, say, symphonic or operatic performances. “It is wonderful when I can actually feel the audience, and the experience they are having while you play music. I like it when people shout out in the middle of a concert. I love that. That makes the whole experience far more immediate, and personal.”

Museum director-general Gilad Levian says the festival also helps to further the institution’s stated credo. “The Mawwal Baladi festival is another milestone towards realizing the vision of the museum’s founder, Vera Bryce Salomons, who understood back in the 1950s the need for shared life and understanding between the different sectors of the population in the domain we live in.” Levian feels the musical program reflects that ethos. “With the festival we are looking to restore Arabic folk music to the front of the stage. This is the music that was widespread across Islamic countries and informed the unique identity it took on across the various landscapes.”

Artistic director Dalal echoed those sentiments. “The Mawwal Baladi festival offers the sounds of Arabic Middle Eastern and North African folk music – the simple songs, the stirring rhythms and the mawwal-improvised music with trills.” Like Shawki, Dalal feels the festivalgoers will latch onto the songs that are, after all, being presented in their natural cultural habitat. “These are songs that dozens of generations from the region grew up with – Arabs, Jews, Christians and Muslims, different nationalities and tribes that comprise a common musical culture.”

Should be cozy over at the Museum for Islamic Art next week.

For tickets and more information: (02) 566-1291 and www.Islamicart.co.il